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Madcap Tradition, Artful Music: Big Galut(e) Rereads Jewish and Classical Music History

From a media release:

 Madcap Tradition, Artful Music: Big Galut(e) Rereads Jewish and Classical Music History With Gentle Irreverence

Concert August 16, 2015; Cherry Valley Artworks - The Star Theater, Schenectady, NY
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Jewish court composers and shtetl humor. A klezmer twist on Mahler and Argentine Yiddish tangos. Big Galut(e) does it all, with a quirky grin and unflagging musicianship. A quintet that sprang from summer stints at renowned opera festival Glimmerglass, the mostly classically trained artists approach the Western canon with absurdist glee, and Jewish traditions with borscht-belt wit on their self-titled debut album (release: August 21, 2015).

“We must be the only band that plays klezmer on the theorbo,” the Baroque plucked instrument, remarks violinist and vocalist Sasha Margolis, one of the driving forces behind the ensemble. “It has timbral similarities to the tsimbl, and works perfectly.”

The group’s antics play off traditional humor, but they never stray into the realm of novelty and often dive with virtuosic vigor into other offshoots of Jewish creativity. “We enjoy constantly changing styles and energy levels. That keeps everyone engaged. There are serious moments, but there’s also lots of laughter. We tell jokes. Robin tells jokes in Yiddish and I translate loosely into English. We do a few soulful tunes, then switch to the Baroque stuff. Being goofy is true to tradition.”

One day at Glimmerglass, Margolis and clarinetist Robin Seletsky struck up a conversation. They realized that they both longed to play some of the other music they loved. And they learned that they had both learned klezmer from their dads.

Seletsky’s father was a popular klezmer player and composer (“Seletsker Freylekhs” combines two generations of klezmer boogies); Margolis grew up listening to klezmer, thanks to his pianist father. “He teaches piano at Oberlin. When he was young, he made his living as a jazz pianist, played at strip clubs in high school,” recalls Margolis. “He also teaches Yiddish and is a really dedicated linguist. He made some arrangements for my sister and me, and even though I didn’t play it for 30 years, it was always there.”

They started playing together, jamming when not rehearsing or performing. The duo was joined by Baroque instrumental master Michael Leopold (who brought the theorbo to the group), bassist Richard Sosinsky (who also moonlights on mandolin), and accordionist Mark Rubinstein, whose wife is a musician at the opera and who had a lifetime of experience playing everything from klezmer to Latin music, with everyone from Liza Minnelli to Judy Collins.

As they played around together, they found an unexpected groove. It lay where opera plots get revamped as tongue-in-cheek Jewish takes on all that high-flying drama (“The True Story of Carmen”), right down to Sosinsky willingly landing in the (matzo ball) soup for a send up of Aida. They dug up wonderful ditties from Yiddish pop culture, including an uproarious Argentine take on a conversation between a lovelorn caller and a baffled gal on the other end of the line, with a serious wink at Piazzolla (“Charlemos”).

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