Alex Jacobowitz: Der klassischer Klezmer Alex Jacobowitz: Der klassischer Klezmer
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Tschaik 4 - (excerpt from Alex Jacobowitz's
A Classical Klezmer: Travel Stories of a Jewish Musician)

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
Musician performs on streets of Shoah nations

Latin Rhythms with Orthodox beat

The Jerusalem Report
The Marimba Man of Munich


Tschaik 4 - (excerpt from Alex Jacobowitz's
A Classical Klezmer: Travel Stories of a Jewish Musician)

I was a professional percussionist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1983, and was pondering the possibilities of spending my life either as an orchestral percussionist or a xylophone soloist. The following story helped me make up my mind ...

The Romantic composers normally wrote four movements per symphony. After three movements, listeners often get a bit bored; so composers look for ways to spice up the final movement. Ludwig van Beethoven understood this better than most, and used a great dramatic device in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony -- the addition of a chorus. The orchestra plays alone for the first three movements, and then the chorus stands up! After 45 minutes of doing precisely nothing, the echoes of shuffling feet and sudden coughing produce a memorable acoustical effect, which reinvigorates the audience for the finale.

Peter Tschaikovsky, in his Fourth Symphony, learned much from this gesture of Beethoven's, but since Beethoven had patented the chorus idea, Tschaikovsky searched for a substitute. He decided that the sounds of the percussion section -- snare drum, bass drum, triangle and cymbals -- would add the perfect touch. The players would be a model of restraint until the fourth and final movement,when they would stand up and all acoustic hell would break loose, much like the finale from the 1812 Overture. Unfortunately, that means the percussionists have nothing to do for the first three movements, since their scores are marked:

I. Tacet
II. Tacet
III. Tacet

The reader might originally find this a happy proposition, since for the first three movements the percussionists are essentially being paid to wear their tuxedos. As a matter of fact, the only difference between a percussionist and a member of the audience in this symphony's first
three-quarters-of-an-hour is that the percussionists are paid to sit while the audience pays to sit. But the percussionists must sit on stage, and are therefore visible to the audience. Passing the time by taking a nap, or trading off-color stories could get someone fired. Even fidgeting could be noticed by the perceptive audience. The professional percussionist must cooly wait. And wait. And wait.

I was at a JSO rehearsal of Tschaikovsky's Fourth at Binyanay Ha'Ooma, the building where the orchestra normally held concerts. My roommate, first chair trumpeter Ken Cox called it "Tschaik Four," and since trumpet soloists are "cool" and can say chic things like that. Since I was almost the youngest person in the orchestra and wanted to be "cool" I called it Tschaik Four, too. I made the mistake of being too cool once. Assuming that I had lots of time until the fourth movement, I left the rehearsal room to make a quick trip to the bank across the street. As I took my place in the bank's line, Valery from Leningrad (the percussion section leader), ran in breathlessly and in clear earshot of the other bank customers read me the heavily Russian-accented Hebrew version of the riot act.

"Zeh lo kibbutz! Zeh lo r'chov! Zeh tizmoret!" (This is not a kibbutz! This is not the street! This is an orchestra!) This was not a stage whisper.

I told him not to worry, that I only needed a few minutes in the bank and I'd return in time to play the final movement. I argued that since the percussion was only necessary in the final movement, we had at least 45 minutes (free time) (to kill) while the conductor rehearsed the first three movements with the rest of the orchestra. But Valery had become a Russian in a power position in Israel, and relished the fact that he could now boss an American around. He didn't want to hear me ask for "a few minutes". "What would happen," Valery bitched, "if the conductor decided that the first three movements didn't need rehearsal, and he'd like to rehearse the fourth movement immediately?
Leaving a rehearsal in the middle isn't the way things were done in Matushka Rus!" he said. "Good point," I conceded, noticing he forgot to mention they didn't have banks in Mother Russia, either.

There's a phrase in German, which, roughly translated, is, "you're right, and I have my peace." So I surrendered, and walked back with him to the concert hall to dutifully await my triangle cue in the fourth movement. One hour and seven minutes later.

Playing the triangle isn't as easy as it looks. A left hand AND a right hand are required. For right-handers, as I am, the Right Hand holds the short metal bar (called a beater) normally used to strike the triangle's downward slopes. The Right Hand is also handy for turning pages for the other percussionists (whose hands are often full), or scratching hard-to-reach places. The Left Hand (for right-handers) holds the triangle in the air so that everyone in the audience can see who's playing the triangle. Some percussionists claim that holding the triangle aloft allows the sound to project better, but in truth it only allows the player's ego to project better. Most people don't know it, but triangle players often develop severely fragile egos since the triangle is the orchestra's smallest instrument, and its player stands furthest from the audience, normally at the back of the stage. Feelings of inferiority are quite natural. Playing triangle in an orchestra is somewhat like becoming a Bar-Mitzva, whereby your voice is added to society, but nobody cares what you have to say. Because of its high, tinkling sound and deleterious effect on the nerves, the triangle part (not the Bar-Mitzva) is normally assigned to either the most junior player or The Wimp of the section. Section Leader Valery's choice was simple. The triangle part was assigned to me.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not complaining. I think the Tschaik Four is a wonderful orchestral work, one of my favorites in the orchestral repertoire. But percussionists spend far more time waiting than
playing. The orchestra's schedule: to rehearse it Sunday morning, Monday morning, and Tuesday morning, plus individual or sectional practice as necessary, and then performances Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. Understandably, the piece can easily become a bore for percussionists.

Finally, the first concert night arrives. We'd all dressed up in our penguin suits and were looking fantastic, the house was full, and the Tschaik Four began under the baton of Dutch conductor Hans Vonk. The famous low brass fanfare bellows out, but the percussion section has nothing to do for about 45 minutes. We look debonair, but we have nothing to do but wait.

I. Wait
II. Wait
III. Wait

Finally, the third movement ends. The percussion section, comprising Valery Panov (Russia) on snare drum, Pamela Jones (Great Britain) with the cymbals, Yehuda Bloom (Israel) on bass drum, and Alex (USA) on triangle, have all been silently awaiting this one moment. We rise as one, each player focusing on picking up his or her instrument and/or beater. At the downbeat of the fourth movement, we are a unit totally intent on atoning for our previous silence. The roar that erupts from
the battery is pure sonic energy, electrifying the air that surrounds us. The bass drum explodes, the snare drum rolls menacingly, the cymbals rise and crash and vibrate over and over again, the triangle
rings at the very top of the orchestral spectrum. The brass fanfare from the beginning returns at the end, and Tschaikovsky's frenzied finale pours several liters of adrenalin into the percussionists' veins. A sudden silence descends as we play the final note, but that silence is soon filled by audience applause. Our concert is over.

Some of the audience are applauding wildly, the soloists and conductor take their obligatory bows. But other members of the audience hurriedly put on their coats in order to get to their cars as quickly as possible. Professional musicians like Ken Cox call this a "running ovation". As the audience slowly leaves the hall, the performers slowly leave the stage, to change from our tuxedos to our regular clothes. But the percussion section can't go home as soon as everyone else, since the group has a tradition of sharing the task of putting away all the cymbals, the drums, the gongs, the timpani - our entire musical menagerie. Although strong piano-moving types are paid to pack up the heavy instruments, they usually have nicknames like Ahmed the Destroyer, so we prefer to do it ourselves. Finally, clothes changed, instruments and music put away, we each go home in turn.

It's a nice job for those who love it, and when I played in an orchestra, I did love it. But I realized that this was not the way I wanted to spend my whole life, that it was better for me to find a truly artistic form of expression, rather than alternating between the extremes of Silence and Thunder. So from now on, when I want to listen to the Tschaik Four, it's better for me to buy a ticket and listen from the audience side. Then, at least, I could take a nap.

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Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
Musician performs on streets of Shoah nations

RUTH E. GRUBER
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Alex Jacobowitz calls himself the "classical klezmer."

Like klezmer musicians of centuries past, the 39-year-old New York native makes his living traveling from country to country and city to city, playing music on the street.

But he's not one of the thousands of jeans-clad, guitar-strumming buskers who pass the hat in subway stations and city squares. And he doesn't even play klezmer music - the traditional popular music of Eastern European Jews.

Jacobowitz is a classically trained artist who performs the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and other classical composers on a marimba - a gigantic instrument resembling a six-foot-long xylophone that stands waist-high and has 100 keys.

And, as an Orthodox Jew, he performs before Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Scandinavians and other Europeans in a kippah, beard and sidelocks, with tzitzit hanging free from under his shirt.

"I'm trying to bring people together through music," he said during a break in a performance before dozens of tourists in the vast, medieval main square of Krakow, Poland.

Not only that, he added. He is also consciously making the point, in the countries where the Holocaust took place, that Jews and Judaism are still very much alive.

"My kippah, my beard, my tzitzit - these are not props," he said. "They are who I am."

Ten years ago, when he first played in Hungary, he recalled, "People told me that no one had worn a kippah in public for 40 years. They said I was giving courage, setting an example, for those who were afraid."

Particularly in Germany, he said, "When people ask me what am I really doing here, I feel that it is an inner compulsion to confront death."

Sometimes, he said, "Christians start crying. I'm not here to resolve
people's conflicts, but I know that what I do helps, that music helps."

Jacobowitz, who did not grow up in a religiously observant home, studied at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y.

He made aliyah to Israel in the 1980s, became Orthodox and now lives - when he is not on the road - in Israel in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.

For more than a decade, he has spent eight months of each year touring Germany and other European countries, going from city to city by car and pulling a trailer containing religious books and kosher food as well as his marimba. He sleeps, and often prays, in parking lots.

Jacobowitz models his profession and lifestyle after a 19th century
Chasidic musician named Michael Joseph Gusikow, who took Europe by storm in the 1830s by playing classical music on the straw fiddle, a type of xylophone that Gusikow himself invented. Gusikow was born into a family of musicians in what is now Belarus, in about 1806.

With his typical Chasidic attire a visible part of his mystique, Gusikow toured Russia and then Austria, Germany and France to great acclaim before his death in 1837.

He became so popular that Orthodox side curls sparked a fashionable hair style among society women - the "coiffure a la Gusikow." The composer Felix Mendelssohn was one of his fans.

Jacobowitz discovered Gusikow when he was in music school doing research on the marimba - an instrument more frequently associated with Latin American rhythms than classical works.

"If I didn't have Gusikow as a role model, I wouldn't have such confidence in what I do," Jacobowitz said.

Jacobowitz is a consummate showman, whose jokes and storytelling - in several languages - enliven his virtuoso performances.

He enthralls audiences as he crouches and twists his body and arms over the marimba, hitting the keys with four flashing mallets, and sometimes inviting an onlooker to grab a mallet and join him.

Crowds are usually friendly - and generous: He once told an interviewer that he earned $1,000 to $2,000 a day thanks to donations and on-site sales of his compact discs.

In Poland, local audiences compared him to one of the most famous
characters in Polish literature - Jankiel, the Jewish innkeeper and cymbalom player in the epic 19th century book "Pan Tadeusz," by Adam Mickiewicz.

But Jacobowitz has also been the target of anti-Semites.

On the first day he played in Germany, in 1991, he was harassed by skinheads. "I felt challenged," he said. "I wasn't going to go away, and I wasn't going to be afraid." Several Americans in the crowd stepped in and prevented any violence.

Though Jacobowitz has played all over much of Europe, his performances in Krakow marked the first time he had taken his act to Poland.

He timed his visit to take place during Krakow's annual Festival of Jewish Culture, which draws many Jewish performers and tourists to the city.

But still, he admitted feeling uneasy playing in a country with a history of anti-Semitism, and where three million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

"This is a debt I wanted to pay with Auschwitz," he said.

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Latin Rhythms with Orthodox beat
Touring klezmer delights crowds
from Ruth Ellen Gruber, Crakow

ALEX JACOBOWITZ spends eight months of the year on the road, travelling from coutnry to country, playing music on the street.

But he's no ordinary busker.

A classically trained artist, he performs the workds of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and other classical composers on a marimba -- a gigantic instrument resembling a xylophoen that is more commonly associate with Latin rhythms. His marimba is two metres long, stands waist-high and has 100 keys.

Not only that. As an Orthodox Jew, he performs wearing a kipah, and has beard and sidelocks, with tsitsit hanging from under his shirt.

Mr Jacobowitz, 39, describes himself as a classical klezmer.

"I'm trying to bring people together through music," he said during a break in a performance before dozens of tourists in the vast, medieval main square of Cracow.

He is also consciously making the point, in the countries where the Holocaust took place, that Jews and Judaism are still very much alive.

"My kipah, my beard, my tsitsit -- these are not props," he said. "They are who I am."

Mr Jacobowitz, who did not grow up in an observant home, studied at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York. He made aliyah in the 1980s, became Orthodox and now lives, when he is not on the road, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.

He has toured Europe for over a decade, travelling by car with a trailer containing religious books and kosher food. He sleeps, and often prays, in car parks.

Ten years ago, when he first played in Hungary, he recalled: "People told me that no one had worn a kipah in public for 40 years. They said I was giving courage, setting an example, for those who were afraid."

Mr Jacobowitz takes as his model a 19th-century Chasidic musician, Michael Joseph Gusikow, who took Europe by storm in the 1830s by playing classical music on his own invention, the straw fiddle. Mr Gusikow toured Russian and then Austria, Germany and France, to great acclaim before his death in 1837.

So popular did he become that his peyot sparked a fashionable hairstyle among society women -- the "coiffure à la Gusikow."

"If I ddn't have Gusikow as a role model, I wouldn't have such confidence in what I do, " said Mr Jacobowitz, a consummate showman whose jokes and storytelling, in several languages, enliven his performances.

In Poland, audiences compared him to one of the most famous characters in Polish literature -- Jankiel, the Jewish innkeeper and cymbalom player in the 19th-century book "Pan Tadeusz" by Adam Mickiewicz.

Although Mr Jacobowitz has played throughout Europe, his performances in Cracow were his first in Poland.

He timed his visit to take place during Crakow's annual festival of Jewish culture, which draws many performers and tourists to the city.

But he admitted to feeling uneasy playing in a country where three million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

"This is a debt I wanted to pay to Auschwitz," he said.

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The Jerusalem Report
The Marimba Man of Munich

For Alex Jacobowitz, playing music in the streets of Europe is a way of making a living ­ and a little more

Robby Berman

HOW DOES AN ORTHODOX Jew, head covered with yarmulke, tzitzit sticking out from under his shirt, feel about making his living playing music and telling jokes on the streets of the capital of Bavaria? Alex Jacobowitz isn't exactly sure, but he¹s been doing it for seven years.

"Can you imagine what it's like to play music in Munich when Dachau is 30 minutes down the road?" asks the 37-year-old Jacobowitz rhetorically. "My uncle was in Dachau. If I had been there then, I would have been incinerated by the grandparents of the people applauding me now." So why does the bearded marimba player do it? For one, he answers, it's his livelihood. But it¹s also "kiddush hashem" (sanctification of God's name). I demonstrate to the Germans that Jewish life has survived."

Growing up in upstate New York in the 70s, Jacobowitz discovered the marimba, a gigantic 52-bar xylophone two meters long, waist high, weighing 100 kgs. The marimba is traditionally used to play Latin and African music, but Jacobowitz says, he was fortunate "to realize its potential to be played like a piano" ­ albeit with four rubber-headed mallets, rather than 10 fingers. For the marimba, widening the repertoire meant adapting Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi. Though he has also written original music, he says he sticks to the classics in performance, "because I want to share a language that people are already familiar with. I¹m like Rashi" ­ the 11th century Bible interpreter ­ "commenting on the existing musical corpus."

After studying at the Eastman School of music, in Rochester, Jacobowitz came to Israel in 1983 as a kibbutz volunteer, and stayed on to learn about his heritage. He became Orthodox, got married and settled in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, adja-cent to Hebron. "I found employment with the Jerusalem Symphony as a percussionist, but only lasted a year," he recalls with a smirk, "because I wasn¹t interested in standing up once every 10 minutes with a triangle and going bang."

So he took to the streets. "For me, playing in the gutter is a step up from the orchestra. I bring art to the people." But clearly another purpose is served as well: satisfying his intense need for attention. "On the street, the stage is mine. I am the producer, I am the conductor ... I am the whole orchestra." When it became clear Israeli streets couldn't sustain him, he decided to try passing the hat in tourist-packed Europe. "I¹ve played in most European countries but I gravitated to Germany, because the crowds are cultured and well-mannered. They appreciate classical music more than in other places." Still, sometimes Jacobowitz feels "the Germans are more enthusiastic about my being an Orthodox Jew than about my music. They want to prove they can have Jewish friends."

During his act, he talks about music as much as he plays it. At one point, he'll invite an audience member to grab a mallet. The German joins the Jew, and under the supervision of the latter, the two play Bach. "I love the electricity when you have good contact with the crowd, the timing of the joke as well as the note."

Driving a car that pulls a trailer ­ loaded down with kosher food and religious paraphernalia such as tefillin and sacred books ­ Jacobowitz tools around the Continent, sleeping and praying in parking lots.

As an Orthodox Jew who looks like one, Jacobowitz often has his photo featured in European papers. "I don¹t dress like this to be provocative," he says. "It¹s just who I am." But some don't like who he is. On his first day in Munich, six years ago, walking around the Marienplatz, he was jumped by four "Hitler youth. An American marine came to my defense because he didn¹t like the odds, and three American Christian missionaries joined the fray to save me. Not spiritually ­ physically."

SO, IS IT A LIVING being an itinerant musician? "Everybody wants to know how much I take in. Some I tell. Some I don't. You," he says, pausing, "I will. Between $1000 and $2000 a day." Most of that comes not from passing the hat, but from peddling his CD. "People assume street musicians are beggars, but they can earn more money than some Western leaders."

Alex Jacobowitz sees himself as the heir to a tradition established 160 years ago by the chassidic xylophone virtuoso Joseph Gusikow. Byelorussian by birth, Gusikow traveled the shtetls and big cities of Europe playing his Holz- und Strohfiedel, a wood-and-straw predecessor to the xylophone. Though his traditional garb was not remarkable in cloistered Jewish villages, in Paris, Berlin and Rome, it caused something of a stir. "But people began to take to it," explains Gusikow's unofficial biographer. "In fact, in France, sidelocks became something of a fashion among upper-class Parisian women ­ coiffure à la Gusikow. Now, if Gusikow wasn't afraid during the early 1800s to haul his little xylophone around Europe dressed as a traditional Jew, why should I be?"

JACOBOWITZ DESCRIBED the time his trailer was stolen in Frankfurt ­ on Rosh Hashanah. "My trailer is ... my life. I was depressed." Then suddenly, he saw it coming down the street. "My house was passing before my eyes."

So Jacobowitz broke Jewish law, and jumped into his car on the New Year. "I'm weak," he admits. He also placed a call by cellphone to the police, who caught the thieves as they tried to enter the ramp of the Autobahn.

The musician pulled up a few minutes later and ran toward the cab of the trailer, his phone in his hand. "I felt I had these guys by the gozotzkas, so I yelled a curse at the first guy to come out. He turned, pulled a gun and pointed at my head. I thought, this is it. I'm receiving my reward and punishment on the Jewish New Year."

But the gunman was a plainclothes cop who had already boarded the trailer, and thought that Jacobowitz's phone was a gun. As the thieves were handcuffed and led away, they looked at their victim, and one of them asked him, "Hey, aren't you the guy who plays the marimba?"

Playing the marimba the past 16 years has given Jacobowitz great satisfaction. as well as grotesque walnut-sized and shaped calluses on each of his index fingers. But how long can a 37-year-old keep spieling on the Strasse? "As long as I'm having fun and people are receiving good from me, then that's what the Creator expects."

Jerusalem Report June 8 1998

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