Reviving Klezmer Music: Rubin is Scholar and Performer of this Centuries-Old Tradition

January 30, 2007
Jan. 30, 2007 -- Joel Rubin did not start out pursuing a performance career in klezmer music. Classically trained on the clarinet, he discovered while exploring a variety of musical genres early in his career that the music spoke to him.

“It was partly because of the lamenting quality that the music has. Even the most joyous piece has a kind of lamenting, searing, intense quality to it that I find attractive,” said Rubin, U.Va. assistant professor and director of music performance. The music’s vocal and mystical quality was another part of its charm, he said, not to mention that it’s in his blood.

“My paternal grandfather came from a klezmer family in the Ukraine,” said Rubin. “He was like the other Jewish barbers in Poland and the Ukraine who were semi-professional wedding musicians.”

Rubin looked to the surviving American klezmer musicians who championed the Eastern European immigrant Yiddish tradition of wedding instrumentals in New York for his academic foray into the genre. Today, he performs in the two parallel worlds of klezmer music. As an academic, he wrote the first full-length doctoral thesis on Jewish instrumental klezmer music. And as a clarinetist, he is considered to be one of the leading performers of Jewish instrumental klezmer music in the world.

He is part of the klezmer revival based in the centuries old tradition of this celebratory music. Outside of Jewish theological institutions, where the focus is primarily to educate cantors to perform the music at religious events, there are only a handful of people specializing in the field, Rubin said. It’s a growth field academically in ethnomusicology and is only now starting to be considered in Jewish studies scholarship. A renewed interest in the performance of klezmer music began in the 1970s after a hiatus from its peak popularity in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

To immerse himself in the culture and religious roots surrounding his performance of klezmer music, he went to the music’s origins — Eastern Europe.

He was searching for what he calls “the intellectual source of the music,” the Eastern European musicians. “They have a different musical aesthetic,” Rubin said. “They are also incredibly good musicians.” 

The result of that foray, which lasted almost 14 years, is the just released CD, "Midnight Prayer" by the Joel Rubin Ensemble, the latest of numerous klezmer music groups Rubin has formed. The ensemble includes Rubin on clarinet, and features Hungarian cimbalom virtuoso Kálmán Balogh, Italian accordion wizard Claudio Jacomucci and rising klezmer star violinist David Chernyavsky, as well as Ferenc Kovács on trumpet, Csaba Novák on bass, Sándor Budai on second violin and Pete Rushefsky on tsimbl. The cimbalom and tsimbl are hammer dulcimer instruments popular with Jewish, Roma (Gypsy), Eastern European and Balkan folk musicians.

The CD, which blends historical layers of traditional Jewish music through the musical backgrounds of the band’s members — ranging from classical to Gypsy to free jazz to contemporary art music — was recorded in the Operetta House in Budapest, Hungary.

The Joel Rubin Ensemble will be joined by the Ferenc Kovács and Kálmán Balogh Duo from Hungary, to kick off a three-day residency at U.Va. featuring klezmer, Gypsy music, classical and jazz with a concert on Sunday, Feb. 4 in Old Cabell Hall. The first part of the concert marks the American premiere performance of Kálmán Balogh and Ferenc Kovács. Balogh is perhaps the most well-known and versatile cimbalom soloist in the world today. Kovács is one of the most important European improvising musicians. The dou combines compositions by Kovács based on Hungarian, Balkan, Roma (gypsy), klezmer and jazz influences, with original arrangements of traditional Eastern European music The second half of the concert will feature a suite of Joel Rubin's arrangements of Russian Jewish instrumental klezmer and hasidic music from “Midnight Prayer” — the concert premiere of the ensemble performing these selections. (See complete schedule of events below.) 

Rubin returned to the United States three years ago and joined the McIntire Department of Music faculty this past fall as director of music performance. In that role he is busy developing and expanding the department’s performance program and carrying on a tradition of combining academics and performance at U.Va that was started in the 1980s by Donald Loach, associate professor of music emeritus.

“With several hundred students enrolling each semester in private music lessons and departmental ensembles, shaping the performance program has become an increasingly high priority for the music department,” said music department chair Richard Will.

“It was with this in mind that we created, with the support of the dean's office of the College of Arts and Sciences, the new position of director of performance. Joel Rubin brings terrific credentials to the position given his long experience as a performer, teacher and concert organizer involved in several kinds of music: classical, klezmer, Middle Eastern and beyond. His impact is already being felt this year through the creation of the new UVa Klezmer Ensemble and the February residency of the Joel Rubin Ensemble.”

The Klezmer Ensemble, which is comprised of four undergraduate and three graduate students, will give their first performance on March 22 in Old Cabell Hall.

Rubin will expand his involvement in the department by teaching two academic classes next year — American Jewish Popular Music and Introduction to Jewish Musical Tradition. He also is developing a class on the interaction of Jews and African Americans in music.  

Rubin has already reached out to other academic areas of the University that overlap his research interest in music and trauma; music and professionalism; music and diaspora; music and identity; music and religion; folk music revivals; musical hybridity; hasidic music; American Jewish popular music; Jewish musical traditions of the Middle East and beyond; and art and urban popular traditions of the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East.

The University has such strong departments in religion, Jewish studies, anthropology and German studies, he said. “It a school with a lot of resources.”

Joel Rubin Ensemble Residency
Sunday, Feb. 4-Tuesday, Feb. 6

This event is made possible with U.Va Art Enhancement Funds and co-sponsored by the McIntire Department of Music, Jewish Studies Program, Center for Russian and East European Studies, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, and U.Va. Hillel.

Sunday, Feb. 4

A Concert of Klezmer, Gypsy Music and Jazz

Featuring the Joel Rubin Ensemble and the Kálmán Balogh/Ferenc Kovács Duo
Old Cabell Hall, 8 p.m.
Admission: $10 general, $5 students, 5ARTS$ for U.Va. students

Monday, Feb. 5
The Contemporary Revival of Early 20th Century Jewish Instrumental Klezmer Music From Europe

Members of the Joel Rubin Ensemble and U.Va 20th century music expert Scott Deveaux
Old Cabell Hall, Room 107, 12-12:50 p.m.
Free and open to the public.

“Music is the Pen of the Soul”: Klezmer Music, Hasidic Melodies and Jewish Ritual
Members of the Joel Rubin Ensemble with U.Va. assistant professor of musicology Melvin Butler
Old Cabell Hall, Room 113, 3-5:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public.

Violin Recital
Featuring the works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahams and early 20th century Russian-Jewish composers Krein, Saminsky, Spivakovsky, Achron, Zeitlin and Weprik
David Chernyavsky, violin, with Micahel Adcock, piano
Garrett Hall, 8 p.m.
Free and open to the public.

Tuesday, Feb. 6

David Chernyavsky Masterclass with Violin and String Chamber Ensembles

Old Cabell Hall, Room B012, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public

Jazz Improvisation Workshop with Ferenc Kovács and Kálmán Balogh
Old Cabell Hall, Room B012, 5:30-7 p.m.

Klezmer Masterclass
With Joel Rubin, David Chernyavsky, Kálmán Balogh and Ferenc Kovács
Old Cabell Hall, Room 107, 8-10 p.m.
Free and open to the public.