"Branches" bridges old and new at Paper Bridge fest
Those of us (and the house was pretty full, so it wasn't a small crowd filling out the National Yiddish Book Center's new auditorium--I'd give you the donors' names, but the new NYBC website seems particularly opaque on such details) who attended the Amherst debut of Hankus Netsky's new band, "Branches" on Monday night had a subversively pleasant evening.
"Branches," includes Hankus on piano (Klezmer Conservatory Band founder and, as Dr. Netsky, head of the NYBC's "Discovery" Project), KCB regulars Andy Blickenderfer on bass, cello, and banjo; and Yaeko Mirando Elmaleh on violin; along with Hankus' jazz ensemble, "Another Realm" co-conspirator Linda Jaye Chase on flute and bass clarinet; and Hebrew College cantorial student Jessica Kate Meyer on vocals, harmonium, and percussion. You couldn't ask for a much more professional, tighter sounder group of folks for a pleasant evening in Amherst. Augmenting everything was the core of NYBC interns (and audience members) who took advantage of the floor space to indulge in "Yiddish" (Eastern European Jewish) folk dancing. The group started off with some traditional klezmer, but it quickly became clear that this was traditional music, but not the old same repertoire. Instead, Hankus mixed in pieces that he had gathered as part of the Center's "Discovery" project, as well as less-well-known pieces by that generation of Second Avenue songsters who had drawn on traditional music and made it American. We got to hear wonderful music that sounded familiar, but was still new to most of us.
Once the audience was warmed up, Hankus moved farther afield, including pieces from "Another Realm," including two wonderful pieces by flautist Linda Chase, one inspired by a poem by Itzik Manger, read simultaneously in Yiddish and English by Netsky and Chase; and another inspired by an earlier poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi. Again from "Another Realm" (I think—I forgot to check) was a new middle eastern piece by Hankus. Closing out, the ensemble returned to the familiar-sounding Yiddish and klezmer. As they played, my audience companions would turn to each other and to me, smiling that "this is hot shit" smile.
What made the concert special wasn't just wonderful music wonderfully played—it was the way that Hankus continues to broaden the repertoire of traditional music, expanding ears, and in a way, legitimizing further the boundary-pushing music of a younger generation of musicians such as The Lithuanian Empire or Daniel Kahn & Painted Bird. It's not a static canon, nor does the music come from a tradition that is disappearing—at least, not disappearing yet, and if the musicians or Monday night's audience have anything to say about it, clearly not disappearing anytime soon.
Tonight, of course, is the East Coast premiere of the new Veretski Pass piece, "Klezmer Shul," as suitable to close the festival as "Branches" was to open the festival—the one to open by showing that the culture that the Center has preserved is alive and well; and tonight to seal a future is even more open-ended and exciting than we imagined a few days ago. חזק חזק ונתחדש!