A highlight of the Hanukkah week in San Diego was the Broken Consort concert December 4, at Smith Hall, on the campus of San Diego State University. The program was entitled, “Shimmering Lights,” and was based on the newly released album by klezmer violinist Yale Strom, his wife, vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz and a stellar assortment of string players that Strom assembled and named, “Broken Consort.” The term “broken” was to indicate a breaking with tradition.
From Strom’s Hot Pstromi klezmer ensemble, he brought the remarkable string bass player, Jeff Pekarak, who is equally expert in classical, folk and jazz idioms, and San Diego’s virtuoso guitarist, Fred Benedetti.
In addition, he had fellow SDSU faculty cellist, Alex Greenbaum; New York City-based jazz violinist, Sara Caswell; violist David Wallace, head of the String Department at the Berklee School in Boston; and the marvelous Israeli oud and jazz guitar player, Amos Hoffman.
The selections included familiar Yiddish songs such as Khanike, O Khanike A Yontif, A Sheyner; and Bulbes; which was changed to Latkes; and three unfamiliar Ladino songs about Hanukkah, Kita’l Tas from Greece, Azereymos La Merenda from Turkey and La Fiesta de la Hanukia. Most of the renditions began with Elizabeth, in her luminous, sultry voice, singing the original song. Then, each musician, in different order for each piece, improvised on the melody. In the process, each displayed his or her individual virtuosity and style.
The styles ranged from classical, blues, jazz, rock, to world music. Particularly impressive was the rich depth of Hoffman’s oud playing and the warm beauty of Wallace’s viola passages. Wallace studied and served as assistant to the American violist, Karen Tuttle, at the Juilliard School in New York. Tuttle, in turn, studied in Los Angeles with Heimann Weinstine, assistant concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and one of my former teachers. As I listened to Wallace’s inspiring improvisations, I remembered Weinstine’s words, “every note must be played with beauty.” Wallace’s notes followed that injunction.
Caswell, performing on an electric violin, projected some unusual qualities in her sound, imitating a high clarinet in sections and dazzling with her pyrotechnics. Benedetti’s guitar solos and Pekarek’s bass playing were both notable.
Pekarek’ bowed passages had the sonority of a cello. At 17, he was the youngest member of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra before he left to specialize in jazz and folk music.
One unusual selection on the program was Yale Strom’s Tone Poem, featuring all the assembled strings. It opened and closed with solo cello passages, beautifully rendered by Alex Greenbaum. The inner sections rose with rich harmonies, contrasting with periods of unison playing. It was tonal music, with klezmer inflections.
Also included on the program was an original Hannukah song composed by Strom, “The Fool Over Yonder.”
Strom is to be congratulated for melding together such an excellent group of musicians. It was a tribute to the high esteem in which he is held as a klezmer performer, organizer, author, filmmaker and academic.