When Yale Strom had his big musical and cultural epiphany while attending San Diego State University, the door that opened for him — figuratively, if not literally — was slammed in his face less than two hours later.
Experiencing both in rapid-fire succession irrevocably changed the life of this acclaimed maverick.
Strom had already earned degrees from SDSU in American Studies and Furniture Design. His musical epiphany inspired him to quickly abandon his plans to attend law school. Instead, he spent a year crisscrossing Eastern Europe as a backpack-toting violinist and amateur cultural ethnographer.
The Mission Hills resident has since become an award-winning performer, composer, photographer, documentary filmmaker, author and playwright. One of this country’s foremost scholars on Jewish klezmer music, which originated in Eastern Europe in the 17th century, Strom has performed around much of the world, played at the White House for President Obama and written a symphony.
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Between May 26 and July 11, he will be featured in three performances during the 26th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, including two with his wife, noted singer Elizabeth Schwartz. The festival is the latest chapter in Strom’s career, which traces its roots to the almost concurrent opening and slamming of that figurative door.
“Yale went to a concert here by The Big Jewish Band and he had never heard a live klezmer group before,” recalled longtime friend and collaborator Todd Salovey, who is the Associate Artistic Director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre and has overseen the Lipinsky festival since its inception.
“Yale was mesmerized. At the end of the concert, he asked if he could join The Big Jewish Band. The leader, (San Diego Symphony cellist) Ron Robboy, said: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’!”
Strom remembers this memorable encounter with Robboy, now a friend, as if it took place last week, not 38 years ago.
“It was March 1981 and The Big Jewish Band was playing downtown at Sushi (Performance & Visual Art),” Strom said. “Ron didn’t welcome me with open arms when I asked to join, but he did me a big favor. I went home, and said: ‘OK, I’m not going to join this band, so I’ll form my own!’ Then I went to the library and dug into the archives.
“At the end of the summer of 1981, I bought a one-way ticket to Vienna, Austria. I thought I would go to Europe for a few months. I stayed a year.”
Storm traveled through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Soviet Ukraine. He spoke Yiddish and some Swedish.
But it was music — and his four-stringed instrument, specifically — that enabled him to open doors and communicate with Eastern European Jews wherever he went. He learned first-hand about klezmer music and about the struggles and triumphs of Jews in countries where the horrors sowed by World War II remain palpable.
Yale Strom conducts music with the same dedication that he writes and performs.
Yale Strom conducts music with the same dedication that he writes and performs.(Photo by Hayne Palmour IV/Union-Tribune)
‘The language of our hearts’
“I often say that Yiddish is the language or our minds, and the violin is the language of our hearts,” Strom said.
“I was able to make myself understood in Europe. But the key for me is that I was doing ethnography — and I didn’t even know the word at the time. I just did it from my gut.”
Strom is now one of the foremost ethnographers on klezmer and an authority on the Roma music favored by European gypsies. Since 2006, he has been a professor at SDSU, where he serves as artist-in-residence in the Jewish Studies program and teaches classes in the school’s history and anthropology departments.
He has written a dozen books and made nine documentaries. His latest film, 2018’s “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Victor Debs,” profiles a pioneering World War I protester. Strom also composed and arranged all of the music for the film, which features a folk and Americana soundtrack.
More recently, he and internationally celebrated San Diego jazz saxophonist Charles McPherson were commissioned to compose separate pieces of music for San Diego Ballet’s “Song of Songs.” It debuts May 24-26 at downtown’s Lyceum Theatre. The May 26 performance will kick off this year’s Lipinsky festival.
“To share the bill with Charles McPherson is quite the honor,” Strom said. “I’ve been a follower of his musical genius for years. So to be part of this ballet with him is something I am very proud of.”
Strom’s multifaceted talents and devotion to his craft are a matter of record. Yet, even some of his closest friends and collaborators — including bassist, composer and arranger Jeff Pekarek — note that his success was hardly a given.
“No, it wasn’t,” said Pekarek, who befriended Strom when both were students at Crawford High School. They have been musical partners since they started playing bluegrass together in the 1970s.
“Being a musician is hard,” Pekarek said. “Being an independent filmmaker is hard. I don’t think anything Yale has done has been less than hard, because it’s all been uphill. I’m pleased and proud to be his friend. But it wasn’t like there was a big breakthrough moment that made me say: ‘Oh, here comes the sun, breaking out through the clouds for Yale’!”
With or without a breakthrough moment, Strom’ has worked at a seemingly nonstop pace. He is so busy that his wife, Elizabeth, half-jokes: “if I didn’t work with Yale, I wouldn’t see him that often.”
Growing more serious, she said: “Before I met Yale, I was a film executive in Hollywood and worked with a lot of creative people, especially writers. I think you can be honest, in a kind of polite way. But people ask your opinion because they want their work to be as good as possible. With Yale, I’m kind of the in-house singer, editor and producer.”
Schwartz will sing with Strom at two of this year’s Lipinsky festival performances, both as a member of his band, Hot Pstromi.
“Elizabeth is a really terrific collaborator and a great artist in her own right,” said San Diego Repertory Theatre veteran Salovey. He has featured Strom and Schwartz in the festival’s annual Klezmer Summit concert for the past 18 years.
“What’s also fun about Yale and Elizabeth working together is they don’t always agree; they have different perspectives and they are not afraid to share them with each other,” Salovey said.
“I think Yale is a national treasure. There are very few people in the U.S. today who have as broad a knowledge of music history and the people who have created the Jewish music of the last 100 years. He’s a bridge between the music of Eastern Europe, before World War II, and music today.”
Strom and Schwartz have a 21-year-old daughter, Tallulah, who is a senior in cultural and social anthropology at UC San Diego.
Beginning Wednesday, Strom will be in Czechoslovakia to teach his anthropology class, Music & Culture, to SDSU students in Prague. After that, he and Elizabeth will resume work on their next film documentary, “Recordially Yours,” which profiles recently deceased San Diego music legend Lou Curtiss.
“I like to have one or two projects to work on, as well as being a husband, father and teacher,” Strom said. “And I’ll play at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and parties. They’re fun to do and bring pleasure to others.”
26th Annual Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival
Unless otherwise indicated, all events are at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Gaslamp Quarter. Tickets and information for all events at the Lyceum are available at (619) 544-1000 and sdrep.org.
San Diego Ballet presents “Song of Songs": A troupe of 22 dancers will perform to new music by jazz great Charles McPherson and leading klezmer composer Yale Strom. Sunday, May 26 at 2:30 p.m. $22-$40. (The same program will be featured at the Lyceum on May 24 and 25, but not as part of the Lipinksy festival.)
Gourevitch & Kolpakov: Clarinet and guitar duets. 2 p.m. May 26. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive, Encinitas. Free.
“In the Room Where it Happens": San Diego Jewish teen performance showcase. 7:30 p.m. May 29. $12-$15 (includes a pre-show dessert reception).
“Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door": Bob Dylan’s most transcendent songs, performed with a Jewish Twist. 7:30 p.m. June 4. $20-30.
Sunset Concert, with Soulfarm at The Hive: 7:00 p.m. June 5. Leichtag Commons, 441 Saxony Road, Encinitas. $12 (adults); free (18 and under).
“In Every Generation”: A play written by Ali Viterbi, directed by Todd Salovey. 7:30 p.m. June 6. $18.
Community Unity Concert, with Kol Esperanza: 7:30 p.m. June 11. $25-$35.
10th Annual “Women of Valor”: Music, stories and images honoring Theresa Dupuis, Barbara Fischbein, San Diego City Schools Superintendent Cindy Marten, Allison Price, Cheryl Rattner Price, Jacqui Silver and Manya Wallenfells. 7:30 p.m. June 13. $18 donation.
“Asmiov’s Last Chapter”: A play by Culture Clash’s Herbert Siguenza, directed by Todd Salovey. 7:30 p.m. June 19. $18. New Village Arts, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad. (760) 433-3245. newvillagearts.org.
Perla Batalla Sings the Songs of Leonard Cohen: 7:30 p.m. June 17. Lyceum Stage. $30-$40.
10th Annual “Women of Valor” (North County): Music, stories and images honoring Theresa Dupuis, Barbara Fischbein, San Diego City Schools Superintendent Cindy Marten, Allison Price, Cheryl Rattner Price, Jacqui Silver and Manya Wallenfells. 2 p.m. June 23. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive, Encinitas. Free.
Klezmer Summit: Blueish: Jews and the Blues: Featuring Yale Strom and Hot Pstromi, with special guests Tomcat Courtney, Sue Palmer, and Robin Henkel. 7:30 p.m. June 24. $20-$28.
The Klezmer Accordion: Featuring Yale Strom and Hot Pstromi with accordionist Peter Stan. 7:30 p.m. July 11. $25-$30. Museum of Making Music, Carlsbad. 760-438-5997. museumofmakingmusic.org