David Krakauer (M.M. ’80, clarinet) is a renowned performer of classical chamber music, klezmer music, and avant-garde improvisation. A driving force behind the revival of klezmer internationally, his Klezmer Madness! ensemble craftily fuses traditional klezmer tunes, world music, jazz, rock, funk, and hip-hop. Krakauer is a popular soloist and often collaborates with ensembles such as the Tokyo String Quartet, the Kronos Quartet, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He also enjoyed an eight-year tenure with the Aspen Wind Quintet. Krakauer’s eclectic collection of recordings and projects includes a current collaboration with the young Polish-born composer and Juilliard composition student Wlad Marhulets (pronounced Vlad mar-HU-lets). In a recent roundtable discussion with oboe doctoral student Toni Marie Marchioni, Krakauer and Marhulets described their auspicious meeting and upcoming performances: from December 10-13, Krakauer, under the baton of Maestro Andrew Litton, will give the premiere of Marhulets’ Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet and Orchestra in four performances with the Detroit Symphony.
Toni Marie Marchioni: Can you tell me about how you first met?
David Krakauer: One day I got an e-mail from a person in Poland named Wlad Marhulets.
Wlad Marhulets: [laughing] There were probably a lot of mistakes in English!
DK: There were many mistakes, but it was also compelling. It said something like, “I have a really good idea. I think we should meet.” So, we did. He had an idea for sort of a klezmer musical for me, but I told him to let me know when it was more formed. He also gave me a CD of his music. When I listened to it, I was struck. It was like a bolt of lightening to hear this incredible talent from such a young person. He was only 20 at that time! I heard incredible variety: from new klezmer tunes to orchestral music to electronic music. But all of it was unified by wit, humor, and strangeness that I just adored! I called Wlad immediately and said, “I am so impressed with your music. Why don’t you write a concerto for me!” And he did.
WM: But as it turned out, David and I had actually met for the first time in Warsaw, when I was about 16, at one of David’s concerts. I played several klezmer tunes for him—I also play clarinet. I don’t remember exactly what he said because I didn’t speak a word of English, but it was probably something like, “Come to New York.”
DK: [laughing] Yeah, I said something like, “Hey, come on over,” not realizing that he would say, “Yes, sir! I think I’ll do that. Here I come.”
WM: A few years later, I came to New York to meet him personally. Meeting David was my dream—a big, big dream of mine. His playing was the whole reason I started studying music. My musical education did not even start until the age of 16, which is quite old. I got a CD of David’s and became totally crazy about him and music. Out of nowhere, I started playing clarinet and klezmer music. Eventually, I established my own klezmer group, and I started writing my own music.
TMM: [to DK] Were you always so involved in the klezmer scene?
DK: After I left Juilliard, I had an eight- or nine-year period of freelancing in New York, plus a lot of high-level classical chamber music. But in addition to my studies at Juilliard, part of my education was also in jazz because I attended the High School of Music and Art. That was an amazing time period for me, but I abandoned jazz after Juilliard. Eventually, I started to miss improvisation and playing “off the page,” a whole side of me that I had shelved. Through a series of coincidences, I met some people and started to play klezmer music. At first, it started as a musical hobby while I still did everything else, but it then turned into much more.
TMM: You have such a natural approach to klezmer. When or where was this seed planted?
DK: I actually had no musical background in klezmer at all, except that my paternal grandmother was from a small town south of Minsk, actually near where Wlad is from. So really, it is my heritage, but I was always distanced from my Eastern European Jewish roots because I grew up very assimilated in the classical world. Somehow I started to listen to klezmer and was really drawn to its sounds. My grandmother had a very thick Yiddish accent, and klezmer inflections sounded like her speaking. I also think the initial seeds of klezmer were planted around the time I was at Juilliard. My teacher Leon Russianoff would pull out arrangements of short little pieces, with names like Hebrew Dance, which I would play and love. Plus I had a chance to hear Dave Terrace live, who is one of the great Eastern European Jewish masters. And these were little seeds that were planted but didn’t bear fruit for about 10 years afterwards. Once I got into the scene, klezmer music took me on a great road, which included meeting Osvaldo Golijov and recording his piece,Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Now I consider meeting Wlad and being part of this project another new chapter. With Wlad, I have met this great visionary who is dealing with his Polish-Jewish roots, as I am. Even though we were born on two sides of the ocean and are of two generations, we have this incredible thing in common. And that’s what the concerto is about. It is really the story of our lives converging. It’s nothing less than that.
TMM: I am dying to hear about the piece.
WM: Well, usually, I write very fast, but this piece took me one and a half years, which is quite a long time for me. The reason is that it’s a very personal piece. I needed to decide exactly what I wanted to say about my story, his story, and our story. It is a very wild piece with drum set, electric bass, and symphonic orchestra as well. There are three movements: a fast, wild one; a slow one, which is a little tragic; and the final one, the climax of the piece. Much of it was influenced directly by David’s playing.
DK: The piece is very tightly controlled, and I love that about it. Everyone who has heard the computer simulation of the piece has said to me, “David, that piece is you.” This young man hit the nail on the head. He really made a portrait of me, which is incredible. Sometimes you have a commission, and it works out, and that’s always great. But when this is coupled with such a strong personal story, I think it’s a rare and great thing.
TMM: How did the performances with the Detroit Symphony develop?
WM: My teacher, John Corigliano, played a significant role.
DK: We are both very grateful to John Corigliano for making the contact with the Detroit Symphony. It gives us the chance to get the piece out into the world. There had been a prior premiere scheduled, but it fell through. John then stepped up to the plate and recommended this to Maestro Slatkin [Leonard Slatkin, music director of the D.S.O].
TMM: Do you see this as a long-term collaboration with future projects?
DK: Absolutely. I can’t wait. But it’s up to Wlad. The muse has to strike!
WM: Oh, absolutely. I can’t imagine actually my musical life without working along with David Krakauer. It is impossible for me at this moment, really.