Friday, October 8, 2010


Spanish Synagogue
October 7

Defying definition: Popp, Orlowsky and Dohrmann.

Klezmer music is an incredibly elastic form that can be stretched to accommodate a wide range of other genres, as this very talented German trio demonstrated last night. Ranging across classical, jazz, pop and traditional Eastern European music, they play a bright, catchy synthesis of sounds that’s hard to classify – and they’re proud of it.

“A lot of people who come to our concerts say, ‘We don’t know where to put your music,’” a talkative David Orlowsky said early in the first set. “We call it chamber world music, with more emphasis on the ‘chamber’ part.”

That means a lot of soft passages, delicate solos and rhythm changes and breaks that demand careful listening. The band can open up and swing when it wants to, especially on a piece like Goldfinger, a take on the James Bond soundtrack that employs New Orleans-style jazz riffs. But the trio’s tastes, and talents, run in a more sophisticated vein: lay down a melody, build it one instrument at a time, develop the complexity, pick up the tempo, take it to a peak and then snap the whole business to a sudden stop for a couple beats before dropping the song back to a soft purr.

It takes good musicians to pull this off, and this threesome has both the chops and the pedigree. Classically trained guitarist Jens-Uwe Popp, who draws some interesting sounds from his instrument by occasionally rubbing rather than strumming the strings, played for many years with Giora Feidman, giving the trio a solid klezmer grounding. Contrabassist Florian Dohrmann studied with the great German bass player Dieter Ilg, and it sounds like it; he plays with intelligence and style, anchoring the sound with solid, shifting rhythms layered with tasty jazz licks. If his pieces last night were any indication, Dohrmann is also a pretty nifty songwriter.

Orlowsky is the Kenny G of klezmer. He’ll bend an occasional note or end a fast-paced piece with a squawk, but mostly he plays smooth and sweet, with a sound that flows from his clarinet like melted butter. In the band’s publicity photos, Orlowsky is dressed in all-black with a tuque, like some street gang tough. But in person he comes across more like a choir boy, personable and chatty, explaining all the song titles to the audience in perfect English.

Most of the music was from the band’s new release Nessiah, with a few songs from earlier albums and some traditional klezmer in the mix. The audience preferred uptempo numbers like Gra and Balkanplatte, but musically the most interesting selections were those that allowed the band to showcase their songwriting and solo performance talents, like the triptych Durch Nacht und Wind/Nessiah/Aer.

And the setting was inspired – not just for the natural fit of klezmer music in a synagogue, but the clarity of an acoustic trio in the space, and the incredibly rich, ornate interior, a perfect visual complement to the sound. The only off-note was the glaring sponsor billboards mounted on either side of the band. Those are no doubt contractually obligated, but they seemed like a crass intrusion on some otherwise magical moments. Close your eyes, however, and you were transported to some lovely places.

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