Klezmer clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer’s career has followed a somewhat twisted trajectory. A recognized jazz performer at New York City’s High School of Music and Art, he spent his junior year of college at the Paris Conservatory, earned a master’s degree in classical music from New York’s Juilliard School, established himself as a classical performer, and succumbed to klezmer music when he was 23, almost 30 years ago.
“In a funny way, whether it’s klezmer or not, my performance today comes back to klezmer,” Krakauer says in a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. “Playing klezmer unleashed my energy. It made me look at classical in different way.”
Krakauer solos with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, January 18, at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. He premieres a new three-movement concerto for clarinet and orchestra by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, who is temporarily a resident in Princeton and associated with the Institute for Advanced Study. The PSO commissioned the work from Moravec, who selected Krakauer to premiere it. Moravec has dedicated the piece to Krakauer and the PSO.
The program also includes pieces by Antonin Dvorak, Gioachino Rossini, and Felix Mendelssohn. Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is on the podium. A pre-concert lecture by PSO’s program annotator extraordinaire, Gene DeLisa, takes place at 3 p.m. “Behind the Music,” a panel discussion with Moravec, Chen, and Krakauer, takes place on Saturday, January 17, at the Arts Council of Princeton.
Contrasting klezmer and classical, Krakauer says, “Classical is a pantheon, a line of composers — Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Brahms, and Mahler — influencing each other. That’s where Paul Moravec is coming from.”
Krakauer at first begs off a request to talk about the difference between klezmer and classical music. “It would take many weeks to talk about the difference between the two,” he says. “Klezmer and classical are like two different musics, like two different instruments. Most people know what classical music is. Not so many know what klezmer is.
“Basically, klezmer has its roots in East European folk music that came to the United States in the late 19th century. It was recorded by Eastern European immigrants. Klezmer is an oral tradition. I learned much of what I know from old recordings.” That Krakauer learned klezmer from listening, rather than from studying, establishes klezmer as an oral tradition for him.
“Paul Moravec and I have known each other for many years,” Krakauer says. “Our major connection was around Moravec’s ‘Tempest Fantasy,’ which was recorded by me and the Trio Solisti. It won Moravec the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.” (The Trio Solisti, with soprano Amy Burton, can be heard in Wolfensohn Auditorium at the Institute for Advanced Study on Saturday and Sunday, March 7 and 8.)
“Sometimes Paul and I talked about other pieces that he might write. I suggested klezmer, but he did not feel comfortable with it. Klezmer is a big part of my career, but Paul didn’t link into it in the concerto. The concerto is deeply into the classical tradition, but it has a new twist. The piece has a beautiful, recognizable classical surface, but it’s put together in an unusual way, with a wild, restless undercurrent.
“In klezmer music I bend pitches, produce shadings with my tongue, and use unique fingering combinations. With Paul’s piece, the notes are there and I follow them. But I bring my own energy to the piece.”
Krakauer’s ability to sound as if he was making up the music on the spot is a factor in his successful collaboration with Moravec, he says. “Paul was excited about collaborating with me because, with any classical piece, you want to make it sound as if you were improvising, and bringing to life the implications in the text. Performing is like a conversation with the composer. It’s about making the score come alive.”
Playing a new piece is a special experience, Krakauer believes. “First, you need to launch into it and learn the notes,” he says. “I always think of a piece of music like a friendship or relationship. They can’t be hurried. There are certain pieces that I recorded and then went on to play quite a lot. I thought that the recording is really cool, but I got to know the piece so much better after performing it.
“Performing the Moravec concerto with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra is just the first step in understanding the piece,” he continues. “You can’t fast forward experience. You need to play a piece many times to get to know it, and find different levels in it. It’s like developing a history.
“Paul’s piece is challenging technically,” Krakauer says. “The outer movements are fast, and there’s a lot of finger work. Paul knows that I play in extremely high registers, so there’s a lot of high writing. I always prided myself on getting a beautiful singing sound in a high register.”
Both Moravec and Krakauer were involved in preparing for the PSO performance. “He basically presented the piece as a done deal,” Krakauer says. “But, we talked about registers. I would say, ‘Maybe this should be up an octave.’ He knows instruments very well, but he’s not intimately involved with the clarinet. He’s always asking advice, and running things past people. He listens and incorporates what they say.”
I ask Krakauer what appeals to him about the clarinet, and he explains that it’s both the sound of the instrument and its versatility. “The clarinet has very vocal quality, like the human voice,” he says. “It’s very attractive. That’s why it’s been featured since the time of Mozart, when it was a new instrument. In jazz, Artie Shaw, Benny, Goodman, Sidney Bechet, and Barney Bigard were big names in the swing era, when the clarinet occupied a very important role. The clarinet’s also important in east European folk music — in Hungary, Romania, and Transylvania. In Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania, klezmer clarinet is important. In Southeast Asia where the British had been, the clarinet plays a role in folk music. The world of clarinet is vast. There are different approaches to its sound and style in different places.”
Krakauer was born in 1956 in Manhattan. His Brooklyn-bred parents fled the borough, where they felt stifled, after graduating from college; they reveled in living in Manhattan.
Krakauer’s father, William, a psychiatrist, was an amateur pianist and singer when son David was born. He is now into a second career as an actor. His mother, Barbara, who died in 2001, was a violinist, who taught at New York’s Mannes School of Music, and performed. His sister, Lisa, lives in San Jose, California, and is a singer.
Both of Krakauer’s parents were Francophiles, who valued speaking French. His mother taught in France from 1976 until her death. She was a co-founder of a summer music program in Provence.
“I was fascinated by France,” Krakauer says. “My mentor was Leon Temerson, who had been freelance violinist in Paris in the 1930s, came to the United States in the 1940s, and played with the New York Philharmonic until his retirement in the 1970s.”
During his undergraduate study at Sarah Lawrence Krakauer spent a year at the Paris Conservatory. During that time he learned French fluently. He has returned to France repeatedly. “I found that jazz journalists in France were writing about my klezmer music. I got a French agent, and made recordings under the French ‘Label Bleu.’ I go to France three to six times a year, and give tours and workshops.”
It was not until after earning a master’s degree from New York’s Juilliard School of Music, and following a classical career path that Krakauer heard live klezmer music for the first time. “In 1979, I heard Dave Tarras, the klezmer master,” Krakauer says. “He was very old and played with a sound that gave me goose bumps. I started playing klezmer about 1987 as a result of coincidences and chance meetings. I had been doing chamber music. I was playing major festivals, and was a busy freelance musician. But I was a bit frustrated. I wanted to go back to music that was off the page. I also wanted to connect more with my Judaism, from which I felt disconnected. At first I thought of klezmer as a musical hobby.”
After playing with the klezmer group, the Klezmatics, for seven years, Krakauer went on to lead Klezmer Madness! ensemble.
Krakauer currently teaches at New York’s Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College, the Bard Conservatory, and New York University. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, clarinetist/dancer Marissa Byers.
Among the projects in his near future is curating a Carnegie Hall performance by four major klezmer bands on Thursday, April 2. The participants are the Klezmatics, Brave Old World, Mikveh, and his own Klezmer Madness! ensemble. However, his main interest is in playing, rather than in being an impresario.
Krakauer’s past immersion in separate styles influences his performance in each of the musical territories where he can be heard. He likes to put his own stamp on performing. He notes that his music is more easily identified in klezmer, than in classical music. “I value having an individual style,” he says. “It’s something I consciously desire, but it’s also something that I kind of just did. One has a voice that you can recognize over the telephone; you don’t have to do something to make it recognizable.”
Edward T. Cone Concert, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, January 18, 4 p.m. “Princeton Commissions a Concerto,” a concert of works chosen to explore the diverse sonorites of new music and the range of orchestral instruments. Mei-Ann Chen conducts a program featuring music of Rossini, Moravec, and Mendelssohn. World premiere of a clarinet concerto by Paul Moravec performed by David Krakauer. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $16 to $64. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.
Also, “Behind the Music,” Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Saturday, January 17, 3:30 p.m. A panel discussion to explore how new music is created featuring a preview of a new clarinet concerto by Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Princeton resident Paul Moravec. Panelists include Moravec; Mei-Ann Chen, guest conductor; and David Krakauer, clarinet soloist.Wine and cheese reception follows the discussion. Register. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.