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It always works out: A joyful journey with David Krakauer and Portland Chamber Orchestra

Rock star clarinetist and PCO celebrate Hanukkah with klezmer improvisations and a Wlad Marhulets concerto

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Hanukkah, klezmer music, and David Krakauer united in Portland Chamber Orchestra’s “Joyful Journey” Dec. 4 at northwest Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The exuberant musical trip through celebratory and revived Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) music lived up to its billing.

Clarinetist David Krakauer performing with Portland Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Clarinetist David Krakauer performing with Portland Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

If this program leaned toward the safely seasonal, PCO is a group to open your ears to. It attracts excellent musicians, like Krakauer, and its repertoire is fresh and innovative.

The dapper undisputed rock star/king/god of the klezmer clarinet, Krakauer had most of the 239 concert-goers moving in their seats or dancing in the aisles, laughing at his clever repartee, and gasping at the range of notes that emerged from his clarinet without a squeak. PCO’s Dec. 5 program, pretty much the same as Dec. 4’s but with more traditional klezmer music and without the Daniel Freiberg piece, unfolded at Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue, also in northwest Portland. As many or more ( a reported 241) were dancing as ecstatically as at its neighbor Trinity Episcopal’s the night before.

Krakauer, who has guest-starred with PCO two previous times, has a special relationship with Wlad Marhulets, the 35-year-old composer of the 24-minute evening’s centerpiece, “Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet and Orchestra.” Marhulets recently added to his many film and symphony compositions, “DARQ,” described as “a psychological horror game set in a lucid dream.” As Krakauer said during his performance, “Wlad is something else.”

Growing up in Gdansk, Poland, Marhulets was thrilled when he heard Krakauer playing the klezmer clarinet on a CD by his band Klezmer Madness. He was 16 then. Five years later, having crossed the Atlantic without a word of English and $300, he found himself on full scholarship at Juilliard, studying composition with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano. During that time, Marhulets screwed up the courage to ask Krakauer to meet with him. Krakauer recounted at the concert that when the two met, Marhulet’s music and vision won over Krakauer, who said, “Why don’t you write a concerto for me?” 

And that’s how the sweeping piece, which sounds much more contemporary and mellifluous than any standard klezmer music, was brought into the world. The concerto has made its way into various high-profile orchestras’ repertoires since it won the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music in 2016. Krakauer makes the most of its dynamics, moving seamlessly from contemplative phrases into more boisterous ones, and sustaining notes (and his breath) for long periods of time. 

Krakauer can make just about any sound with his clarinet. He can reach notes in the stratosphere. Like Dizzy did the trumpet, Krakauer does the klezmer clarinet, pointing it to the heavens, pushing it into improvisation and after improvisation. He added several of his arrangements of shorter klezmer standards after he played the concerto. In one, he asked the orchestra to play “when they felt like it. All individuals are free to do what they want to in this piece,” he said.His improvisational method, he said, “always works out.” And so it did.

The orchestra preceded Krakauer’s appearance with Daniel Freiberg’s brilliant “Northern Journey,” premiered in 2017 by the WDR Cologne Radio Orchestra in Cologne, Germany. It was a cinematic piece tracing Freiberg’s journey as an Argentine-born Jew to New York, and it became jazzier and a bit less latin as it moved northward. Loaded with jazz idioms and latin beats, it remained surprisingly symphonic. It was a treat to listen to for 23 minutes. Freiberg, who writes for movies, “understands the symphonic idiom and how to use his own voice,” PCO music director Yaacov Bergman, who has been following Freiberg’s music for years, said in an email after the concert.

Founded in 1947 by Finnish composer/conductor Boris Sirpo, PCO is made up of about 45 musicians, and that includes a tuba player and healthy percussion and horn sections. The strings are pared down from the numbers in traditional or full orchestras. Musicians come from all over the Northwest and play in various orchestras–though back in the 1940s, when PCO emerged, many musicians were connected to Portland’s Lewis and Clark College because Sirpo taught there.

Maestro Yaacov Bergman conducts Portland Chamber Orchestra at Lewis & Clark College.
Maestro Yaacov Bergman conducts Portland Chamber Orchestra at Lewis & Clark College.

In part, perhaps, that is why the PCO attracts a younger crowd than Chamber Music Northwest (student tickets are $15 at PCO and $20 for under 30-year-olds at CMNW – not much difference but for some reason the PCO audience skews younger). It was refreshing to see so many people younger than 50 years old at the concert, along with a number of kids.

PCO has come a long way since early times when its violinists and cellists wore long white dresses and looked like mid-century debutantes. Directed for 19 years by Bergman, who conducts other groups including the Walla Walla Symphony and Siletz Bay Music Festival in Lincoln City, Ore., it has stepped up its game and championed new music and a diversity of composers and artists. Its next two programs are contemporary and collaborative. “My Words Are My Sword,” (aka “A Black Manifesto”) brings together composer Jasnam Daya Singh, poet/actor Darius Wallace, conductor Bergman and director Harry Brice. It will fuse poetry with hip-hop, jazz and classical music. The concerts will be 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at Trinity Episcopal Church and at 2 p.m. Feb 20 at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church.

The final program — June 4, 5, and 11— is “Celilo Falls: We Were There,” a work for chamber orchestra by Nancy Ives with text and story-telling by Ed Edmo of Shoshone-Bannock roots, and photographic images by Joe Cantrell, who has Cherokee heritage. The new work explores the history of Celilo Falls, portraying the indigenous experience of those who lost their livelihoods and cultural heritage when the Dalles Dam flooded the falls in 1957. See the PCO website for details.

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Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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