Grammy Award-winning fiddler Alicia Svigals has performed alongside names such as Led Zeppelin, Whoopi Goldberg and Allen Ginsberg, but there’s only one style of music that has captivated her more than any other: Klezmer.
Klezmer, an ancient style of Jewish celebration music, will be featured at the Wexner Center for the Arts with performances by Svigals, accordion player and vocalist Lauren Brody and Jewish dance leader Steven Weintraub in “Alicia Svigals’ Klezmer Fiddle Express.”
Svigals said the concert will illustrate the power and beauty of traditional Klezmer music by drawing inspiration from its history.
“I think (Klezmer) just, naturally, the first time I heard it, grabbed me because I feel like it’s the kind of music that I could speak through non-verbally,” she said. “It had a long reach back in time that felt magical to me, and it’s very particular to my family and my group of people and I found that very moving.”
Klezmer music developed in Eastern Europe in the 1700s and was based on the Jewish religious music that was sung in synagogues. Svigals said Klezmer music is distinctive from other styles because of the five modes, or kinds of musical scales, it utilizes. In contrast, Western music employs only two modes — major and minor — while Middle Eastern music ranges from eight to nine modes. Fiddles and accordions are the most common instruments used in Klezmer, but Svigals said it is not defined by any particular instruments or tempos.
“This is really fun, euphoric, high energy music — except when it’s, like, deeply sad and tragic,” Svigals said. “It’s very emotional, but it’s mostly very fun. It’s a party, and it’s a very unusual party for most people.”
Svigals said that since its inception, Klezmer has taken on many influences. She said the music was influenced by dance tunes from surrounding non-Jewish populations such as Greek, Romanian, Turkish and Gypsy music.
“As people do with their own musical traditions, the musicians would take these melodies and play them their way, so they would put a real Jewish flavor on it,” Svigals said.
Likewise, when large Jewish populations migrated to the United States, Svigals said Klezmer began to incorporate sounds from American popular music and jazz.
Robert Glaser, professor of music and the speaker who will introduce the concert, said the Klezmatics, a band co-founded by Svigals in the 1980s, was instrumental in popularizing Klezmer beyond Jewish populations.
“(Svigals) is a pioneer in the rebirth of Klezmer as a popular music that’s not strictly limited to Jewish people,” Glaser said. “I mean, it is Jewish music, it’s based on music from Russia and Eastern Europe, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, but it has somehow spread its appeal beyond Jewish people.”
Although she has since left the Klezmatics, Svigals said her music’s sound and themes remain relateable to a wide audience. She said she continues to merge traditional sounds with modern, rock influences and her music addresses a variety of modern issues that often stress femininity, ranging from domestic violence to miscarriages.
“A contemporary world view is kind of a global world view, so I like to bring in any kind of experience I’ve had in my life instead of artificially bracketing them out to keep the music somehow ‘authentic,’ which I don’t really think is authentic – I think that’s kind of a narrow view of music,” Svigals said.
She said her music is often performed in conjunction with a variety of artistic mediums, such as theater, dance, film and poetry. She said this weekend’s concert at The Wex will encourage audience members to participate in a traditional style of circle dancing, which she said reflects the community that exists between college students.
“To get a group of people who are already friends, who are already experiencing this intense phase of life together and get them in a circle where everybody’s bodies are moving in unison, it’s a very boundary-dissolving kind of warm, cohesive feeling,” Svigals said.
Svigals said she expects the audience to experience strong emotions in response to Klezmer music that are unlike those one would typically feel during a concert.
“Alicia Svigals’ Klezmer Fiddle Express” will take place at The Wex on Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is $8 for students and $10 for the general public.