Mt. Airy native author/composer reviving klezmer music

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by Len Lear

The Mt. Airy native chairs the Contemporary Improvisation Departments at the New England Conservatory in Boston and is the author of “Klezmer: Music and Community in 20th-Century Jewish Philadelphia.”

“Klezmer music represents the highest level of Eastern European Jewish folk instrumental expression. The musicians who played it in its heyday were virtuosi of the highest order. In its resurgence, it's become a major inspiration for musicians of diverse backgrounds worldwide and a major wellspring for creative projects, earning its place at the table next to the greatest musical traditions of other ethnic groups. But we're still at work putting the pieces together to actually fully re-construct what it was in its heyday and make that repertoire accessible for future generations.”

This observation was made in an interview with the Local last week by Hankus Netsky, 64, who grew up in Mt. Airy (first at 6933 Ardleigh St. and after age 12 at 625 Burnham Rd., near Hortter Street) and who has gone on to become a nationally renowned multi-instrumentalist, composer and ethnomusicologist who has collaborated musically with such giants as Itzhak Perlman, Robin Williams, Joel Grey and Theodore Bikel, among many others.

(Klezmer is a musical tradition of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Played by professional musicians called “klezmorim,” the genre originally consisted largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations.)

Netsky, who now chairs the Contemporary Improvisation Departments at the New England Conservatory in Boston, is also the author of “Klezmer: Music and Community in 20th-Century Jewish Philadelphia.” In recent months Netsky has had numerous book signings and readings for his highly acclaimed book in the Philadelphia area — for example, at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mt. Airy, the Museum of American Jewish History in center city, Temple Beth Shalom in Elkins Park and the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. He has also done interviews about the book on WRTI and WUHY, including Marty Moss-Coane's interview and call-in show. “That was a hoot!” he said.

“What I enjoyed most about these events is that I was able to combine the local book signings with concert/dance performances. Not only did I get to play with some of the great local musicians I grew up with, like Diane Monroe and Steve Beskrone, but I also got to collaborate with folks who were still playing lots of klezmer in Philly, including Bobby Block, Elaine Hoffman Watts, Susan Lankin-Watts, Dan Blacksberg, Barry Wahrhaftig, Eric Schnitzer and Bob Butryn. It really brought the book to life, especially when former bandleader Cal Shaw showed up and helped re-enact some of the old dances.”

In addition to his book, Netsky has also worked on several film scores. His most recent original score was for "Theo Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem," a documentary showing how Theo kept Eastern European Jewish culture alive in a time when it was in danger of being forgotten, just as the great writer, Sholom Aleichem, had done 100 years before him.

Some of Netsky's other film scores include "The Forward: From Immigrants to Americans," about how that Yiddish newspaper helped shape Jewish immigrant society, "The Double Burden," about families from various ethnic backgrounds with three generations of working women, and "The Fool and the Flying Ship," a children's movie, with Robin Williams as the story teller. Netsky was also musical director for two PBS Jewish Holiday specials, "A Taste of Passover" and "A Taste of Chanukah," and he worked with the producers on three films featuring world-famous violin soloist Itzhak Perlman.

Netsky also started the Klezmer Conservatory Band 40 years ago, and it still thriving and making great music. “I had no idea that creating the band would help launch an

international grassroots movement,” he said last week. “I can remember standing on the corner of 10th Street and Tabor Road in the late 1970s after spending days at the old Gratz College transferring Yiddish and klezmer 78s to cassette, wondering if anyone would ever be interested in any of this stuff...

“More recently I've been doing research on a new book (tentative title: 'Ashkenaz Rising') looking at how mainstream American Jewish educators erased Eastern Europe as a source of Jewish cultural pride — and how a small cadre of musicians and other activists eventually brought it back. Forty years later all I can say is: 'We're not done yet!'"

Netsky was a talented musician, even as a child. A graduate of Central High School in 1972, Class #231, he led the school’s Marching Band and Jazz Band. Today he merely plays the piano, saxophones, oboe, English horn, accordion, clarinet and flute.

“I always wanted to be a musician and composer,” he said. “My uncle, Harold Karr, was a composer. He wrote songs for TV (‘The Honeymooners’) and Broadway, including ‘Happy Hunting’ for Ethel Merman.”

Netsky holds a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University and bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from New England Conservatory. He has taught Yiddish Music at Hebrew College, the New England Conservatory and Wesleyan University, and has lectured extensively on the subject in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

For more information, email hankus.netsky@necmusic.edu. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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