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Veretski Pass brings entertaining ethnomusicology to Old First Concerts

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Veretski Pass is a trio led by violinist Cookie Segelstein. She is joined by her husband, Joshua Horowitz, who plays cimbalom (a form of hammered dulcimer), and Stuart Brotman, who plays a bass cello. The group is named after one of the most important passes through the Carpathian Mountains, located (according to current national boundaries) near the western border of the Ukraine. Their repertoire consists primarily of Jewish instrumental music from the Eastern Europe that predated the Second World War.

Strictly speaking, this is klezmer music. However, as that particular word grew in popularity over the last few decades, it also grew in its capacity to misrepresent. Early in last night’s program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, Segelstein told the audience, “This is not your grandmother’s klezmer. It is her grandmother’s klezmer.” (This was her way of explaining the absence of a clarinet.)

Thus, rather than calling Veretski Pass a klezmer trio, one might do better by describing them as a group of enthusiastic ethnomusicologists more interested in performing the results of their studies than in reading papers at conferences. That approach brings them closer to the anthropological foundations of their discipline than the efforts of many of their colleagues. One may describe the approach as a shift of attention from objects to actions. Rather than simply collecting artifacts (such as field recordings) that will then serve as objects for the study of an “alien” culture, they recognize that their primary interest is in that of a culture of making music, which can only be understood through active involvement in that music-making.

For those of us in the audience of a Veretski Pass concert, that involvement is passionate and infectious. Segelstein is less interested in talking about the names and backgrounds of songs, because that takes time away from jamming with her colleagues. She would thus refer to a particular collection of numbers as, for example, “a G minor set,” the key being the one unifying factor. Any additional “background knowledge” runs the risk of distracting the listener from simply taking in what the performers are doing, which is making music from a relatively unique combination of instrumental resources.

From the point of view of sonority, however, it is worth devoting a few words to the tuning of those instruments. Segelstein’s opening remark veiled a mild reprobation that grandma probably spent too much time around an equal-tempered piano. Last night’s tuning systems were anything but equally tempered. On the other hand, it was unclear just what they were or even whether they were consistent from one performance to the next. The best joke of the evening was that the cimbalom player spends half his time tuning his instrument and the other half playing it out of tune. There is some sense that the emotional intensity of this music arises, at least in part, from deliberate efforts to warp pitches beyond the expectations of both listeners and players.

The result is that the performance of this music is as much a matter of “catching the spirit” as is the engagement among the members of a jazz combo who happen to be really “in the groove.” The only difference is that the “groove” of the Veretski Pass repertoire is, for most of us, just as unfamiliar as that pass through the Carpathians. Nevertheless, when the members of Veretski Pass get together to jam, it does not take long for those of us on audience side to find that groove and revel in it.

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