There are concerts that are intellectually stimulating, if a little emotionally dry. There are concerts that are perfectly unobjectionable, pleasant ways to fill otherwise empty evening hours. And then there are concerts that are just plain fun. The David Orlowsky Trio, performing last night in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, fell decidedly into the latter category. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a concert that was so lively and engaging from start to finish.
Hailing from a small town in Germany, David Orlowsky — the trio’s clarinetist and frontman — began his musical career playing drums, but when his mother took him to a klezmer concert, he fell in love with the emotional and musical ambiguity of the style and switched tracks. In a pre-performance talk with Cantor Don Gurney of the Wilshire Blvd Temple, Orlowsky explained how these ambiguities — the ability to make a minor scale sound happy, or a major scale sad — reflect the ambiguities of life. “With this music, as in life, there’s always a tear in your eye even when you’re laughing.” (In the same conversation, he suggested that his mother might have encouraged this switch to get a reprieve from the noise of a teenager practicing drum kit.) Not long after, he joined with guitarist Jens-Uwe Popp and bassist Florian Dohrmann to form the David Orlowsky Trio, a group dedicated to performing klezmer-infused music they describe as “chamber.world.music”.
Even if that descriptor sounds noncommittal or half-baked, the performance was anything but. Orlowsky is an electrifying presence on stage, projecting an air of easy confidence built on a foundation of seemingly effortless technique. Vaulting from the earthy low register to the piercing upper notes with grace and agility, it’s hard to decide what’s most impressive about Orlowsky’s playing. It may be the range of his tone, from a clean, languid, expressive line to a raucous, growling squawk. Or it may be his dynamic control — upper-register clarinet gymnastics can easily become earsplitting in less deft hands, but Orlowsky can dance wildly in the stratosphere at a delicate pianissimo without sacrificing musical expressiveness. Either way, he does all this while also physically embodying the musical impulse, by turns standing in meditative stillness, strutting forward for a self-assured solo break, and breaking into gleeful foot-stomping little dances.
Despite his virtuosity, there was plenty of room for the other members of the Trio to shine. Popp’s guitar playing ran the gamut from full-bodied volleys of dense chords to delicate contrapuntal filigree, with a few choice percussive interludes thrown in for good measure. Dohrmann provided a solid harmonic and rhythmic foundation on bass, but also enjoyed some solo breaks of his own, nimbly working his way around an instrument that can sometimes be lumbering and ungainly. Like Orlowsky, they both do this without breaking a sweat, as though such dazzling displays are mere accidental by-products of casually jamming for fun.
A good ensemble, of course, is more than just the sum of its members, and here the David Orlowsky Trio shines as well. That they have been playing together for nearly 20 years now is apparent in their deep and automatic connection — they hand off melodies and shift the spotlight with an intuitive ease, and can turn on a dime from wild party to intimate prayer. Guitar, bass, and clarinet are obviously rather different instruments, but at times it seemed like they were all being played by one collective mind. (There was, for example, the striking opening and closing of their rendition of “Volach”, a traditional klezmer tune, where they all moved together in eerie and exact parallel motion, their eyes shut and calm, as though invoking a deep and ancient ritual known by heart.)
Virtuosity aside, the program was an excellent mix of music: Varied enough to avoid monotony, but similar enough to maintain cohesion. There were traditional klezmer tunes, homages to great klezmer clarinetists of previous generations, and a few original compositions by each member of the Trio itself. Many of the songs ran together into larger sets, but Orlowsky would periodically step forward to provide a lively mix of historical context and personal anecdotes. When introducing a set of arrangements by Naftule Brandwein, a klezmer clarinetist from the 1930s, for example, Orlowsky explained that Brandwein would turn his back to the audience during intense technical passages so that his competitors couldn’t steal his fingerings; in the set that followed, Orlowsky jokingly turned his back to the crowd, inspiring the bass player to do the same despite playing the simplest of stock basslines — Orlowsky then cheekily chased Dohrmann almost full circle, trying to get a clear look at what the bassist was doing. Scripted or not, it felt spontaneous, and was hilarious.
It seems unnecessary to describe every single arrangement played that evening, but some general comments are in order. In both the more lyrical first half and the rowdier second, there were some pieces that fell solidly into the klezmer genre, but there were others that lived up to the boundary blurring that the group’s “chamber.world.music” suggests. In the context of a klezmer-infused program, they felt right at home, but they could fit equally well into a number of different contexts besides. Orlowsky, who is not Jewish, is fairly explicit about not wanting to claim the mantle of Authentic Klezmer Musician — in the pre-performance talk he took pains to make clear that he’s not doing or claiming to do authentic, historically accurate klezmer music; rather, he said, the group plays “klezmer-infused music”, taking something of the spirit without making any claims of belonging to the underlying culture. (Some may still feel that this is an inappropriate appropriation. The lines between influence, appreciation, and appropriation are not always clear-cut, and reasonable people may well come down in different places when considering specific cases. I can only speak for myself when I say that the Trio’s use of klezmer sources didn’t bother me, though I freely admit to not being the most connected to my own Jewish heritage.) The results, by and large, felt truly syncretic: Not a mere gluing together of disparate bits and pieces, but a thorough blending, a construction of something genuinely new, with many threads weaving seamlessly into a multi-faceted whole.
Doubling back to where I began, this was a thoroughly delightful evening. If the David Orlowsky Trio ever passes through your area, it is well worth making the time to catch their show.