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Wedding band waltz 

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker gets klezmerized

It sounds like a joke at first -- a traditional Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah band playing its rendition of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, the classical Christmas favorite. And it is kind of funny. "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" becomes "Dance of the Latkes Queens," sounding like a slightly accelerated Tom Waits tragedy. "Trepak," the Russian Dance, becomes "Kozatsky 'til You Dropsky," played so fast it comes in at under two minutes. And what would Christmas be without the timeless dueling clarinet and trombone of "Waltz of the Rugalah"?

Shirim, a Boston-based klezmer band, did have a measure of subversive intent when it created its Klezmer Nutcracker. After all, most of the best-known American Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers: Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," Ray Evans and Jay Livingston's "Silver Bells," Johnny Marks' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and many others. But mostly, Shirim just needed new material for an annual Christmas concert in Boston's Jewish community.

"Christmas Day is kind of a drag," says Shirim co-founder/clarinetist Glen Dickson. "Everything is closed." Wanting to play music that was related to the Christmas holiday but relevant to the Jewish community, the band decided to klezmerize some Christmas music.

A classical ballet suite rendered fit for dancing the freewheeling freylach, the heavily syncopated hora and the down-and-dirty broigestantz? It sounds like a stretch, but the adaptation proved easier than Dickson had anticipated.

"We related really well to [Tchaikovsky's] music," says Dickson.

Klezmer -- the Yiddish name given to post-Medieval Jewish minstrels and now also the name of their music -- originated in Eastern Europe and, like Tchaikovsky, was heavily influenced by Russian folk music.

"We tried to draw on the parallels as much as we could in our interpretation," says Dickson, "taking advantage of the similar roots."

Klezmer has, from its very beginning, been a borrower, an adapter, an ever-evolving fusion. It took its original tunes from the cantorial recitations of the synagogue, then went on to improvise on the melodies of whatever secular music surrounded the klezmorim. The music is such a moving point that it's hard to convincingly define, particularly since its American revival in the '70s. Some American klezmer sounds like rock, some like reggae. It mixes well with jazz and the blues, old-time music and punk. From the Hebrew klei zemir, klezmer means "instruments" or "vessels of song," an aptly inclusive name for such a promiscuous form.

You can hear klezmer best in the krekhts, the bent notes that sound like ornamented sobs, moans and wails. (Dickson, like many modern klezmers, plays the krekhts on a clarinet, but traditionally they were reserved for the flute and fiddle.) Klezmer music is for celebrations, but even its happier songs are played mostly in minor keys. There is, however, a sardonic humor in klezmer's trills and slides, and in its sometimes- racing rhythms as they whirl their way toward ecstasy or chaos, whichever comes first.

Shirim's Klezmer Nutcracker was such a hit in Boston that the group and Ellen Kushner of Public Radio International wrote a full story around it. "The Golden Dreydl" has since become a holiday fixture on public radio stations. A modern dance company in New York is currently choreographing a Klezmer Nutcracker ballet.

Shirim's members also have an avant-garde incarnation under the name Naftuli's Dream -- but as Shirim, they play classically styled klezmer. In addition to Klezmer Nutcracker, Shirim will play a selection of traditional songs at this weekend's show. There probably ought to be a party to go with it. Everyone should be dancing. Someone should get married. You should walk home exhausted and a little drunk. Perhaps its setting at the relatively formal Rialto is just another klezmer joke: The wedding band played well, but no one left their seats.

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