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Wednesday, December 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Klezmer band throws great toe-tapping party

Seattle Times theater critic

Concert review


The Klezmer Conservatory Band, Monday and Tuesday night at Benaroya Hall, Seattle.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band got the audience up on its feet and line-dancing joyously down the aisles of Benaroya Symphony Hall on Monday night.

The band's leader, Hankus Netsky, and his expert Boston-based klezmer crew handily transformed the opening concert in a two-night stand into a cross between a Jewish wedding and a Hanukkah party.

"We need a little more Hanukkah," declared the ebullient, purple-suited Netsky, noting that this year the Jewish holiday came very early, just after Thanksgiving.

This band knows how to throw a great, toe-tapping party. Formed in 1980, it has spent two decades resurrecting the exuberant music forged in Jewish communities in Europe and America, from the medieval times to the present.

Raucous and sentimental, rackety and soulful, the group's generous program was crammed with wedding songs, Yiddish theater numbers, folk ballads, as well as a lovely instrumental from "Fiddler on the Roof" ("Sabbath Prayer"), and a seductive Leonard Cohen waltz ("Dance Me to the End of Love").

What the Klezmer Conservatory Band plays, with great verve and precision, is sonic comfort food for many Jews. But you don't need to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Klezmer music is a real tzimmes (stew) of influences and in turn has strongly influenced American pop music — especially the work of such Jewish-American composers as George Gershwin and Mr. "White Christmas" himself, Irving Berlin.

The form incorporates Middle Eastern snake-charm sounds (wonderfully realized in Ilene Stahl's fluent clarinet riffs), the swing and soul of African-American jazz and blues, the oompah brass and accordion motifs of German bands, minor-key Hebrew melodies, folk fiddling, Spanish accents and more.

Every member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band is something of a virtuoso, and the varied, well-paced program let clarinetist Stahl, mandolin player Jeff Warschauer, cornetist Mark Berney, and violinist Deborah Strauss stretch out.

Judy Bressler, the affable vocalist, played a special role in welcoming listeners into the music and translating lyrics — many of which are in Yiddish and filled with laugh-through-your-tears humor.

She sang "Di Mekhutonim Geyen (The In-Laws Are Coming)," a wedding tune making wicked fun of the groom's family. Bressler also stirringly handled some of the schmaltz too, including the lovely parent-to-daughter ballad, "Mayn Yiddishe Meydele (My Beautiful Jewish Girl)."

The highlights of the evening, however, were the deliriously jazzy, intoxicating dance numbers like "Rumenye, Rumenye (Rumania, Rumania)." When the Klezmer Conservatory Band really tore it up, it was hard not to dance.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com.

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