A clarinetist evokes Borscht Belt in a new recording

The rise and fall of the borscht belt is beautifully captured in “The Solomon Diaries,” a new recording of music written and performed by clarinetist Sam Sadigursky. “Borscht Belt” is a colloquialism that refers to the chain of resort towns in the Catskills that were popular in the mid-century with Jewish families seeking to escape New York’s summer heat. Another affectionate nickname for the region is “the Jewish Alps”.

The music was inspired by photographer Marisa Scheinfeld’s photo book (“The Borscht Belt”) which depicts dozens of hotels in closed and dilapidated states. The composer, who is Jewish, grew up in Los Angeles and has no family ties to the resort era, although his father played klezmer music on clarinet and accordion.

Sadigursky sees the project as something bigger than an accompaniment to modern relics. In a press release, he says, “A story of refugees facing exclusion and rebellion by creating their own oasis and then assimilating is a story that is so relevant today.” The work is dedicated to the memory of his grandparents, who were all Holocaust survivors.

“Diaries” is a key word in the title, as the music consists of numerous short tracks, many of which are only two to three minutes long. They are bundled into three album volumes and available to stream or download from BandCamp.com. Any volume is enough to get the flavor and feel of it all.

There is a sweet melancholy in Sadigursky’s clarinet and it is enhanced by the hum of the accordion played by Nathan Koci, which also accompanies the piano and banjo. The music is certainly evocative of another age. While there don’t seem to be any special sound effects at work, selections come one after another in a dreamlike fashion and overlap like misty clouds. Yet it’s not all tearful nostalgia. There are dances and games, improvisations on traditional Yiddish tunes and references to songs sung in worship by the Jews of the Caucasus mountains.

Originally conceived and performed by a quartet, the material has been whittled down to a duet for health and opportunity – yet another result of the COVID era. There are also a few guest appearances by voices from the past. The late Yiddish scholar and singer Ruth Rubin is heard in a few brief numbers and there are several other archival recordings incorporated into the mix. Among them, comedian Myron Cohen makes the audience laugh and he is introduced by Ed Sullivan.

Besides the duo, the only other current performer is Katrina Lenk, who sings in a sensual voice extracts of contemporary writing on the nightclubs of the time. Lenk won a Tony four years ago for his performance in “The Band’s Visit” and is back on Broadway right now in “Company.” Sadigursky and Koci have their own Broadway credentials. Both were in the band for the final cover of “Oklahoma!” with Koci as musical director. Sadigursky has also played for “The Band’s Visit” and he appears as a sideman on some 50 different commercial recordings. Two years ago he joined the Philip Glass Ensemble, taking over the woodwinds after founding member Jon Gibson passed away.

By the way, another recent and enjoyable portrayal of Borsch’s belt is the second season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime.

Masterclass of Ma

Just after the holidays, a friend emailed me a two-week free trial subscription to the Masterclass online educational platform. If you’re online a lot and search engines have identified you as a cultured or literate type, then you’ve probably seen ads for it. Leading figures in a wide range of fields – art, music, writing, sports, cooking, fashion, etc. – address the camera during prolonged sessions.

My only previous exposure to the format was through a brief connection with a writing group who watched and discussed short segments with novelist Margaret Atwood, who discussed writing technique and career advancement. I liked what she had to say, but what I took away was what a wise and grounded woman she was. I loved being in his presence, even though it was pre-recorded.

This was also the case when I studied with Yo-Yo Ma, who provided about two hours of what could loosely be considered teaching that I watched in a few sessions from the comfort of my living room. Honestly, the man just exudes goodness. I felt it in the vast amphitheater at SPAC and I felt it here too. No surprise, he has things to say about music and also about life.

Ma’s subject was to achieve effective communication, with music serving as a model. He repeatedly referred to the head, heart, and hands as the necessary tools. Integrate and balance them within yourself and you’ll have a better chance of connecting with an audience, achieving your goals, and keeping depression at bay.

In a segment titled “What’s the use of music?” he unwrapped the inner workings of what is sometimes called magic and yet is often taken for granted. Here is a mix of quotes and summaries: Music travels lightly. Music conveys emotions, ideas, feelings and memories. Music identifies our common humanity. Music is used to locate a time, a place or a person. Music is used for community cohesion. I guess I already knew all that, but I’m glad he said it.

If I was studying my notes for a final exam from Professor Ma, I would memorize all the three lists he provided and explained. There is head-heart-hands (see above). Also, truth-trust-service, which are the values ​​that foster a clear sense of purpose. Finally, there is content-communication-reception, which traces the successful flow of ideas and information.

There is a lot of music in this master class. At first, the Bach Cello Suites play in the background while Ma speaks, but luckily that’s only for about the first segment. Later, he used the Sarabandes from three of Bach’s Suites as well as Saint-Saen’s “Le Cygne” as material to illustrate his methods. For much of this he is joined by two young professional cellists, Titi Ayangade and Ethan Philbrick.

My favorite dish is Ma’s party analogy. He’s often asked if he gets nervous before a concert. Of course it does and it can also make performance errors, he says. He doesn’t scold himself, however, for considering music as one big party. He is the host and the spectators are the guests. As with all parties, there is always something wrong. You ran out of ice cream or the main course was left in the oven too long and dried out a bit. But that’s okay because everyone still had a good time.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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