Perf. Arts

Don’t Just Sit There
Klezmer band that will play at Carroll on April 6 seeks audience participation



By Lee Fensin - Special to TimeOut

March 20, 2014


Violinist, arranger and musical director Alex Koffman was born in Minsk, Belarus, and then immigrated to America in 1990. He has recorded five CDs with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and toured internationally.  
Submitted photo

WAUKESHA - When you attend a klezmer band concert, be ready to become a participant, not just a listener.

“It’s the audience that makes or breaks the show,” said Lori Lippitz, founder and manager of Chicago’s Maxwell Street Klezmer Band that will appear in concert at Carroll University on Sunday afternoon, April 6, as part of Congregation Emanu-El’s yearlong 75th anniversary celebration.

“The audience is as much a part of the show as the band is,” Lippitz continued. “When they are engaged and involved - laughing, clapping, evidencing their enjoyment - they are the best audience in the world. Klezmer only works if the musician is reaching out to the audience.”

The Maxwell Street band has performed for audiences around the world, including Carnegie Hall.

“Our concerts in Europe are probably some of our favorites because the audiences there are so responsive and really appreciate artistry,” Lippitz said. ”But we have played for audiences that were just as exciting in Kansas.”

Klezmer music, which is made for dancing, is intended to replicate the human voice, including sounds of crying, wailing and laughing. It is generally the violin’s job to do this imitation. Often, a klezmer band will include a fiddle, a bass or cello, a clarinet and a drum. Secondary instruments include hammered dulcimers and accordion.

Like most aspects of European Jewish culture, the Holocaust nearly decimated the tradition of klezmer music. Because klezmer is an aural tradition, when the older musicians died, the music died with them. A sparse number of survivors helped revitalize the music and musicologists have worked to record their repertoires.

The Maxwell  Street concert band that will be at Carroll will include a vocalist and seven instrumentalists. Among them will be Alex Koffman, the band’s music director and violinist who Lippitz considers to be “the heart and soul of the band.”

He came from Belarus in 1989, where he was a graduate of the Minsk Conservatory of Music and a survivor of the Red Army.

Lippitz, who started the band in 1983, recruited Koffman after hearing him play at a Chicago cafŽ. Silhouettes of Koffman in his hat became the band logo.

Koffman first heard klezmer music when he was a child. Although it was illegal to openly learn about or pass along Jewish culture, his grandfather quietly played LPs of Jewish music for him. He was a musical prodigy, and quickly learned to play in the klezmer style on the violin from a young age.

Koffman said the emotional range of klezmer music speaks to him.

It took about 15 years for the band’s popularity to take off. Its heyday came in the late 1990s to early 2000s when it performed concerts across Europe, including in Germany, London, Munich, Vienna, Amsterdam, Enschede and The Hague. In 1998, the band gave its debut performance at Carnegie Hall and at New York’s Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center.

However, touring has slowed down. “The novelty of klezmer has worn off and been replaced by other kinds of world music at most festivals,” Lippitz said. “And the recession accelerated a trend to hire small ensembles, due to airfare expenses. Fortunately, things are picking up and we will be touring a new multimedia show next January in South Florida.”

After playing Carnegie Hall, isn’t it hard to be psyched up to do a concert in Waukesha, Wisconsin?

“On the contrary,” Lippitz said, “since much of the band’s weekly work consists of private parties, which is the way most musicians make a living. Playing our CD and concert repertoire is always refreshing and thrilling.”

Lippitz was inspired to start the band when she was 25 years old and there was no klezmer music in the Chicago area.

“I’d recently been doing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, and realized that I was more interested in language, history and music than in a dry academic study of Slavic culture,” she said. “Then, I heard a klezmer band on a folk music radio show, and I was amazed to discover that this was the music of my own heritage. I’d been raised on Israeli music, but this was so much more vivacious and fun.”

She then sought recommendations for musicians, and two of the original six are still with the group.

Lippitz said she loves the Russian and gypsy influence upon Chassidic music, which is the basis of klezmer dance melodies. The band also plays folk songs and songs from the Yiddish theater, which she says is a quirky blend of 1920s to 1940s pop rhythms and harmonies crossed with Eastern European Jewish melodies.

At a glance

What: Concert by Chicago’s Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, part of Congregation Emanu-El’s 75th anniversary yearlong celebration

When: 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 6

Where: Carroll University’s Stackner Ballroom, 101 N. East  Ave.

Tickets: Contact Mary Schuman, 367-6719 or, by March 28. Tickets will not be available at the door.