Fiddler In The Lab

When he's not in the classroom or the lab, Biology's Daniel Kirschner plays in a local klezmer band

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Assoc. Prof. Daniel Kirschner (Biology) spends most of his time wielding an electron microscope or instructing future scientists on tissue homogenates, myelin, amyloid and synthetic peptides. But he's equally at home striking a bow and rattling off freylachs, shers, horas, bulgars and waltzes.

Kirschner is the violinist for a local klezmer band, The Boston Kleztet, which he co-founded several years ago. He and his fellow band members, including his wife Joanne Baker, regularly perform at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, benefits, festivals and other private or public functions, bringing to life the traditional, eclectic dance-oriented music of Eastern European Jews.

A classically trained musician who is a fairly recent convert to klezmer, Kirschner finds playing the music as enjoyable as his "other" vocation.

"The adrenaline high after teaching a class is the same as you get from a concert," said Kirschner, who joined the BC faculty last fall. "In both cases, you are essentially performing - although, obviously, for different purposes. Five years ago, I had no idea I'd be doing either of these things, and certainly not at the same time."

The Yiddish word "klezmer" literally means "instrumental music," but as Kirschner points out, the English translation doesn't begin to describe what klezmer is. Dating back as far as the 16th century, klezmer combines Jewish liturgical musical forms with folk music styles representing cultures such as Rumanian, Russian, Bulgarian, Arabic and gypsy. Traditionally, klezmer musicians - "klezmorim" - provide musical entertainment at many Jewish celebrations, ceremonies and festivals.
Assoc. Prof. Daniel Kirschner (Biology). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Over the years, klezmer has branched out to mingle with other musical forms like jazz, Kirschner said, and is experiencing a revival. Whether played in a straightforward, traditional manner or with contemporary influences, he said, klezmer offers a unique, fascinating sound.

"Klezmer appears to be in a minor key, although in reality it is not purely minor," Kirschner explained. "This makes it seem paradoxical: The music is associated with joyful, festive occasions where everyone dances, and yet it has that subtle bittersweetness to it. You can hear both pain and happiness in the pieces, and the effect is almost mystical."

Kirschner experienced that quality some years ago when he attended a klezmer music concert, and found it evoked childhood memories of hearing elderly men at his synagogue share old songs with one another. Several years later, looking for another kind of musical opportunity after ending his association with a local symphony orchestra, he began sitting in with klezmer musicians at a local community center. Kirschner eventually met other musicians interested in performing regularly as a group, and so The Boston Kleztet was born.

The band's line-up is as adaptable as its repertoire. Sometimes, Kirschner and his wife, who plays piano and accordion, perform with a clarinetist as a trio (they appeared on campus last month as part of the Music Department's "Music at Tea-Time" series). For larger-scale shows and functions, the group expands to include a vocalist and performers on piano, percussion, string bass, trombone and banjo, mandolin or guitar.

"The festivals and street fairs are the best: You see so many people getting up to dance, which is what it's all about," Kirschner said. "But doing shows at nursing homes is also very fulfilling, because the music often holds a lot of meaning for the people there."

Like Kirschner and his wife, who is an English teacher, the other band members have careers - two are psychiatrists, for example, one is a department head at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, another a computer professional - and no one envisions the group as a full-time enterprise. But they are preparing to record a CD album this summer, Kirschner says, and some members are having a try at composing their own tunes.

In fact, Kirschner has taken to the music enough so that when he attends academic conferences or functions in other cities, he seeks out local klezmorim - and is usually successful.

"People are trying to reconnect with their heritage, and that's why I think you're seeing a surge of interest in ethnic food and music," said Kirschner of klezmer's popularity. "But music provides the deeper connection."

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