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On the road with the London Klezmer Quartet

Features - Classical Music | Chamber | World

On the road with the London Klezmer Quartet

by Bronwen Whyatt on February 24, 2017 (February 24, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Chamber | World | Comment Now
The group is currently touring Australia. The mode of transport might have changed but the spirit remains the same.

“A band arrives at dawn at the railway station in a small middle-European country town for a 24-hour sojourn. The musicians find their way around, get to know the locals and lead a rowdy session at the local tavern, before exhaustion sets in as they see in the new day.”

This is the premise of the London Klezmer Quartet’s fourth album, To the Tavern and it bears more than coincidental resemblance to the tour they have currently embarked on. I spoke with Ilana Cravitz (violin) and Susi Evans (clarinet) about the joys and challenges of mounting their fifth tour to Australia in as many years.

London Klezmer Quartet. Photo © Savannah Photographic.

Walking between towns may have been the way a Klezmer group toured through Europe in the past, but now it is more a case of red-eye flights to New Zealand. As one of their friends aptly put it, “If you devote your life to music, you devote your life to tarmac.”

Finding their way around is not such a problem, with the well-worn international world music circuit providing a pre-set platform. They have played a number of festivals in Australia including Port Fairy, National and Illawarra Folk Festivals. One thing they observed and have incorporated into their concerts is the ‘banter’ with the audience. “At festivals many bands use this to both make their music more accessible, but also to build their relationship with their audience.” They have found their audience wants to hear about the origins of Klezmer music and the individual stories that inspire their repertoire.

In their tours to date, they have also used their rich network of contacts to play a wide variety of venues from synagogues to smaller commercial venues such as Camelot Lounge in Sydney, Lizotte’s in Newcastle and intimate house concerts.

The inspiration for their current album was drawn from a short story entitled Konrad's Bukovina Khosidl, shared with them by Peter Justin Newall while they were on a previous tour in Sydney. In it, the musician walks out of the forest, into the town at dawn. Ilana said, “it is not so different walking from the wings onto stage as the lights go up and meeting our audience for the first time.”  So what is it about this moment? Ilana said this nervous anticipation seems to contain two questions: will there be an audience? And if so, will they dance? These questions are even more relevant when finding their feet in a new country.

This time they successfully added New Zealand to their itinerary. Where usually they might gauge pre-bookings through online ticketing, they were ‘flying in blind’ and had to trust that people would come. They know from experience that there is always a tentative first time that paves the way for future visits but once there, they were assured by the locals “no-one comes to New Zealand just once.”

Performing in Adelaide is also a new experience for this tour. Just as Konrad’s character muses about the wonder of catching a tune for the first time, this unique moment never to be repeated, the London Klezmer Quartet savour coming to a new city for the first time. What will the experience hold? “It can be a fine balance between challenging the audience with a new experience, and being asked to come again,” Ilana said.

London Klezmer Quartet. Photo © John Harris

In addition to adding venues in a new Australian state, new venues are added in old stomping grounds, this time Kyneton in Victoria. This opportunity came about when an audience member heard them playing at a festival and wanted them to come and play in his town. There seems to be a kind of serendipity operating when the host already has experience staging different acts in the town. Getting to know the locals, becomes much easier when they are introduced by an insider.

Formed in 2009 with Carol Isaacs (accordion), the London Klezmer Quartet take ‘getting to know the locals’ seriously. For their 2012 tour, they needed to engage a bass player in Australia and interviewed Indra Buraczewska (double bass and vocals) over Skype. They put aside two days to rehearse when they arrived, expecting to need all of this time with their new recruit. In two hours they’d played through the set list and went off to have lunch. Such synergy is rare and they appreciate the rich musical and personal experience Indra brings to the quartet. Her parents were refugees from Latvia and settled in Melbourne so she grew up with frequent nods to poignancy of life, her mother saying: “When it’s bad, it’s bad. When it’s good, it’s bad, because something bad is going to happen.”

Indra has since relocated to Europe, so it is now their strong relationships with their audience that keep them coming back to Australia. “We have toured in many different places, but I feel that the Australian audience is somehow extra appreciative and pleased that we make the journey. This seems unique compared with other places we’ve been,said Susi.

Many loyal followers host smaller house concerts, enthusiastic about the quartet’s energetic and passionate performances. Spontaneous offers of hospitality flow freely when the group stay open to receiving down-to-earth and friendly offers of accommodation. Hosts are not happy to be outdone and after over-hearing arrangements being made, will often trump the offer with weekenders on the coast or mountains or offers to stay ‘next time’. This all goes to build confidence that tours can continue into the future. There may be slightly more certainty than the lifestyle of travelling minstrels of Europe’s past after all.

But it is the music that the audience come for, sorrow and the celebration, the soulful, languishing laments signalling a threshold leading into high energy dances. The personal sounds of the sighs and the laughs characteristic of the human voice. “We bridge a gap in the Klezmer world between youthful, high energy bands that focus on the party element of the music and the lower key groups that take a more classical approach,” Ilana said. “We take the happy with the sad, the life of a minority, Eastern European Jewish community and reflect this in our repertoire.” The doubling of melodies, sometimes between clarinet and violin, and sometimes with accordion are also features of this music and much of the repertoire explores minor modes.

So for a window into the life of a touring musician, I asked these experienced campaigners whether they have any tips for young musicians considering international touring? Their advice: be open to opportunities that come at the right place at the right time. Choose venues and locations where you are likely to be well received. Don’t be afraid of approaching venues, most often they’ll say yes. Communicate with your audience throughout the concert and beyond – set up an email list and keep your fans updated with your latest news.

From the humble beginnings of a tour organised by an enthusiastic fan in 2012, to playing and filling the 300 seat Blue Mountains Theatre and sell-out shows at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon, it seems that people all over Australia want to welcome the music and the London Klezmer Quartet into their hearts and homes, one host saying, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to make yourself totally at home in my house.” It might be a matter of schmoozing with the band while you still can – one day the size of their venues might not allow for it!


The London Klezmer Quartet is currently touring in Victoria and South Australia until March 5.

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