Svigals and Geissendoerfer

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendorfer perform Feb. 18 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa.

Fiddler Alicia Svigals is a klezmer luminary. A founder and 17-year member of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, Svigals will be joined by pianist/composer Uli Geissendorfer for a performance of their Beregovski Suite on Monday, Feb. 18, presented by the Napa Center for Thought and Culture at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa.

On the phone from New York City last month, Svigals talked about her musical journey, and about her adaptation with Geissendorfer of the huge archive of Yiddish music unearthed by early 20th century Soviet musicologist Moshe Beregovski.

“My grandfather was an accomplished pianist,” Svigals said. “He went into popular music and he was Judy Garland’s accompanist for a time. He was on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows and played piano for silent movies right here where I live now.”

“A cousin twice removed or something was a klezmer trumpeter and played in (famed klezmer clarinetist) Naftule Brandwein’s band when he was a teenager. He ended up having a wedding band and played my cousin’s wedding, so I had some music and also klezmer in the family.”

Svigals began playing violin at age 5. “I took to it, and here I am,” she said, “I didn’t go to medical school. I was classically trained, but then when I was a teenager I started getting into other kinds of music — Irish fiddle music and old-timey music and then eventually I found my way to klezmer music.”

She said that her parents, instead of sending her on a more traditional Jewish path through Hebrew school, decided to give her a Yiddish education. “They sent me to a Workmen’s Circle school, an Arbeter Ring, in New York City, where we learned Yiddish and secular socialist Jewish Yiddishism.”

As a teenager, Svigals began to experience prominent klezmer musicians in New York City. “I was there at the beginning of the klezmer revival,” she said, “and I was very taken by the music. It was like the Yiddish folk songs I was learning, but in a virtuosic instrumental form.”

“And then when I graduated college (Brown University) and I was answering music ads in the Village Voice, somebody placed an ad to form a klezmer band, and I answered it, and the band became the Klezmatics. And I kinda learned while I earned.”

Svigals went on to a successful career as both a Klezmatic and as a musician collaborating with a who’s who of artists including Itzhak Perlman, Tony Kushner, Alan Ginsburg, the Kronos Quartet, Herb Alpert, Marvin Hamlisch, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Cale and many others.

The Beregovski Suite

In the 1930s, a Ukrainian scholar named Moshe Beregovski was traveling through the Soviet Union chronicling and recording thousands of Jewish folk songs and klezmer dance tunes. Like Alan Lomax in America, Beregovski was the principal collector of indigenous folk music in his home country.

It was thought for decades that Beregovski’s recordings were lost in the Holocaust, but in the 1990s the recordings were found in an archive in Kiev. For nearly two decades, Svigals and jazz pianist/composer Uri Geissendoerfer have been adapting some of the preserved Beregovski archive for violin and piano.

“When it started, it was in the Pleistocene,” Svigals said. “I was pregnant and on bedrest, and I had nothing to do. So I spent those months poring over a volume of Beregovski’s transcriptions of the field recordings he made, and they only transcribed melodies. So, I spent all this time harmonizing them and learning them and arranging them.”

“Over the course of several years I found myself involved in a project with Uli, where we started out performing them kind of straight-ahead, traditional, or that was the original intent. Very quickly, it morphed into something more involved, where we started using the melodies as a basis for more contemporary kinds of improvisation.

“Uli, as a jazz pianist, brought a wider harmonic palette to the songs, and we found that the melodies are so embedded that they feel like they’re our melodies, and we’re putting our imprint on them.”

Their Beregovski Suite CD was released three weeks ago on the CD Baby label.

Monday, Feb. 18, 7 p.m. $30-$55. Congregation Beth Shalom, 1455 Elm St., Napa. 707-883-0799. NCTCNapa.org.

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David Kerns is a Napa-based novelist and freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.