CD Reviews

YALE STROM: Shimmering Lights

Yale Strom is a maelstrom of intellectual and creative energy. Besides being the Artist in Residence for Jewish Studies at San Diego State, Strom has distinguished himself as the ethnographer who documented the life and music of Eastern Europe’s Jews during the last days of the Soviet Union (1). He is also a composer, author, and documentarian. If that weren’t enough, Strom is also the bandleader of a terrific band, Hot Pstromi, which performs klezmer, the traditional music of Eastern European Jews.

Strom now offers us Shimmering Lights: Hanukkah Music, a collection of seasonal tunes that is sure to inspire and delight as folks light the candles of the menorah and share latkes.

Having worked tirelessly to document klezmer behind the Iron Curtain, making sure to catch every nuance and inflection, you might think that Strom would be a stickler as a traditionalist. But he recognizes that the music he was documenting had been constantly formed and influenced over generations. So for Strom these traditional klezmer and Sephardic songs serve not as museum pieces, but as starting points for creativity. For almost all of these tunes he adds additional music and arranged sections. Strom even terms the consort that performed these tunes “broken,” as it breaks with the tradition of assembling instruments of the same family to form an ensemble.

What the five-string banjo is to bluegrass music, the clarinet is to klezmer. It is not included on this recording. Rather, Strom adds an electric guitar and sometimes evokes a Middle Eastern feel with an oud. A traditional children’s song is given a swing interpretation. Strom composed a new tone poem, my favorite selection of the disk; he and Elizabeth Schwartz add a new Hanukkah song, “The Fool Over Yonder.”

Strom displays his knowledge and talent for klezmer violin from the very first sigh to the last laugh. He also assembled a crew of top-notch musicians for this project: Bassist Jeff Pekarek, who also provided the rich orchestrations; guitarist Fred Benedetti; jazz violinist Sara Caswell; cellist Alexander Greenbaum; violist David Wallace; and Amos Hoffman on oud and electric guitar. Singing all these songs is Elizabeth Schwartz; the mezzo soprano is a gift from God.

A lot of care was taken in recording this disk, which was performed by Dan Abernathy at Studio West, as well as the mastering, performed by Tripp Sprague. The timbres of all the instruments ring true. Shimmering Lights is over 70 minutes long, earning it seven bonus points.

As I said above, Shimmering Lights will bring much joy to those celebrating Hanukkah. But with its paean to tradition, family, peace, and good food, it is actually more universal. This music is for everyone. It is music for nonbelievers, for those who celebrate a winter solstice or Mawlid; and it is music for those whose Advent anticipates a babe in a manger.

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort performs the music on this CD at SDSU on December 4, 7pm, in Smith Recital Hall.

1. As Hitler, Stalin, and modernity had decimated the Jews of that part of the world, much of what we know of these people would have been lost without Strom’s work.

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