Gloucester violinist helps keep the sound of Yiddish music alive

Klezmer violinist Abigale Reisman recently received a grant from Club Passim’s music fund. Photo: Bryce Vickmark

by Shelley A. Sackett

Abigale Reisman was a 19-year-old undergraduate at The Manhattan School of Music when she fell in love. The classical violin performance major was listening to a lot of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, but something was missing. She yearned for the Jewish music she grew up with in synagogue and Jewish day school, and the special place it had in her heart.

A friend suggested she check out a genre of music she had never heard of – klezmer – and for Reisman, it was obsession at first listen. Luckily, she lived in New York City, home to some of the leading klezmorim. She booked a private lesson with violinist Alicia Svigals (co-founder of the Grammy-winning band The Klezmatics), and attended KlezKamp – a yearly Klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival – in the Catskills.

“It was a beautiful introduction to the klezmer world and I never left,” Reisman said from her Gloucester home.

Almost 15 years later, the Atlanta native is a violinist, composer, and educator. She wears many musical hats, from klezmer and classical to experimental and pop. She is a cofounder of Thread Ensemble, an experimental trio that creates music out of interactions with their audiences; a member of Tredici Bacci, which was featured in Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists You Need to Know: November 2016;” and a composer, arranger, and performer in the International Jewish Music Festival award-winning band, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band.

Although Reisman doesn’t have a favorite musical genre (“I love it all in different ways”), she plans to focus her energy on recording a series of videos that explore the treasures of the Jewish violin, thanks to a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund.

Her purpose is two-fold: To create and release her own interpretation of the music she loves so dearly, and to reveal to the average Jewish music listener the complex history of the violin in East European Jewish music.

“The fidl [Yiddish for violin] truly mimics the human voice, especially the cantorial sound,” Reisman said. “It speaks in Yiddish sentences and gestures. It plays pieces full of bubbling trills, moans, slides, and specifically Jewish phrasing.”

The grant money will ensure the sound and video qualities of her recordings will capture these subtleties.

Since 2008, the Iguana Music Fund has awarded gifts annually to musicians for career building projects and for those that provide community service through music. Abby Altman, Club Passim manager, said Reisman is known for being part of great ensembles. Her application stood out because it focused on her as a solo artist working in a genre she is passionate about.

“We’re excited to see what she creates when she is in complete control of the material,” Altman said.

Reisman’s target audience for her videos is both the casual Jewish music listener and the next generation of serious klezmer violinists. Although most contemporary audiences think of the clarinet as klezmer’s dominant melodic instrument, for hundreds of years the violin was the epicenter of Eastern European shtetl music. Reisman wants to introduce this fidl-centric music to those whose only exposure has been to the 20th century jazz-influenced clarinet-centric version of klezmer.

She also wants to provide serious klezmer violinists with 21st century videos that contain both archival repertoires and clear views of the technical aspects of playing klezmer. Reisman recalled she didn’t know where to turn to when she started to play klezmer fidl. The only archival recordings she found were scratchy and difficult to decipher. She wants her videos to make it easier for violinists to get an immediate sense of the music they could play. “I also want to lure them into listening to the archival recordings,” she said.

Ashkenazi Jewish culture has played a large part in Reisman’s life since she was a child. “It creates a beautiful community and gives me a familiar access point to spirituality, morality, and kindness,” she said. She remembers feeling especially connected to Judaism as a young Jewish day school student. “I liked following rules and they had a lot of rules,” she said with a chuckle.

COVID-19 has been hard for her and her musician husband, Charles Clements. Although Reisman lost a lot of summer gigs (weddings, outdoor festivals, etc.), she has been able to teach and perform virtually and has helped create an online global klezmer community.

She’s also been able to slow down and think about the future of her career and the important, constructive role artists play in safeguarding our humanity. “This is why I’ve finally been able to conceive of the start of this project that has been in the back of my mind for so many years,” she said.

To learn more and listen to Abigale Reisman’s music, visit abigalereisman.com.

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