In this project, eleven extraordinarily accomplished musicians—all of whom happen to be women—convene in Philadelphia from across North America for a world premiere, one-time-only concert of new Klezmer music. These women, along with production designer and puppeteer Jenny Romaine, take center stage, sharing their spectacular and imaginative visions and voices, and breathing new life into a centuries-old tradition.
The brainchild of fourth generation klezmer musician and concert artistic director Susan Hoffman Watts, Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer was created from the world-renowned trumpeter’s concern for the future of her art and appreciation of every individual involved. After all, Watts represents the youngest generation of an important klezmer dynasty reaching back to the Jewish Ukraine of the 19th century, beginning with her great-grandfather, bandleader, composer, and cornet-player, Joseph Hoffman. For decades, the Hoffman family played for Philadelphia-area Jewish weddings and parties, and their music became part of a distinctly Philadelphia klezmer repertoire. Watts is the sole living purveyor of the family’s traditional klezmer-style trumpet sounds, which continue to electrify audiences.
“’Soul Songs’ is about the old and new intertwined,” says Watts, a 2015 Pew Fellow. “It is future provoking, intuitive, grass roots. ‘Soul Songs’ is about these women’s musical journeys, their artistry and their discernment to use the force of adversity to their gain. It is the klezmer of today and a prelude to future possibilities for the art and the communities it nurtures. Klezmer is the soul music of Jews of Eastern European heritage. Not religious, Klezmer is celebratory. It’s the soundtrack to important moments in our lives.”
The concert featured new compositions, written and performed by three generations of women who bring contemporary meaning to this traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music form. Watts assembled a stellar group of “Inspiring Women of Klezmer,” including: violinists Alicia Svigals, Cookie Segelstein, and Deborah Strauss; pianist Marilyn Lerner; clarinetists Zoe Christiansen and Ilene Stahl; trombonist Rachel Lemisch; accordionist Lauren Brody; flute player Adrianne Greenbaum; and bassist Joanna Sternberg.
Each artist’s work contributed a distinct approach to innovating within the recognizable framework of the centuries-old genre, connecting folk elements of Baroque music to klezmer, integrating Northern Bulgarian music or using texts that reflect on female experience.
While in Philadelphia, the artists performed a concert, taught a master class, and participated in a panel discussion on how emergent klezmer is being shaped. The discussion was led by Dr. Emily Socolov.
Working with Watts to fully realize her vision of “Soul Songs” as a true stage spectacle was Jenny Romaine, the highly acclaimed New York-based performer, director, and puppeteer, who is the music director of the OBIE/Bessie Award winning free outdoor traveling circus, Circus Amok.
“For the Philadelphia Folklore Project, this initiative is an investment in the visionary brilliance of Susan Watts,” says executive director Selina Morales. “The Folklore Project has presented Susan Watts and her mother, Elaine Hoffman Watts, in concert several times over the years. We even produced a documentary, Eatala: A Life in Klezmer, about Elaine—and featuring Susan. For decades we’ve witnessed Susan’s virtuosic repertoire, and when we sat down and asked her what she imagines in her musical future, this project began to fall into place. Our work here is supporting Susan as she develops and manifests her vision for the innovative future of klezmer music, as composed and played by women.”