Few things make violinist Alicia Svigals happier than when she hears people associate klezmer music with the fiddle.
While the stringed instrument dominated the klezmer genre — Jewish folk music that originated in eastern Europe — for hundreds of years in Europe, it was the clarinet that was associated with it in the U.S.
Svigals has spent her entire career bringing the fiddle back into prominence, but more recently, she’s also been introducing audiences to some of the world’s oldest-known klezmer songs.
“It’s music of high emotion,” says the musician, who will perform versions of these classic songs, which appear on her newest album "Beregovski Suite,” at Agudath Sholom Synagogue this Saturday.
“It's music that channels ecstasy and sorrow.”
Considered one of the world’s foremost klezmer fiddlers, Svigals, who started playing violin at the age of 5, found the genre as a teenager in the 1970s.
“The first time I heard it, it combined Yiddish song and Jewish music … with this virtuosic, instrumental sound, which appealed to me as a musician,” says Svigals, a founding member of the world-renowned klezmer band The Klezmatics. “It put those two things in a way which was very electrifying to me.”
Svigals, who has collaborated with artists including Itzhak Perlman and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and appeared on such programs as “The Late Show with David Letterman” and PBS's “Great Performances,” made waves with her debut album “Fidl” in 1997.
Despite the success, it took Svigals 20 years to release her second album, "Beregovski Suite,” a collection of songs that re-imagine the work of Ukrainian ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (also spelled Beregovski and Beregovskii).
“I'm really a perfectionist,” says Svigals, admitting tracks were actually recorded more than seven years ago. “I kept putting it away and going ‘I want to fix this.’”
Beregovsky headed the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, a department of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, and traveled the country recording hundreds of songs and documenting their history from 1929 to 1947, according to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,
“He took it upon himself to preserve an entire music culture, which, amazingly, a few years before, was almost entirely destroyed,” says Svigals. “And probably all, if not almost all, of those musicians died in the Holocaust.”
The recordings were thought to be lost to history after Beregovsky was jailed and his work confiscated in 1950 — the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge in the Soviet Union — but the collection was rediscovered in the 1990s, a 2018 New Yorker article notes.
Beregovsky’s transcriptions had begun being published in portions about a decade before the recordings were found, and Svigals had been using them since her early days in klezmer.
Meeting Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Uli Geisendoerfer in 2007 led her down a new direction and she decided to put her own spin on the Beregovsky recordings.
“The transcriptions [and recordings] are only melodies,” says Svigals. “So what we’re missing is the band, the rhythms, the harmonies.”
Geisendoerfer, who also will perform at the show in Lynchburg, “expands the harmonic vocabulary a lot,” says Svigals, “and we incorporate improvisation into how we arrange these melodies.”
“We’ve poured our hearts and souls into these melodies and really made it our own,” she adds.
Although Svigals never got to meet Beregovsky, who died in 1961, she says she feels a kinship to him and his mission, which was similar to her own in many ways.
“He must have loved that music,” she says. “He was so devoted to it, and I imagine he felt the magic in it in the same way that I do.”