Major Jewish-themed films reimagined in new cinematic concert

Click photo to download. Caption: Clarinetist David Krakauer. Credit: Courtesy David Krakauer.

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

Clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer’s new project takes listeners on a journey of personal discovery, while exploring the intersection of music and Jewish identity in the iconic movies of the last 50 years.

“The Big Picture,” Krakauer’s multimedia concert, opens Jan. 29 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and runs until Feb. 23. The klezmer/jazz/classical musician adds his contemporary style to beloved songs from 12 major films, such as “Funny Girl,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Radio Days,” and “The Pianist.” The music is accompanied by original projected visuals created by Light of Day and Cutting Room Films.  

“For the music part I’ve taken themes from iconic films with Jewish content and reimagined them with a band of world-class musicians,” Krakauer told JNS.org. “The album has become more special than I’d ever imagined. It brought me to a new emotional level, reminding me of the incredible resiliency of my great grandparents arriving from Eastern Europe with virtually nothing.” 

The musician said he never knew his great grandparents, but he learned their story from other family members, who told Krakauer that they were able to overcome poverty and anti-Semitism to succeed. His great grandfather was born in Poland and arrived in America at the end of the 19th century without much money, starting off his new life as an errand boy on New York City’s Lower East Side.

“[My great grandfather] was delivering parts to a place that made bed springs,” Krakauer said. “He was curious, so he watched what they were doing. The head of the company saw this and said to his employees, ‘Don’t let that dirty little Jew see what you’re doing.’ Instead of being insulted my great grandfather thought, ‘If they’re so secretive, maybe that’ll be a good business,’ and he ended up making a spring manufacturing business that my grandfather took over, and three of his sons went into the business.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Clarinetist David Krakauer. Credit: Courtesy David Krakauer.

Krakauer and producer Joseph Baldassare picked the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the launch of “The Big Picture” because it overlooks Ellis Island, the place made famous by immigrants like those from Krakauer’s family.

“My grandfather’s brother had a cold, so they wrapped him up in blankets so he wouldn’t be refused at Ellis Island,” Krakauer said. “There was a lot of fear, doubt, and uncertainty.”

According to Gabriel Sanders, director of public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Krakauer’s show is a natural extension of the museum’s recent forays into Jewish arts.

“We’ve devoted each of the last three summers to showcasing the work of contemporary Jewish filmmakers: Woody Allen in 2011, Mel Brooks in 2012, and Barbra Streisand this past year,” Sanders told JNS.org. “To have their work—to say nothing of more somber Holocaust-related films like ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Schindler’s List’—explored and reimagined in our theater seems a natural extension of our mission. That this exploration and reimagination will be done by a talent as titanic as Krakauer is, for us, nothing short of thrilling.”

“The Big Picture” reimagines familiar themes by film-music composers such as John Williams, Marvin Hamlisch, Randy Newman, Wojciech Kilar, and Vangelis, as well as melodies by Sidney Bechet, Sergei Prokofiev, Mel Brooks, Ralph Burns, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Jerry Bock that have appeared in popular films with Jewish content. The project explores the emotional relationship between music and movies and moves beyond the classical and klezmer genres with a modernist approach.

Krakauer’s team includes Rob Schwimmer on piano, Sara Caswell on violin, Mark Helias on double-bass, Sheryl Bailey on guitar, and John Hadfield on drums. To lend creative intrigue, New York graphics giants Light of Day and Cutting Room Films created original films for “The Big Picture.” The original visuals are a reaction to the show’s music, not clips from the films the music comes from, explained Krakauer. Instead of using the visual elements as a creative starting point, Krakauer’s music serves as a catalytic agent, embracing his adventurous and individual spirit of self-discovery.

“There’s that great scene from the beginning of [the 1990 movie] ‘Avalon’ where the patriarch of the family arrives [in America] on July 4, 1900, and he gets off the boat and there are fireworks, and of course he thinks they are for him,” he said. “It’s a poignant moment that I can relate to on a personal level.”

Born and raised in New York, Krakauer’s cultural influences include klezmer, classical, electronica, and jazz. He has shared the stage with a wide array of artists including Itzhak Perlman, the Klezmatics, Fred Wesley, Socalled, Eiko and Koma, and Leonard Slatkin, as well as the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Phoenix Symphony, and the Detroit Symphony.

“The bottom line is this is very expressive music,” Krakauer said. “When I came to klezmer music 25 years ago, I came from a background of classical music and jazz. I didn’t grow up with it. But when I heard the music I was immediately drawn to it and I felt that this is the Yiddish accent of my grandmother. That expression drew me to it.” 

Each film Krakauer picked for “The Big Picture” has a special Jewish connection, whether it is the director, actor, composer, or topics like war and persecution (“Sophie’s Choice,” “Life is Beautiful”) and Jewish tradition (“Fiddler on the Roof”). The concert features the master clarinetist Krakauer and his sextet navigating Jewish history by showcasing new musical arrangements of these familiar movie soundtracks. 

After spending more than a year on this project, Krakauer said he connected emotionally to his ancestors in a different way. When he listened to all the show’s pieces one after the other and heard how the progression moved along, the final product gave Krakauer a new perspective on Jewish history.

“It makes people, Jewish and non-Jewish, connect to this journey through cultural heritage,” he said. “It happens to be mine, but it is a universal story. Struggling, striving, getting from point A to point B.”

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Posted on December 22, 2013 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..