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Sounds From the Past

Legendary flutist Adrianne Greenbaum talks about the traditional klezmer music of today



Celebrating an ancient form of music, Greenbaum performs all over the world, and was most recently in Scotland.

Seated in the living room of her Fairfield home, surrounded by musical instruments, the legendary flutist Adrianne Greenbaum talks in a syncopated rhythm. She begins a sentence calmly, pausing for several seconds midway, before interrupting the silence with some exclamation or with a trill from her vintage black, ivory-headed wooden flute.

Introducing a tune of tartan origin, she blows into the flute, playing serenely and beautifully for a few seconds. Then she exclaims, “Oy,” as she strikes a dead note, caused not by a mistake in fingering but by an excess of moisture in the body of the flute.

“That’s an uh-oh moment,” says Greenbaum. Attired in a velvet dress, black tights and a flamboyant bucket hat, she is due to leave shortly for a gig in Brooklyn. The problematic flute—an instrument so beloved that she “brazenly took it on tour without a backup” recently—had just underscored the need for a more modern replacement.

Greenbaum, however, opts for a more authentic sound than modern flutes afford. Klezmer, the musical style for which she is most celebrated, is of a different era. 

Rooted in Yiddish-speaking communities in Eastern Europe, klezmer is a traditional celebratory folk music that was often performed at weddings on violin, tsimbl, and flute by traveling players known as klezmorim. If you know the musical Fiddler on the Roof, you are familiar with sounds possessing klezmer-like elements.  

Early in the 20th century, klezmer crossed the Atlantic, along with the large number of European Jews who resettled in the U.S. “When it came to America, klezmer was more and more influenced by American pop culture and jazz. Violins, tsimbls and flutes got pushed out by brass instruments, drum kits and pianos,” says Peter Rushefsky, executive director of New York City’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Joining Rushefsky to discuss klezmer is Michael Alpert, a klezmer singer, multi-instrumentalist and the recipient of a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts award. Both men are bandmates of Greenbaum’s. 

“Instruments like clarinet and trombone were louder than flute. They recorded better,” Alpert explains. “There was also an era in Europe and during immigration to the States that weddings were happening in catering halls, and those instruments filled the space better.”

In conjunction with an overall klezmer revival in the 1970s spurred by Alpert and other young performers, the klezmer flute began to make a comeback. “Since then there’s been an awful lot that’s been developed, discovered, innovated upon. It’s long past the stage where it’s a museum piece,” says Alpert, speaking of the klezmer phenomenon.

Greenbaum came to the music on the heels of the revival. She learned of the genre in the 1990s from a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she continues to teach. Building on a lifetime of musicianship—including harpsichord and flute study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and 37 years as principal flutist with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra—Greenbaum made a seamless transition to klezmer.

“What Adrianne brought to the table was this incredible technique and virtuosity,” Rushefsky says. “She’s been the world’s leading klezmer flute player for the last 20 years or so.”

Greenbaum’s style is unique because of a rigorous adherence to the past that extends far beyond merely her choice of equipment. By mixing Baroque influences with early incarnations of klezmer, Greenbaum has made music that, in Alpert’s words, “has a life of its own.”

Rushefsky adds, “When Adrianne started getting interested it was part of this movement to get back to earlier recordings. But it’s not like we’re just reproducing old music. We’re trying to embody an aesthetic sensibility.”

In her Fairfield living room, Greenbaum was still struggling to repair her favorite flute—practically an appendage—while gradually acknowledging that she’d likely be playing a different, more reliable instrument that evening in Brooklyn. As she worked on the repair, she encapsulated her performance philosophy.

“I don’t want to play like I’m a modern flutist,” Greenbaum says, pausing before she adds, “I want to play like a flutist in the Baroque or early klezmer period though I’m playing a modern flute.”

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