It was almost three weeks ago that the encroaching fear which has since paralzed most of this city threatened to turn a concert by the Vienna Yiddish Duo at the Austrian Cultural Forum into a very sad, lonely Purim party. While not every ticketholder to the sold-out show was there, a robust crowd turned out and were rewarded for their bravery, as a staffer there put it.
In terms of the material on the program, it was fascinating to witness two Moldovan musicians playing it since so much of the klezmer we hear in New York has origins in Romania, or the badlands bordering Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. And yet, over and over again, pianist Roman Grinberg and clarinetist Sasha Danilov reaffirmed that delicious, chromatic connection shared by so much music from across the Jewish diaspora. Through lilting sher dances, a couple of boisterously bouncing freylachs, a plaintive doina and a hora that the two finally took to the rafters with a big crescendo, they reveled in those bracing minor keys.
But that wasn’t the case with everything on the bill. Grinberg has a gruff baritone, a flair for the theatrical and strong, emphatic chops on the piano. Over and over again, Danilov blew the crowd away with his reed-warping microtones, crystalline sustained lines, a couple of superhuman displays of circular breathing and rapidfire, perfectly precise volleys of notes that went faster and faster as Grinberg spurred him on. Several of those numbers – including a surprisingly un-schmaltzy, angst-fueled take of the ballad Mein Yiddishe Mama – reflected a warmly consonant classical influence, no surprise coming from a Vienna-based group.
There was plenty more lighthearted material on the bill as well. Grinberg seemed surprised that everybody in the crowd knew Tumbalalaika, which drew some chuckles. The duo’s fleet-fingered take of A Bisschen a Mazel (A Little Luck) was as wryly amusing as it could have been, along with a soaring take of the Yiddish theatre ballad I Love You Much Too Much, complete with a slashing Astor Piazzolla quote toward the end.
“This wasn’t on the program, but I think we should play it,” Grinberg told the crowd before launching into Abi Gezunt, another dark-tinged cabaret number whose cynical message is basically, “Well, at least you have your health.” The two got serious at the end, with a whirlwind, crescendoing, Moldovan take of the Klezmer Freylach and then a bittersweet, rather gorgeous ballad with a message of hope: “When you go over the bridge, never be afraid,” Grinberg reflected somberly.
The Austrian Cultural Forum’s schedule of performances has been shut down until further notice, pending the outcome of the coronavirus crisis.