Oles Cheresko

Rant ‘N’ Roll: Svigals, Sosin, & The Klezmatics

On May 24, at the AMT Theater on West 45th Street in Manhattan, a restoration of a 1924 German silent film by HK Breslauer, from the book by Hugo Bettauer, The City Without Jews (Die Stadt ohne Juden), will be shown with live musical accompaniment from violinist Alicia Svigals of The Klezmatics and pianist Donald Sosin. The duo wrote a new score and will be traveling around the world performing at screenings of the movie. It’s an eerily prescient film about persecution without restraint, in which the fictional Austrian city of Utopia expels all Jews from its borders. The film itself was thought to be destroyed by the ravages of time but a copy miraculously turned up in a French flea market eight years ago. 

Now considered a masterpiece, this distorted dystopian vision is, sadly, all too relevant today.  The movie was originally made two years after the book came out in 1922, and well over a decade before the events that it portrays came horribly to life in Hitler’s Germany.  

The story is now all-too-familiar. An anti-Semitic law is passed by Utopia’s “National Assembly” forcing all Jews to leave the country. At first the citizenry applauds the odious law but the resulting collapse of economics and culture has the National Assembly reconsidering the law. Now they want to invite the Jews back. A deeply disturbing yet tragic-comic film, influenced stylistically by German Expressionism, it actually contains a stinging rebuke of Nazism.  Hitler’s rise had started in 1919. By 1933, the movie was banned. 

Violinist-composer Alicia Svigals was swinging like mad in the Grammy-winning Klezmatics. Famed classical violinist Itzhak Perlman has recorded her compositions since, and she’s worked with The Kronos Quartet, playwright Tony Kushner, poet Allen Ginsburg and two dudes from Led Zeppelin: Plant and Page. Her 1996 Fidl album is worth seeking out, and her current one, Beregovski Suite: Klezmer Reimagined, is a duo project with jazz piano player Uli Geissendoerfer that reconstructs Jewish music from Ukraine. (Klezmer, it should be noted, is a wildly joyous European instrumental dance genre cross-pollinating jazz, folk, swing, punk, fusion, and worldbeat. The Klezmatics, be it known, rock big-time.)

Pianist-composer Donald Sosin, of upstate New York, has been creating and performing music for silent films his whole career, winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Denver Silent Film Festival. He also won for “Best Original Film Score” at the 2022 Mystic Film Festival in Connecticut. Sosin has worked with a wide amalgam of theater, cinema, dance, music, and comedy names, including Isabella Rossellini, Dick Hyman, Cy Coleman, Mikhael Baryshnikov, Mary Travers (Peter, Paul & Mary), and Howie Mandel. He is married to vocalist-percussionist Joanna Seaton whom he often performs with. 

After the Manhattan screening, Svigals and Sosin will perform with the movie in Poland, Massachusetts, Montreal, Turkey, Denver, Brooklyn (October 1), Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, Toronto, Holland, Paris, Belgium, and Munich.

Those who want to investigate just how wondrous Klezmer music is should latch to any of the 13 Klezmatics albums including Rhythm and Jews (1990), Jews With Horns (1995), Possessed (1997), The Well (1998), Rise Up! (2003), Wonder Wheel (2006), Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah (2006), Live At Town Hall (2011), and Apikorsim (2016).