Lost Yiddish Gershwin Piano Roll Discovered

A new CD entitled Klezmerola, due for release December 26, 2007, makes available for the first time Jewish recordings from a long-neglected source: Old piano rolls. Included is the only known Jewish roll by George Gershwin, recorded in 1916 and long thought lost.

The other artists represented are all unknown, but one rediscovery is already creating a stir in the Klezmer world: Samuel A. Perlstein, born in Russia in 1884. He managed a piano roll company in New York in the 1920s, and took the opportunity to record a number of Klezmer tunes as well as his own Jewish-themed compositions. He later went on to Hollywood and wrote film music but never forgot his roots. His "Hebrew Rhapsodie No. 1", which he considered his magnum opus, was never performed in his lifetime - except for his solo piano roll version.

"The word "Klezmerola" denotes a Jewish pianola, or player piano," explains the CD's creator, Bob Berkman. "There never was such a thing, but if there were it would have been the perfect instrument to use for Perlstein's music. What you hear on the CD is actually a vintage Lakeside upright player, typical of the period."

What is not typical is how alive the rolls sound. The music has shape and color, achieved through a startling range of dynamics complete with well-placed accents and subtle pedaling. "That's my doing, my interpretation," says Berkman. "I'm a pianolist - someone who knows how to play the player piano."

Doesn't the player piano play itself? "No, that's a misconception," Berkman replies. "It only plays the notes. It's up to the pianolist to interpret the roll by subtly controlling what the piano is doing. You can make music, or you can make noise."

Berkman ought to know. Except for a two-year hiatus in New York City where he worked with Itzhak Perlman's management, he has spent the last 32 years working for the world's last surviving piano roll company, QRS of Buffalo, NY. His credits include rolls commissioned for the films Ragtime, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and Reds, the last in cooperation with composer Stephen Sondheim; appearances on NPR, the BBC and CBS Sunday Morning; and the world pianola premier of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf.

"Ethnic music on rolls has been generally ignored by collectors, and the Jewish rolls are particularly scarce," says Berkman. "It's taken years, and lots of helpful collectors, to gather enough surviving material for a CD, but now it's ready to be shared and I think people will be surprised at how much fun this stuff is."

To spread the word, Berkman tours with a type of portable player piano device and offers a lively program of Jewish music, often combining forces with a vocalist. "I've done other roll programs too, jazz history, ragtime, things a bit more mainstream," he says, "but the Jewish rolls are very special to me, very satisfying. They combine so many things that I'm about."

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Bob Berkman

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