Bob Berkman’s discoveries regarding Jewish music on piano rolls are providing some of the most intriguing and original klezmer performances now before the public. This incredibly rare material illuminates a forgotten but delightful corner of Yiddish culture in America, and there is universal agreement that Bob is the artist best qualified to present it. In 1975 he was hired by QRS in Buffalo, the world’s last piano roll manufacturer, where he produced innumerable reissues of historic roll recordings and maintained a constant flow of new recordings for over thirty years. 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 premiere of Prokofiev’s beloved Peter And The Wolf.
All the while, Bob has steadily earned an international reputation as a master Pianolist, revealing to delighted listeners the expressive capabilities of the Pianola and showcasing its remarkably varied repertoire. His 1912 “push-up” Pianola effectively turns any piano into a player piano, enabling him to entertain on concert stages across the continent. He is increasingly in demand as a speaker and performer in lively programs ranging from the Classics to Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll to the avant-garde; but it is his unique and deeply personal work with Jewish rolls that is bringing him to the attention of klezmer fans worldwide. Important rediscoveries include George Gershwin’s only Jewish roll and the haunting A Gitte Nacht by the obscure Samuel Perlstein. Of Bob’s debut at KlezKamp several years ago, director Henry Sapoznik wrote, “You were a major hit of the event, and many great musicians whom I had on staff were thunderstruck by the scope and depth of your work.”
Bob’s particular interest in the neglected area of ethnic rolls prompted him to establish the largest institutionally-held collection of such rolls at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, where he has taught and performed as a Visiting Scholar. This led to his participation in an international recording project conducted by the University of Kaunas featuring Lithuanian rolls. Bob has also developed text and exhibits for the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, and was engaged to demonstrate the Pianola for the museum’s video archive as well as for the American Musical Instrument Society. Klezmerola, Bob’s CD of rare Jewish rolls from his collection, has become something of an underground hit in klezmer circles and is regarded by noted tsimbl revivalist Pete Rushefsky as “a fabulous and important accomplishment that deepens our access to historical materials.” Bob was recently honored to perform for a standing-room-only crowd at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA.