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Composer, klezmer fiddler Svigals to perform original score at Emory

Alicia Svigals, the world's leading klezmer fiddler, will perform her original score during a Sept. 7 screening of the 1918 silent film "The Yellow Ticket," which follows a young Jewish woman facing anti-Semitism in Russia. Photo by Chris Randle.

Award-winning composer and klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals performs her original score alongside the 1918 silent film “The Yellow Ticket" on Sept. 7 in the Emerson Concert Hall of Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Starring Pola Negri and created as anti-Soviet propaganda at the end of World War I, this rarely seen German silent film follows a young Jewish woman who is compelled by anti-Semitic restrictions to lead a double life in a St. Petersburg brothel while attempting to study medicine and save her father’s life.

Svigals, Schwartz Artist-in-Residence, is the world’s leading klezmer fiddler; a founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, which she co-directed for 17 years; and a composer who was selected to be a 2014 MacDowell Fellow.

She has collaborated with and composed for violinist Itzhak Perlman, the Kronos Quartet, playwrights Tony Kushner and Eve Ensler, the late poet Allen Ginsberg and many others.

We talked with Svigals in advance of her Emory performance to discuss klezmer music and her creative process.

You’re a lifelong violinist who studied ethnomusicology at Brown University. When and how did klezmer music enter your life? Was your passion for klezmer music reflected in your studies at Brown? 

When I was a teenager, I heard klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman and tsimbl player Zev Feldman in one of the first major klezmer revival concerts, and I was smitten. I had grown up learning Yiddish folk songs, which I loved, and here was a virtuosic instrumental cousin of that genre, made for the fiddle.  

I didn't hear any klezmer while at Brown but heard a lot about the revival from another student in the new ethnomusicology department, who was writing her master's thesis about it. When I graduated though, I answered an ad in the Village Voice placed by someone starting a klezmer band in New York — I joined and we eventually became the Klezmatics.

How would you describe klezmer to someone who may not be familiar with the form? 

Klezmer is music of passion, from euphoria to lamentation, and for me it's also evocative of the world of my ancestors, a lost world which I get to regain through music.  

You’ve done so many different types of compositions — for your bands, film, theater, etc. Is there a difference in your creative approach when writing music that lives on its own versus scoring a film or composing music for theater?

When I write music for theater or film, those works are my starting point and everything about the music is in their service, whether it's heightening emotions already there or suggesting a kind of counter-reading of the material. Writing music that stands on its own is sometimes harder because there's no starting point  — or easier because it just comes to me.

What led you to compose a new score for “The Yellow Ticket”?

It was originally a commission of a film curator at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, who knew about the film — which is very rare — and thought it would be wonderful to give it a score, since the original one is lost (if it ever existed).

“The Yellow Ticket” is remarkably progressive for its time. Do you find that its criticism of ethnic and religious discrimination is particularly resonant to today’s audiences?

Although the film depicts a long-gone place and time, the plight of an individual restricted and in danger because she is a woman, and because she belongs to a particular ethnic group, is a variation on troubles we are still awash in today. Maybe one day we'll be able to re-watch it and finally think "that could never happen now."

Alicia Svigals performs her original score for the 1918 silent film “The Yellow Ticket” Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. She is joined by pianist Marilyn Lerner and clarinetist Laura DeLuca.

This program is made possible by the support of the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Foundation Artist in Residence Program and is co-sponsored by Emory College’s Film and Media Studies Department and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.Tickets are $15 ($12 discount categories) and available from the Arts at Emory Box Office in person, by phone at 404-727-5050, or online at

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