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The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival returns with the theme "Jews in America" 

Since 2004, the annual Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival has taken varied cultural approaches: Eastern European, Sephardic, religious holidays, klezmer and Israeli. Aron Zelkowicz, a cellist and Mount Lebanon native, hatched the PJMF idea while subbing for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

"I wanted people to be aware of Jewish-themed works in the concert repertoire, [but] to present them in an intelligent, thematic forum," Zelkowicz says. "People lump all Jewish music together, but there are so many aspects and so much variety."

This year, the theme is "Jews in America." Though Zelkowicz keeps the agenda classically oriented, for crossover appeal he's recruited an avant-klezmer hero and a folk legend.

The initial concert, Tue., June 2, at Squirrel Hill's Jewish Community Center, will feature clarinetist David Krakauer of Klezmer Madness!, and formerly of the Klezmatics and Tzadik Records. Krakauer will debut a concerto by composer Ofer Ben-Amots. "It's a great vehicle for [Krakauer's] virtuosity and spirit, as he emotes shouts and cries," says Zelkowicz.

Krakauer will also join a string ensemble recruited from the symphony and the Pittsburgh Opera's ranks to perform "Der Gasn Nigun" (The Street Tune) and the traditional "Khosn Kallah Mazel Tov" (Wedding Dance), arranged by Duquesne University professor David Cutler. The final flourish features excerpts from powerhouse American composer Ernest Bloch's Jewish Cycle. Bloch, Zelkowicz says, "uses techniques like quarter-tones and ornaments to evoke the cantorial style, or guttural inflections -- like when the cantor's voice catches for a moment because his emotion is so great."

The middle concert is "Hebrew Melodies from the New World," staged at the South Hills' Temple Emanuel on June 7 and Oakland's Rodef Shalom Temple on June 8. It's a grab-bag of vocal and instrumental works by Jewish-American academic-based composers. But a concession to Zelkowicz's taste is the meditative "Tenebrae" by Argentina's Osvaldo Golijov, highlighting soprano Emily Albrink. Says Zelkowicz, "It's not very Jewish-sounding, but it's very spiritual, using letters of the Hebrew alphabet as part of a vocal melisma," in which syllables are stretched over a range of notes.

Listeners are most likely to be uplifted, however, by the return of blistering mandolin wizard Andy Statman, who has a huge fanbase in the bluegrass and jam-band scenes. Hopefully, his Trio will inspire as much fervor on June 15 at the JCC as they did five years agom when Statman appeared as part of the Calliope season.

"Statman, Krakauer and Bloch all touch on universal themes through Jewish music in the way that Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer did in literature," says Zelkowicz. "So this festival is for music lovers who respond to dance and spirit, as well as quite a bit of top-notch playing."

For concert details, visit www.pjmf.net.

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