Growing up Jewish in Philadelphia, Uri Caine, the genre-bending jazz pianist and composer, said he was “too cool for klezmer.” Although that Eastern European musical tradition surrounded him — his childhood friend, Hankus Netsky, became a klezmer authority — Caine preferred the exciting world of jazz.
But when his University of Pennsylvania composition teacher, George Rochberg, asked him to make a piano reduction of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Caine began to see klezmer as more far-reaching than he had realized.
“Especially when I was younger, I was coming from contemporary music and jazz,” Caine said by phone from Rome, where he was recently on tour. “To me, klezmer was bar mitzvah music. I was into Edgard Varèse. I wanted to write like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen.”
Klezmer is just one part of Caine’s fascinating take on the works of Mahler, a late-Romantic Austrian-Jewish composer whose complex harmonies — and complicated relationship with his religion — lend themselves to Caine’s imaginative, improvisatory treatment.
As one of the featured artists at this year’s celebrated Ojai Music Festival, which runs June 12-15, the pianist will be performing “Mahler Re-Imagined” with the Uri Caine Ensemble on the festival’s opening night. Caine’s transformative arrangements include highlighting the klezmer music in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony’s first movement funeral march. There’s also a klezmer band in Mahler’s First Symphony.
And this year will bring a first to the 68-year-old festival: Caine hopes a cantor will join the ensemble for some of the Mahler selections, including “The Drummer Boy” from the composer’s song collection, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”).
As of press time, however, Caine was still looking. “It’s not easy to find a cantor,” he said. But that contribution is an important part of “Mahler Re-Imagined” because a cantor inspired the composer. “He once heard what he thought was a great opera singer, who turned out to be a cantor,” Caine said. “They hung out, and he sang Jewish melodies, and then Mahler improvised in that style, but told the cantor, ‘I left that world.’ ”
Mahler converted to Christianity to become head of the Vienna State Opera, which Caine called a career move. “I don’t think he converted out of total enthusiasm,” he said. “He had all these contradictions in his life, including fascinating elements of Jewish music in his work. I remember watching Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, and the cantor was singing ‘El Male Rachamim,’ the prayer you say when burying somebody. It was exactly the way Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’ starts.”
Thomas W. Morris, artistic director of the festival, said he had been looking for an opportunity to bring Caine to Ojai. “This is a festival of music about music, so it seemed appropriate for Uri to join us,” Morris said.
Morris said he knew Caine’s work through his recordings, and just before he retired as chief administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra in 2004, he brought Caine’s string orchestra and piano version of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” to that city, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting.
“It’s a tour de force, because he improvises three or four more variations than Beethoven wrote,” Morris said. “Purists were probably offended, but it’s highly virtuosic, and there was a bit of a perverse thrill to program it.”
Caine said it’s not unusual for composers to reimagine or transform a piece of music into a different idiom. “One of the challenges of playing Mahler’s music is trying to get your head around some of the unexpected harmonies,” Caine said. “It’s a way to reference different types of music, because Mahler himself quotes klezmer, Bohemian folk music, and he was influenced by all the music he conducted.”
Pianist Jeremy Denk, music director of this year’s festival, is a longtime admirer of Caine’s work. “He takes things clearly in Mahler — the Jewish heritage and folk music — and he lets that go wild,” Denk said. “It’s incredibly moving. The Mahler is about dislocation and alienation, and that music is his heritage, all balanced in with other, incongruous elements. For me, that’s the essence of Mahler and, in a weird way, the essence of the festival.”
The day after “Mahler Re-Imagined,” the Uri Caine Ensemble will perform the music of George Gershwin at the festival, including his “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“That’s a more open, jazzy evening,” Caine said. “Gershwin touches on everything: Broadway, jazz, James P. Johnson’s stride, Rachmaninoff, classical and Latin music, and klezmer.”
Caine may have snubbed “Jewish” music during his teen years, but Mahler and musicians like Netsky, Mickey Katz and Don Byron weren’t the only ones who sparked a klezmer revival in him. “I played klezmer at my wedding,” Caine said. “There was a jazz band, and those guys weren’t sure what to do, so I sat down and played ‘Havah Nagilah’ so my grandmother could dance.”