It was the last day of the 2007 Avignon Theatre Festival when I met Les Mentsh by chance at the TGV shuttle stop. They had played into the wee hours of the morning and were heading back to Paris. I was returning back to the USA after a month on a National Endowment for the Humanities Theatre Studies grant for teachers.
We shared a short conversation and established that Les Mentsh was a Klezmer duo from Paris and I was a Theatre Arts teacher who directed musicals in Tacoma, Washington, USA. Alexis Kune, accordion player, graciously handed me a CD of their music and we boarded our different trains, theirs for Paris, mine for CDG.
Out of curiosity, I decided to listen to their music right then on the train. After the first 30 seconds, I realized that I had just encountered musical genius. As I listened to the different songs I was moved to tears. Somehow, their music transported me to another culture and time. I felt the power, beauty, mystery and soulful nature of Klezmer. I was tremendously impressed by the musicianship of accordionist Alexis Kune and by the mastery of Samuel Maquin, Klezmer clarinet specialist. I had the impression I was listening to five musicians, not two.
At that moment, I knew I wanted to have the duo come to the US to work with my students. I made the decision to direct Fiddler on the Roof and invited them to be featured performers.
During the month of their stay, the duo performed and taught outreach performances at schools, temples, workshops, lectures, dance classes, recording sessions and radio interviews. In addition to being featured musicians for Fiddler on the Roof, Alexis Kune served as Jewish cultural expert and artistic coach. Samuel Maquin served as ensemble arranger and featured soloist for performances and outreach sessions. They were welcomed to the Northwest as world class musicians at a function led by U.S. Klezmer great, “Yankl”, host of the radio program “The Yiddish Hour” in Portland, Oregon. They were also warmly received by the congregations at Tacoma’s Temple Beth El of Tacoma and Temple Hatfiloh of Olympia.
As a result of their month-long collaboration, they impacted a number of students on a very profound level. They empowered classically-trained students to enter the world of Klezmer and to broaden their skills to embrace a variety of Eastern European Klezmer motifs and patterns. Thanks to Les Mentsh, musicians, singers, actors and audience members discovered a new world of traditions and approaches.
In a Klezmer music workshop open to the public, Les Mentsh successfully taught English-speaking participants from 17 to 75, adjusting for varying levels of ability and experience. It was a rewarding and valuable course for all involved. This points to the professional preparation and teaching skills of Les Mentsh. The end result was a mini-concert that approximated the authentic sound of recordings of Klezmer ensembles that came from the early 20th century.
Les Mentsh brought history alive for American students and community members by sharing the music and the background of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe during the early 20th century. Les Mentsh engaged with our students on a personal level and exhibited a marked degree of professionalism and genuine interest in student growth. They served as judges and guest performers for the Claude Berger Student Drama Festival held at the school, generously offering their free time help enhance the learning experience.
The community and administration of Tacoma Public Schools are still talking about the impact of their stay. It was truly a ‘miracle of miracles’ that we met and that they agreed to cross the ocean to share their talent and expertise with U.S. high school students at Henry Foss High School. Community members from five different U.S. cities including Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia, Portland and Oregon City continue to comment on their talent, performance skills, teaching ability and panache.
Les Mentsh are truly “mensch”.
Valerie P. Navarro, Ph.D.
International Baccalaureate Theatre Arts
Foss High School, Tacoma Public Schools