The scene on stage was as monochrome as a German Expressionist film, the musicians all clad in black dinner jackets. For extra effect Yair Schleider, the diminutive accordionist, wore a bowler hat, accentuating his resemblance to Toulouse-Lautrec. The Solomon Sisters, Penelope and Madeline, entered in white silk robes. Penelope sang some wordless nigun, the band kicked into “Chasena”, the sisters threw off the robes to reveal black evening gowns, and the evening was under way.
The Solomon Sisters perform the Yiddish cabaret music of the 1920s. The Theatre Royal, Winchester, was not the most obvious venue. “Are there any Jewish people in tonight?” asked Penelope Solomon. One solitary hand was raised. “You’re brave to admit it.”
Penelope took most of the leads, with a voice that ranged from a thick Lower East Side growl to a high lament. As she sang over an undertow of bowed double-bass of the Titanic’s electricity failing and the lights going out, Celine Dion would have thrown in the towel. Her younger sister, Madeline, provided high harmonies, flute, flapper-style dance shapes, and exuberant tap-dancing on Sammy Cahn’s “Josef”.
Most of the songs were Klezmer warhorses, the most familiar being “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn”. Itzik Manger’s “Yidl Mitn Fidl” hymned two travelling musicians: as they journeyed through sun, wind and rain, Dave Shulman’s clarinet runs were interspersed with shofar-like bleats. “Dos lebn,” chorused the sisters, “iz a shpas” (“Life is great”). The melancholy undertones of the songs looked backwards to the Pale of Settlement; now, they seem to foretell what was to befall the shtetl culture from which they derived.
Amid the songs, there were flying instrumental Bulgar dances. In another interlude, Schleider played echoing accordion and cornet simultaneously, Paul Moylar on double bass and Cameron Sinclair on drums giving a spacey, dubbed-out backing. Pete Ruschefsky, from New York, came on for a guest spot on cimbalom, hammering out Romanian patterns underneath Madeline’s flute fantasy.
“Jews Speak Yiddish”, which Penelope wrote after discovering the language at a Klezmer Summer School, revelled in the intricacies of the language. “It rolls off the tongue and it’s nice to say/it sounds a bit like German –” a horrified, dissonant pause from the band “– but it’s really okay!” At the end of the song, she threw a series of hand signals to a cry of “It’s my heritage – Yo, respec’,” a complex self-deprecating defiance.