Amsterdam: the IJMF finals

After a full first day at the International Jewish Music Festival, we were excited to be able to sleep in a little bit. We were all exhausted and starting to get sick (Abigale was affected the worst and hadn’t slept much yet at all). Jon was the first to wake up on Friday, and quickly head over to the festival to catch the second day of preliminary rounds. Nat, Pete, and I met up with Jon just as the festival was breaking for lunch. The four of us meandered around town for awhile looking for food, eventually settling on a sandwich shop called the BroodBar just a couple of blocks from the theater (we quickly became regulars). After lunch, we saw the last several bands of the afternoon. In the meantime, Abigale had checked herself into a nearby hotel, hoping that she’d actually be able to sleep. We met up with her for dinner–I tried to navigate all of us over to the only vegan restaurant in town (which was under a mile away, but we got a little lost so it took a half hour to get there). It turned out to be one of the slowest restaurants in town as well and even though the food was delicious, it was hard to enjoy it while everyone was anxious to get back to the theater for the second semi-final round.

Anyway, we made it back to the show and only ended up missing the first band (who we had seen in the afternoon, anyway). The rest of the show, though, we were all amazed by how talented the other bands were. Some favorites included Mor Karbasi, who had an amazing voice and huge presence, backed by a jazz trio, and Kleztory, a tight Canadian klezmer band. After the show, we nervously waited around in the lobby for an hour while the judges deliberated. After seeing the Friday night semi-final, we didn’t really think we had much of a chance to get into the final concert, so we mostly reassured eachother that we played well and if we didn’t make it in, we’d atleast have some more time to sightsee.

Finally, the judges came out to the lobby to announce the finalists in the order that they’d be playing in the concert. First would be the Zimba Ensemble, which was actually comprised of just one percussionist playing a wide assortment of xylophones, drums, and smaller instruments. Next would be Alila, our friends from Israel who played a mixture of Middle Eastern music and funk. Third to be announced was Capella de Ministreres, a Sephardic early music ensemble. Fourth was Mor Karbasi, which was certainly expected, though at this point we were pretty certain that we weren’t going to be announced. However, much to our surprise, Ezekiel’s Wheels was announced fifth! We were all so shocked we barely even heard the last band to be announced, Vira Lozinsky and the Emil Aybinder Ensemble, featuring one of the world’s best known Yiddish singers backed by one of Israel’s best accordion players and his band.

We were still in disbelief when Nat followed the judges and other band representatives back to the deliberating room to get more instructions. We congratulated eachother, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to end up seeing much of Amsterdam all together after all. We also noted that the judges must have arranged for the final round to show a wide variety of music, since the final show was what was getting the most press for the festival. We noticed that we were not just the only klezmer band, but also the only young band, and were excited to be the representatives for both.

Once Nat returned, we eventually all made it out of the theater and back to Abigale’s hotel room, to figure out what we were going to play. After a long meeting and puzzling over how to merge the highlights of our prepared sets, we decided on playing a similar set to the Thursday semi-final: open with “La Rosa”, figuring it’d be a nice palate cleanser for the audience and a way to warm up to the crowd, then launch into “Moldovan Wedding” into “Alexi’s Tune”. We were a little stumped, though, about whether to include “Smooth Criminal” again to close out, since it was well-recieved, but also kind of a joke and didn’t want it to fall flat if played a second time. We decided to segue into Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” instead, as a new surprise, and to also show that these klezmer pop covers are actually pretty ingrained into our sets. Finally, we made an itinerary for ourselves for the next day, to ensure we’d have time to warm up, rehearse, relax, and eat without getting too stressed out, and Nat, Pete, Jon, and I made our way back to the hostel.

Saturday morning we all woke up excited and a little nervous. Abigale emailed us saying she still couldn’t sleep and that she booked the hotel room again for that evening, with a desire to try to rest most of the day. The rest of us made our way back over the BroodBar for some food, and then warmed up a bit in the basement of the hostel. Abigale joined us and we had another quiet rehearsal (we were scared of the cleaning staff after our last encounter with them) to run though everything a couple times. After practice, we split up–Abigale went back to her hotel, the boys went up to the room at the hostel, and I went to visit my parents at their nearby hotel room.

An hour later, we all reconvened in the hostel lobby to find out that Nat had received a message from the festival organizers saying we couldn’t rehearse there, as scheduled, because the sound bled too much into the soundchecks. We went over to the theater, just to check in and see what was going on, and found out that not only were they canceling rehearsals there, they were also running really late on sound checks. So set off for Abigale’s hotel, hoping we could find a place to rehearse there. After Abigale talked with some folks at the front desk (who were a little confused, but mostly amused by our “rather unusual request”), we were brought to a conference room and told we could play there. We played a little more (at normal volume), and then relaxed for a little bit before making our way back to the festival.

When we arrived again, it turned out the sound check had been pushed back even more, but Becky (the friendly American festival organizer) took us on a tour of the theater, which had completely transformed from the days before. The stage was now circular and elevated, there were huge posters hanging from the ceiling, 8 TV cameras (2 on cranes!), lights, and even smoke machines. Becky told us that the Dutch government was spending €80,000 on the concert (!!) and that there were even two famous Dutch television personalities who would be hosting the show. We were stunned–after all, we are used to playing in the subway and at farmers markets. After our tour, we ran out to pick up some quick dinner (so much for our plan to have a calm, sit-down meal) and then hung around the lobby of the theater until it was time for our soundcheck.

We didn’t end up getting much of a soundcheck because they were running so late (at this point it was about a half hour until the show started), but we were happy with the balance on stage. We were required to be backstage an hour before playing. Since we were second-to-last, we didn’t want to be sitting quietly backstage for the whole show, so we left to go take our time getting changed and ready in Abigale’s hotel room. We were all so exhausted at this point, drinking tea and eating cough drops to try to prevent from coming down with more severe colds. Finally, it was time to head back to the theater.

Once we got there, we made our way backstage and were greeted by several performers who had already played. They told us about how there had been some sound and technical issues, and to make sure everything was working and in place before starting. We spent most of the time before intermission stretching and pacing around the green room, figuring we’d be able to actually make some noise during the pause between halves. Sure enough, we were able to tune and play a little bit during the break. Once the show started back up, though, we were quickly ushered out of the room and down to the stage to wait while the band before us played.

Before entering the theater, we were placed in front of a TV crew just outside the entrance to do a pre-show interview. They basically just asked us a little about ourselves and about how we were feeling going into the final round. We all agreed that it had been a pretty surreal experience so far, and that we expected the feeling to continue on stage. When we were brought into the theater, we got to catch the end of the previous set, as well as take in the packed house, all of the lights, the host sitting off to the side of the stage–it was definitely the fanciest and most professional show we’d ever taken part in as a band.

We waited in the back of the theater as the host made some jokes and introduced us. We filed on stage, being powered at this point mostly by adrenaline. Even though we were all nervous starting out, we quickly settled into playing together and ended up having a wonderful time performing our set. The energy in the crowd was great, the judges were receptive, and most importantly, we were all totally engaged with our instruments and eachother. We finished our set to warm applause and made our way back through the crowd the way we came in, extremely pleased and excited by how we played. The TV crew outside of the theater was ready and waiting for a follow-up interview, which consisted of a lot of high fives and giggling on our end. Classic. We also noticed that canisters with each bands’ name had been laid out just outside of the theater–each audience member would be given a token to vote for their favorite band, and the band with the most votes would win the Audience Prize.

We packed up our instruments back in the warm up room and buzzed around excitedly for a few minutes before making our way back to the lobby. We got back just as the concert was finishing up, and helped ourselves to the first round of free drinks. We chatted a bit with audience members as they came out of the theater to vote and stretch. It was already getting pretty late, and by the time the judges were finished with their conference, it was almost midnight.

Once the jury returned, everyone was ushered back into the theater and the bands were instructed to sit together, so they’d be easier to find if they won. The evening turned into quite the elaborate awards show, with something like 25 prizes being given out, mostly by representatives of various festivals, venues, and record labels. We sat anxiously to the left of the stage, listening as prize after prize (many of which we weren’t even sure what was being given away) was awarded.

The final six prizes were presented by members of the jury. We hadn’t won anything yet and were getting a little nervous. Finally, Hankus Netsky (judge and professor here in Boston at the New England Conservatory) got up to announce the City Winery Prize for the best klezmer ensemble, which ended up being awarded to Ezekiel’s Wheels! Hankus gave a little speech, praising us for a number of things (including our “true musical democracy” and my bass playing, which was exciting), as well as poking fun at our affinity for musical jokes… The prize came along with bookings at the City Winery klezmer brunch series in New York City and Chicago (which we haven’t booked quite yet, but we will).

The jury awarded several more prizes to deserving bands (for things such as the best Yiddish or best Ladino or best arrangement of the required piece). And then it came down to the two big prizes: the Audience Prize (voted on by the crowd) and the Grand Prize (voted on by the jury). They announced the Audience Prize first, and we were delighted and surprised when it turned out that the crowd had voted us as their favorites! This prize came with €1,000 (as well as the satisfaction of being the people’s pick). The Grand Prize ended up being awarded to Vira Lozinsky and the Emil Aybinder Ensemble.

Even though we were ecstatic to have won what we did, we were a little overwhelmed by the request to play in the Winners Concert the next day. It was exciting to have the opportunity for sure; we were just so exhausted by this point, we hadn’t yet had a relaxed sit-down meal, and we certainly hadn’t seen much outside of the three blocks of the city we were confined to for the festival. In any event, we decided to hold off til the next day to figure out what we were going to perform and instead, we had a great time hanging out with our new friends in The Balcony Players.

(Coming up: the last day of the IJMF, as well as a summary from my week of exploring after the festival.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s