It’s a challenge to make a living as a musician, but clarinetist Jonno Lightstone, who plays in several bands and teaches, proves that it can be done.
Lightstone is the lead clarinetist and musical director of the Klezkonnection Klezmer Orchestra, an 18-member ensemble that performs mainly at seniors centres, retirement homes and synagogues, with occasional appearances at other types of venues and festivals.
Klezkonnection brought Lightstone in as its musical director in 2007, when the orchestra had eight players. “They felt they weren’t getting anywhere and they wanted some professional help,” he said.
As musical director, Lightstone rehearses the orchestra at Beth Tzedec synagogue in Toronto, where they’re based. He also books their gigs, prepares playlists and leads the ensemble at performances. “It’s a lot of work, but the satisfaction is in moulding the sound of the band, a sound that I feel captures the quality of an Old World village klezmer kapelye,” he said.
Before Lightstone ever picked up the clarinet, he played classical flute. Then he moved on to the saxophone, “because it was better than flute for rock music.” He learned to play clarinet after he discovered klezmer music in the late 1970s, at the beginning of the klezmer revival.
“I didn’t grow up listening to klezmer music. The closest I heard was Fiddler on the Roof,” Lightstone said. “When I first heard real klezmer was when a friend of mine in Victoria had a band there called the Balkan Jam and they played Greek and klezmer and Romanian and Bulgarian music – music from all over the Balkans.”
Also a jazz musician, Lightstone took the jazz program at Humber College in the late ’80s. “I’d been playing music in (jazz) groups for fun for many years, but then I wanted to become more serious about jazz,” he said. He was a mature student in his mid-30s at the time.
“There were these kids in their young 20s – a lot of them were hot musicians. It was an eye-opener,” said Lightstone.
One of Lightstone’s current projects is Klezmology, an improvisational trio that uses traditional klezmer melodies as a base. “We take those melodies and then go out from them, improvising either on the melody, or just working from an idea that somebody has and everybody improvising along with that,” he said. With Lightstone on clarinet and flute, the group includes David Mott on baritone saxophone and Nick Fraser on drums.
Lightstone also plays flute and clarinet in a duo with guitarist Brian Katz. Much of their material comes from Moshe Berezovsky, a Russian ethnomusicologist who travelled around Ukraine in the ’20s and ’30s, recording klezmorim and transcribing melodies. “They’re very European sounding compared to some of the klezmer music that’s current today,” Lightstone said.
For more than 10 years, Lightstone and Katz have been playing the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit. “In that kind of setting, you play music the client wants to hear,” Lightstone said, adding that they’ve been working toward performing at concerts, so they can play the music they want to present.
In a departure from klezmer, Lightstone plays clarinet, flute and soprano saxophone in a Cuban band called Tres Kilos, with guitarist Larry Lewis and percussionist Mario Allende. Their repertoire is classic Cuban dance music from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, including popular song styles, such as bolero, cha-cha-chá and rumba, as well as lesser known styles like son, charanga and changüí.
“You have to be willing to do a lot of different things because it’s hard to make any kind of living from performance,” said Lightstone, who also teaches at Royal St. George’s College, a private boys’ school in Toronto.
“Fortunately, I enjoy teaching,” he said. “I know some musicians who do not, but I quite like it.”
Lightstone and Katz will be playing at the Mezzetta Restaurant on Oct. 25; Klezmology will play at the Alliance Francaise on Dec. 2; Klezkonnection will perform at the Bernard Betel Centre on Dec. 10 and at Holy Blossom Temple on Dec. 12; and Tres Kilos will be at the Mezzetta Restaurant on Dec. 13. For more information, visit klezkonnection.com.