Semmy Stahlhammer’s music has circled the globe more than once. Born in Sweden, he studied at Curtis Institute, Kent State University, and the Stockholm Royal Academy, yet his many awards, recordings (twenty solo), and achievements offer a long dazzling list, including being concertmaster at Stockholm Royal Opera. He also repairs antique Baroque violins when not composing, conducting, or playing in a klezmer band. He plays only from memory, often with his eyes closed.
On Wednesday evening he performed a recital for students, faculty, and music appreciators in the Lazlo-Bito Conservancy Hall. Semmy was introduced with fondness by cellist Robert Martin, who explained that there was no program. Semmy began with a short composition by August Strindberg’s final and only friend (which I take to be Ture Rangström) before Strindberg died; then he fiddled a Swedish folk song about the character of different flowers. After playing Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," he then asked the audience to suggest something by J.S. Bach to play. Prelude in D was requested and played with lyric intensity. Semmy then played a Swedish folk song while he performed a comic dance without either foot being lifted from the floor. Someone requested Bach’s Adagio in D and this was performed with such exquisite poignancy that I could hear suppressed sighs from the ever-so polite audience. To lighten-up the mood, Semmy played a jazzy version of a Whitney Houston hit.
An audience member requested Bach’s Partita in B-flat major. Semmy delivered such lengthy exalted lyricism that the audience was transported to an Otherworld where time stood still while ears traversed empyrean air. He then performed Bach’s famous “Chaconne” with such adroit gusto and delicate fingering that everyone knew that the recital had achieved climax.
To take us down from the mountain, Semmy asked for questions from the audience. Pianist Frank Corliss accompanied Semmy with a couple of pleasant Swedish folk songs. Semmy then played a klezmer wedding song, a nigun (meditation), then lullaby. This performance featured incredibly intricate, improvised, virtuoso ornamentation that was remarkable.
To take us back into the world we live in, Semmy performed two encores: his own amusing version of “Walking my Baby back Home” and Burt Bachrach’s 1985 hit “That’s What Friends Are For.” These unusual jazz arrangements offered sidebar complexities that transformed the tunes into new, original works. This was the most astonishing violin concert I have ever attended.
Stehlhammer will be playing two different all-Bach programs at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on October 6 at 6 pm and October 7 at 4 pm. Concerts take place inside the Barge itself, and restrooms are at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Semmy is also the author of a family holocaust memoir Codename Barber. His greatest joy is his family and playing in a klezmer band, as his father did, his father being the only surviving member among the dozen members of his klezmer band. A video of Semmy Stahlhammer playing appears below.