Discovering Stella Rudolph

Truthfully there’s no way anyone would have guessed who our star Discovery Project subject would have been at last year’s KlezKanada summer Yiddish festival.  She blended completely with a lot of the older attendees, sporting thick glasses and a large pocketbook and showing up at lectures and concerts, seemingly only wanting to revel in the accomplishments of the faculty, scholarship students, and other assorted virtuosi.

But Stella Rudolph turned out to be one of those incredible treasures that ethnographers only dream of finding.  A descendent of the Szpilman (Yiddish for professional musician) dynasty of klezmorim and a cousin of Wladyslaw Szpilman (the Polish Jewish musician made famous in the popular movie "The Pianist"), Stella took over the piano chair in her father Ben's Toronto-based wedding band around 1940, when her brother, talented pianist Joe Barsh, moved to New York.  Stella spent over thirty years perfoming regularly at Toronto’s Jewish weddings and celebrations. 

"Actually, I was pretty busy raising a family (she has four children).  At one point, I took on a few piano students, but I didn't really have to earn much, since my husband took care of that."  After her husband died, she played in a semi professional group for a while. She still occasionally accompanies sing-alongs at a local senior center.

Our “KlezKanada Discovery Project” team, including myself and ethnomusicologists Shayn Smulyan and Emily Lam, became aware of her when clarinetist/scholar Joel Rubin pointed her out among last year’s guests.  I had known of the Barsh family for years. Two of the last surviving members of the dynasty (her brothers Joe Barsh of New York and Sam Barsh of Toronto) had been the subjects of interviews a number of years ago.  But here was a female descendent (an anomaly among professional Jewish party musicians) who said that she remembered everything her father taught her - and she could still play it!

We are delighted that we are able to bring you Stella Rudolph, playing piano the traditional way that her father taught her, live from the KlezKanada dining room.

June 1, 2010