Weary this time of year of old chestnuts like “The Nutcracker Suite?”
Consider listening to a performance of the Russian classic, but with a twist — a klezmerized concert version by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra from Boston.
“We took the tunes and rewrote them with some changed notes but they’re totally recognizable,” said Glenn Dickson, who helped found the band in the early 1980s.
Shirim will perform its Klezmer Holiday Nutcracker Concert as well as Hanukkah-related music on Saturday at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax.
On Sunday, the group also will perform “Maurice Sendak’s Pincus and the Pig,” a reworking of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” with actor David M. Lutken as narrator.
Instead of a big, bad wolf, there’s a giant wild pig named ”Chozzer.”
The instruments — clarinet, accordion, tuba, trombone, banjo, mandolin, piano and drums — voice the characters, and Lutken introduces a Yiddish spin to the narrative.
“It’s humorous, but there’s a lot of substantial meat to it,” said Dickson about the pieces. “Tchaikovsky had some great melodies, and ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is amazing.”
“I think it’s really good music,” said Dickson about the klezmer-style rewrites of the two pieces by Russian composers. “There’s a lot of klezmer in the roots of Russian music — there’s a shared heritage.”
The concert at the JCC is the latest in its growing Performing Arts Series, which hosts an annual film and book festival, but until recently did not offer a regular schedule of concert or theater programs for members or the general public.
Thanks to a $10,800 grant for the 2013-2014 season from the Arts Council of Fairfax County, the fledgling program is expanding this year to attract more Jewish people to the array of services at the center and also to entertain the general public in what is becoming a new arts venue in the county.
The JCC has a 300-seat auditorium and stage, and part of the auditorium can be converted into a more intimate cabaret space for 110 seats, said Dan Kirsch, cultural arts director for the program.
“We thought this was a way to expand our reach into the community,” he said about some of this season’s offerings.
Comedian Jackie Hoffman will present “A Chanukah Charol” on Dec. 7-8, and Tim Newell as Jack Benny will perform in the one-man play “Mister Benny,” running Jan. 10-12.
Arriving Jan. 19 will be the Maccabeats, an a cappella group singing a mix of Jewish, American and Israeli songs, and returning in April will be the Richmond Ballet.
“It’s a bonus for our dance program, and it’s also a great event to share with the community,” Kirsch said.
A Vienna native, Shirim band leader Dickson journeyed north to study classical music at the New England Conservatory of Music and ended up staying in the Boston area.
While still in college, he went to hear a recently formed klezmer band and was drawn to the sound, a musical tradition that had evolved in Yiddish communities in Eastern Europe and Russia over centuries.
“I liked the way people reacted to it, dancing and relating to it,” he said. “I knew it meant a lot to people culturally.”
Dickson, who is not Jewish, also liked playing klezmer music as a clarinet player.
“It’s extremely expressive,” he said. “It’s a totally different approach to the instrument.”
“I thought it was really exciting and very emotional,” he said. “The basic humanity spoke to my own voice.”
Founded in 1982 by Dickson and others, the Shirim (Hebrew for song) Klezmer Orchestra currently is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish players, most of whom have also studied classical music or jazz.
“We all have played all different kinds of music,” Dickson said.
The band’s idea for creating the klezmer “Nutcracker” evolved from an annual gig on Christmas Day at a theater in Brookline, near Boston.
“We had this whacky idea, and so we tried it,” Dickson said.
There is no ballet and there are no dancers, but with a little imagination, one can envision Maccabees in place of soldiers and latke queens instead of sugarplum fairies, according to the band’s CD.
In place of the “Dance of the Reed Flutes” is the “Dance of the Dreydls,” and place of “Waltz of the Flowers” is the “The Dance of the Rugalah” (crescent-shaped Jewish pastries).
“Pincus and the Pig” is the result of Shirim’s collaboration with Sendak in 2004. The band rewrote Prokofiev’s music while Sendak, drawing from some of his childhood memories, reworked the narrative.
“It’s a multilayered sort of work,” Dickson said. “Adults get the joke and underlying humor that the kids don’t necessarily get.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Dickson about the concerts, which he said appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike. “The whole family can enjoy it.”