Bob Berkman’s discoveries regarding Jewish music on piano rolls are providing some of the most intriguing and original performances in this field now before the public. This incredibly rare material illuminates a forgotten but delightful corner of Yiddish culture in America, and there is universal agreement that Bob is the artist best qualified to present it. In 1975 he was hired by QRS in Buffalo, the world’s last piano roll manufacturer, where he produced innumerable reissues of historic roll recordings and maintained a constant flow of new recordings for over thirty years. His credits include rolls commissioned for the films "Ragtime" and "Reds," the latter in cooperation with composer Stephen Sondheim; appearances on NPR, the BBC, and CBS Sunday Morning; and the Pianola world premieres of Prokofiev’s "Peter And The Wolf" and Satie's "Parade," the latter at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.
During a two-year hiatus from QRS in the mid-1980s, Bob served on the staff of IMG Artists in Manhattan, a firm which manages the careers of leading classical musicians. His charges included violinists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell.
Since 1996 Bob has served on the Artistic Committee of the Mikhashoff Trust for New Music, named for the late, distinguished American pianist, Yvar Mikhashoff. The Trust encourages the study and creation of New Music through grants and commissions worldwide.
All the while, Bob has steadily earned an international reputation as a master Pianolist, revealing to delighted listeners the expressive capabilities of the Pianola and showcasing its remarkably varied repertoire. His 1912 “push-up” Pianola effectively turns any piano into a player piano, enabling him to entertain on concert stages across the continent, from the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts to the Popper Auditorium at UCLA. He is increasingly in demand as a speaker and performer in lively programs ranging from the Classics to Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll to the avant-garde, and he has recently teamed with cellist Jonathan Golove to form Duo Shiddach, performing works for Theremin-cello and Pianola; but it is his unique and deeply personal work with Jewish rolls that is bringing him to the attention of klezmer fans worldwide. Important rediscoveries include George Gershwin’s only Jewish roll and the haunting "A Gitte Nacht der Kolli ind dem Chusen" by the obscure Samuel Perlstein. Of Bob’s debut at KlezKamp several years ago, director Henry Sapoznik wrote, “You were a major hit of the event, and many great musicians whom I had on staff were thunderstruck by the scope and depth of your work.”
Bob’s particular interest in the neglected area of ethnic rolls prompted him to establish the largest institutionally-held collection of such rolls at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, where he has taught and performed as a Visiting Scholar. This led to his participation in several international recording projects conducted by Dr. Darius Kucinskas of the University of Kaunas, featuring Lithuanian rolls. Bob has also developed text and exhibits for the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, and was engaged to demonstrate the Pianola for the museum’s video archive as well as for the American Musical Instrument Society. "Klezmerola," Bob’s CD of rare Jewish rolls from his collection, has become something of an underground hit in klezmer circles and is regarded by noted tsimbl revivalist Pete Rushefsky as “a fabulous and important accomplishment that deepens our access to historical materials.” Recent performance venues include Park Synagogue in Cleveland, OH and the Kultur Festival at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.