Friday, November 7, 2014

Quintessentially Russian: Philippe Quint’s new Tchaikovsky/Arensky recording

This September, Avanticlassic released yet another account of Tchaikovsky’s much performed Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35, revealing the stylistic versatility and technical brilliance of Russian/American violinist Philippe Quint. In this recording, Quint, whose “lyricism, energy and devotion,” was lauded by the LA Times, pairs Tchaikovsky’s “war-horse” of the violin-repertoire, with Anton Stephanovich Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor, coincidentally his Op.35 as well. This line up makes for Quint’s first all-Russian recording, and there is something of a full circle coming about within this youthful thirty-something violinist’s successful career, which has led him from his native Leningrad to Moscow’s Central Music School for Gifted Children, and then to an illustrious mentorship at Juilliard when he was just 17.
Quint’s earlier discography, which includes Grammy-nominated recordings of Bernstein’s Serenade and violin concertos by American composers William Schuman, a former Juilliard president and Erich Korngold, as well as Ned Rorem, speaks to his affinity for his new American domicile and his assimilation within his immediate surroundings. Two contemporary composers who Quint champions - John Corigliano and Lera Auerbach - are Juilliard alumni, like Quint.
(Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
In 2005, Quint recorded for David Grubin’s film, Marie Antoinette, which led to Quint’s performance of the lead role in Grubin’s 2011 film, Downtown Express.  Quint plays himself, a violinist at Juilliard, adding his dramatic talent – coached by Sondra Lee – to his musical virtuosity, featured on the film’s soundtrack.
Everything in Quint’s performance style speaks of his highly personal relationship with the music he performs, revealing his passionate drive to “own” and live it. The late Andrej Korsakov, Quint’s teacher and one of the great pedagogues of the Soviet Union at the time, features prominently in Quint’s recollection of his first rendezvous with Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto: “Korsakov assigned the concerto to me as the next ‘big’ step. I must have learned the concerto over a few days and brought it for my ...disastrous…lesson with him, the following week. Korsakov was furious with me that I was taking so many liberties with tempi and interpretation…” Quint says, noting that he had barely looked at the score, but mostly “performed” the notable concerto, which could be heard on TV, radio, and concert stages all around at the time, by ear, longing eagerly to perform the all-time favorite work with orchestra. Recognizing his young student’s euphoria, Korsakov allowed Quint to continue working on the concerto under the condition that he would start from scratch, adding proper methodical craftsmanship to his enthusiasm. (Photo credit: Jeff Gerev)
Quint’s persistence panned out. At this point, he has performed the concerto over 200 times, re-evaluating the work’s possibilities without losing his fascination for its ingenious writing and historic context. In the recording’s liner note, Quint describes Tchaikovsky’s “fire of inspiration,” when composing the concerto. In personal correspondence about writing the concerto, a process that took less than a month’s time, Tchaikovsky described his progress, saying: “Everything I have written today will have the power to enter the heart and make lasting impressions on it.”
Tchaikovsky was personally inspired by violinist Iosif Kotek, a student of Hrimaly and Joachim, whom he met at the peaceful lakeside villa retreat in Clarens, Switzerland after fleeing Russia. “I could never have done anything without his support,” he wrote, but he worried about causing gossip about his relationship with the virtuoso and eventually dedicated the concerto to the eminent performer Leopold Auer, professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory. Auer’s famously critical stance towards the concerto and its outright “bashing” from critics such as Eduard Hanslick, who depicted its dramatic finale as “leaving a stink in the ear,” led to numerous edits, including revisions of its solo part and cuts in its finale. According to Auer, these changes were made with the consent of Tchaikovsky, who is rather known for accepting alternative suggestions concerning his work.
Jascha Heifetz, one of Auer’s famed students, favored the edited version, although the original version was favored by some protagonists, including Bronislaw Huberman.
Quint offers both versions here with great gusto, acknowledging the choice and difference of opinion, and letting the listener make up his own mind as to which version is preferable. Quint is supported by the Sofia Philharmonic under Martin Panteleev, making for an enthusiastic musical rapport, despite the less than ideal acoustics at Bulgaria Hall.
Pairing the concerto with Arensky’s quartet puts further attention on the background, which ties these composers and their works together historically.
Arensky shared his great admiration for Tchaikovsky’s work with his students, including Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere.
Intended as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, Arensky’s quartet, Op.35, includes themes of the master’s Chansons Enfantines, Op. 54 in the variations of the quartet’s second movement, adding Russian patriotic themes, like the hymn Slava Bogu no nebe slava, which draws from an ancient funeral mass and was also used in the ceremonial tradition of the crowning of the Tsar, turning Tchaikovsky, as Quint observes, into “the Tsar of composers.”
Supportive of his fellow musicians, Tchaikovsky had personally vouched for Arensky’s “forgotten” work to be performed –even instead of his own, at least in one instance, as an 1887 letter to Rimsky-Korsakov reveals, asking Rimsky-Korsakov to program Arensky’s work instead of his already famed Romeo and Juliet Overture.
In place of the usual habit of quartet literature, Arensky’s second violin is replaced by a second cello, giving a soaringly mournful quality to the music’s already melancholic character. On this track, Quint collaborated with Lily Francis, Nicolas Altstadt, and Claudio Bohŏrquez, recorded at the concert hall of the Siemens-Villa in Berlin.
All in all a great historically inspired addition to one’s library, from a versatile and charismatic artist, we will certainly hear much more from in the near future.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music and Film - Touching the sound

    
 “The main ingredient is still a powerful story to tell…” -Peter Rosen ( all photos courtesy of Rosen Productions and Close Encounters with Music festival)
In addition to its concert series, the yearly Berkshire festival’s Close Encounters with Music, lead by charismatic cellist and conversationalist Yehuda Hanani, explores the multi-faceted themes of classical music’s culture.
As part of this year’s festival, Peter Rosen presented his emotive documentary Touching The Sound on blind Japanese pianist and 2009 Van Cliburn gold-medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
“This is a film about the human triumph, as well as artistic triumph,” comments Hanani. “One thinks of Beethoven overcoming adversity. A deaf composer and a blind, virtuoso pianist… The way Peter spins the story from early childhood…all the way to the Van Cliburn competition is an inspiring crescendo,” offers Hanani, whose weekly Classical Music According to Yehuda airs on WAMC Northeast Radio’s Round Table Discussions.
In our conversation about the latest release in his longtime career, Rosen, the New Yorker documentary film maven defines “storytelling” as the essential ingredient of any film: a challenge that does not differ with respect to the message in a film on music.
“Every project has a different theme and constellation of how the film came about and how its production developed, however, the same structure of the traditional story development – its characteristic three-act partition – basically applies to all my movies,” explains the filmmaker, an architect by education.
Whether Rosen portrays Arthur Rubinstein’s life or the Van Cliburn’s International Piano Competition, he never aims to show one’s technicalities as they master their instrument, which in effect – as important as those details may seem – would be quite boring to watch. Except in taped live recordings that show a performance in its entirety, like in Tsujii’s Live at Carnegie Hall, Rosen rarely shows a full-length piece of music performed on film. “It is always a fine line to define how much music you can actually use without disrupting the flow of the story. We always get letters from people who had wished to hear more of the pieces performed, but the average attention span only allows for uninterrupted music to be played for 2-3 minutes without losing the thread of the story,” says Rosen.
That is also the case in Touching the Sound, which trails the gold-medalist from his mother’s touching descriptions of the first moments that his blindness, as well as his exceptional musical gift became clear, to his winning hearts and gold: “Nobu,” as his fans lovingly call him, asserting himself on the concert stage.(Nobu and his mother Itsuko)
Blind from birth, Nobu at 23 shares his inspiring, heroic journey and his prodigal gift for the piano, portraying facets of his identity as an international performer and cultural ambassador of his native Japan. His sincerity comes through as much in his art as in footage shot during various concert tours that portrays his happiness and eager excitement to experience different locations, people, and culinary surprises. Considering that he overcomes such extreme adversity, judging his pianistic achievements in comparison to his ‘seeing’ peers seem even more arbitrary, than the already debatable and subjective decisions of any competition’s jurors.
The Van Cliburn’s jurors, who included the distinguished pianist Menahem Pressler, admitted to having to work extra at their “objectivity-gage” to award their prestigious approval, solely on the grounds of the artist’s pianistic excellence. Nobu himself admits that he would prefer to be rather known as a great pianist rather than ‘the great blind pianist,’ whose astonishing gift is a curiosity over which people marvel.
With the help of translations by Nobu’s constant travel companion and manager, Nick Asano and Nobu's childhood piano teacher Masahiro Kawakami, the film expresses much of the artist’s sincere love for sharing his innate musical talent, his modesty, gratitude, and openness, with which he meets life’s challenges and cheerfully embraces its pleasures. The film focuses lastly on his actual mastery of the keyboard. Set against a backdrop of the music of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and Mussorgsky, Rosen’s camera always focuses in on the angle of human sentiment: Nobu’s heavy breathing with restless desire to conquer the stage, right before his Carnegie Hall debut, followed by the release of all the built up tension in the teary-eyed, sobbingly-performed encore, consisting of his own composition, written in honor of Japan’s Tsunami victims.
Rosen seeks out his film’s characters according to the drama they convey. He looks for storylines created by individuals’ conflicts, their relationships with others or their own artistic personality, and most importantly by their redemption: overcoming their individual challenges – that’s the story he tells, amidst each project’s own, particular soundtrack. Rosen chooses to rather‘show’ than ‘tell,’ guiding the camera’s focus on his characters’ emotional reactions, which form the arc on which he builds the story.
Rosen started his film career with USIA projects directed at enhancing America’s cultural reputation overseas in the late seventies. One of these assignments – a portrait of Leonard Bernstein – became the landmark for Rosen’s passage into the classical music business.
“I am not a musician, myself. I resentfully survived 12 years of piano lessons, without any results – I can read music, but can’t play a thing,” he volunteers. “Of course, I knew of Bernstein’s immense persona in music, but I did not approach his personality from the standpoint of a musician – I did not have that kind of ‘highbrow’ perspective.” This was, as he convincingly relays, Rosen’s recipe for success: “While films on music are generally pitched to an already knowledgeable audience with a musical background, I intuitively get what the general public wants to see and relates to,” he says.
This certainly holds true for those films in Rosen’s copious filmography that I had the opportunity to watch. A good example would be his tour de force, The Maestro, about the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, in which Rosen strays from depicting the maestro’s actual musical career, focusing instead on how the conductor used his prominent status as a vehicle in his ideological battle against fascism.
Of course it is the music, the fundamental soundtracks of these documentaries on musical figures, which provides the stories’ intrinsically sustaining feature; their developments’ accompaniment, enunciating their climaxes. The essential messages that Rosen’s films convey with astute perspective, transcend his explorations of human nature through his characters’ struggles under intense conditions, expressing their growth and individual geniality, and highlighting their supreme heights of artistic achievement.
And that is the kind of emotional connection, in music- as in film-making, audiences react to with applause.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Violinist Asi Mathatias – Talent forges its way

Fortunate for violinist Asi Mathatias, his prodigal musical gift has been recognized at a young age. Born in Jerusalem and growing up in Herzelyah, he heard Heifetz performing on the radio, making up his mind instantly that this was, what he wanted to be doing, just as well. While his debut at age 12 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Zubin Mehta may be deemed an impressive undertaking in and of itself, it just marked another checkpoint on the path of high expectations for the young musician, geared to master the virtuosity of the violin. The year following his inaugural performance of Mozart’s G-Major Violin Concerto No. 3, recorded as part of a BBC documentary, Mehta invited him back to perform Saint-Sains Violin Concerto No.3.
Described by Zubin Mehta as:”extremely musical, sensitive and technically accurate,” the maestro went further and personally advocated for Mathatias’ acceptance at the famed Vienna Hochschule for Musik, Mehta’s own former breeding grounds. Esteemed pedagogue Christian Altenburger accepted Mathatias as the youngest student, age 16, at time and Peter Landesman, director of the Salzburg Festival, arranged for a host family for Mathatias,  who arrived to Vienna in 2004. “My parents did not believe that their spoiled, little son could make it on their own,” remembers Mathatias, but he did prove them wrong. After a couple of months with his host family, he decided it was time to move out and to keep house for himself in Vienna, during his beginning studies at the university. It was by invitation from Pinchas Zuckermann, that the next dream came true for Mathatias; to study under the wings of the legendary violinist, at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. “He is very demanding,” he says about Zuckerman, and admits:” it was a bit overwhelming at first.”
Thinking his famous teacher would be impressed by his intense schooling and self assured, prodigal technique, Mathatias was in for a rude awakening:”No one can impress him, of course, I went through a very tough regiment of “cleaning house,” he says. At first a bit rebellious, Mathatias learned to accepted the “grounding” experience, which ultimately made him a more secure and more mature musician. “It was very good for me, after my experience in Israel and Vienna, I was able to handle this new discipline, going back to the fundamentals of violin playing, like basically going back to open strings. I am not sure how it would have been, had I come straight to Zukerman,” he says. ”I was used to performing a lot, already by then. Already when I came to Vienna, I had quite a number of concerts; now I had to cancel most all of my engagements. Zukerman did not care about performing while studying, his standpoint was:” You are here to build a lasting career.”
In December he finished studies for his Masters degree at the Manhattan school of Music, and he is convinced he would follow his master’s firm yet inspirational way, should he ever be teaching himself:”You have to start with a clean slate. You are not going to become a different player, but it changes your approach completely… you become demure.”
While he was worried to lose momentum to build up his performance career, in hindsight he sees how important it was to reevaluate his early gained confidence. From day one, he also worked with Zukerman’s teaching assistant Patinka Kopec, whose persistence and strict supervision was what he needed to kill his darlings and ultimately truly progress. “I was a wild boy from Israel, a little cocky and convinced, things would continue to come so easy to me,” he smiles. After working hard for a few years, things turned around.”I developed a real work ethic, which in turn allowed me the freedom, to fully appreciate the inspirational side. Having such personal access and the privilege to hearing Zukermann play up close, is a revelation. His incredible sound, striking for a string instrument and his analytical thoughts are so fascinating. I always thought you can’t teach sound, but Zukermann always says:”Sound is your bank account, without it you make no money.” He is able to teach the abc’s of getting good sound, how to control your bow arm, how to hold the instrument properly and adjust the bow arm according to your shape and size of your hand. Even sound comes from the right distribution of the weight of your fingers and your arm. There is a method to the madness, although, having said that, there is always the individual way of what works for you. Many great musicians had quite unconventional ways of applying their own technique and still did fantastic, just think of Heifetz, whose bowing goes probably against everything we know, still succeeding with such fantastic results,” he says. “Zukerman believes in the “natural” way of playing, in order to avoid injuries. That means without straining or forcing, in any way. That means you have to build up your capacity constantly, since wanting to express something, without having the technical means, tenses you up immediately.  It’s something that requires a lot of guidance, and he provided that en galore. Not every great player can teach from his own experiences, but he certainly gives you an all around approach to playing violin and its many different sound roles, when playing in a small or large environment, with or without an orchestral context, understanding its surrounding sound instead of just focusing on its melodic line.  So many years of experience, performing with such ease…Zukerman’s example makes it quite clear that making music is not only a profession but a very particular way of life,” says Mathatias.
In February of 2015, Mathatias will perform his debut recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with Manhattan School of Music alumni, pianist Dominic Cheli. He will then take his program of Brahms/Strauss/Saint-Saens to Europe, performing at the Berlin Philharmonic with pianist Victor Stanislavsky, view excerpts here.
For an early-bird preview of his program, visit GetClassical’s series at Zinc Bar, where he will perform with pianist Dominic Cheli on November 6, 2014.
For more information about the artist and his upcoming performance at Zinc Bar visit GetClassical’s website.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

International flavor with Czech tradition

SubCulture, the intimate downtown performance venue, has established itself as an outlet for world-class performances. They have programmed these performances in collaboration with the greater Institutions of the classical world like the 92Y, and the New York Philharmonic.
Yesterday’s evening with the Smetana Trio, jointly presented by SubCulture and the 92Y, brought musical mastery and international flavor to the local scene at Subculture, with their world-class representation of a wide variety of Czech composers.
The foremost Czech chamber ensemble, supported by the Czech Center New York, currently on cross-country tour, was founded in 1934 by the legendary Czech pianist Josef Páleníček.  The trio’s longstanding traditions were palpably present, showcasing each of the strong individualities of each performer: pianist Jitka Čechová, violinist Jiří Vodička and cellist Jan Páleníček.
Especially soulful in the second half of the program, the trio portrayed the work of its namesake, composer Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op.15, with all its characteristics of hauntingly beautiful melodies, halting rhythmic climaxes and propelling drama.
While it always seems difficult to establish a specifically national idiom within the abstract realms of musical language, the trio’s intention to familiarize its intimately addressable audience with works bearing its own national cultural flavor, seemed convincing.
The program included works by composers as varied as Josef Suk, Bohuslav Martinů and a New York premiere by Roman Haas.  Amazingly, one felt something overall connected in the music. Perhaps it’s a bit of a cliché in our times of leveling all and equalizing ideals, but it was invigorating to acknowledge that – like in a Milan Kundera novel - different heritages bring different characteristics to art’s exploration of the great themes of existence.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine - modernist Cuban idiom and Russian virtuosity in New York

Currently featured in no less than seven all-Rachmaninoff piano recitals at the renowned Carnegie Series at the Nyack library, three of them still to be heard, Russian-American pianist, Alexandre Moutouzkine, does not fail to impress with his crystal clear melodic sense of line, sensitive expressiveness, and powerful pianistic facility. 

This week at Merkin Hall, Moutouzkine gave a sampler of his take on Rachmaninoff in the first half of his recital, exploring the romantic resonance of the Russian master’s preludes, awesomely engaging his listeners, filling every corner of the hall. Moutouzkine followed up with contemporary fare, and concluded the mid-day recital with his own transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

The performer’s humorous, yet unpretentious accompanying remarks aided in connecting the performer with his audience, and made it fun to follow the lines of new repertoire. His banter was especially effective in introducing several compositions by living Cuban composers. He shared from the stage: “My revered teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, who, born in Cuba (of Russian-Polish descent) always said to me: ‘to get that special Cuban feel and rhythm – you have to have it in your blood.’ but nevertheless, I hope that through all the lessons, all the screaming…perhaps one drop of that blood of my mentor has entered my bloodstream, or at least my visceral system.” Photo Credit: Ellen Appel

The pianist made a convincing case for that drop of blood running in his veins, and for the Cuban pieces by composers Leo Brouwer, Guido Lopez-Gavilan, and Ernan Lopez-Nussa, which held those sensuous rhythmic idioms and jazzy lilt typically associated with the musical language of the region, despite their contemporary, mostly abstract, configurations.

In 1995, Moutouzkine had left his native Russia for Hannover’s reputable Hochschule für Musik (Theater und Medien) until it, according to the artist, “somehow happened” that Mikowsky heard him perform and secured a place for him as his pupil at Manhattan School of Music, in 2001: “It was a new world for me, and it opened doors for me [that] I would not have otherwise known existed,” says Moutouzkine. “I did not have money for a flight to New York, nor for a taxi ride for that matter; he invited me, and it clearly was the step that changed my life. Always, when you get to a new place, everything filters into your playing, new ideas [and] new energy always translate musically, and I grew all along during these formative years. But out of all the influences I received, he most definitely was the most transforming one.”

Of Mikowsky, Moutouzkine says, “he was also always brutally honest. No small talk, no flattery, and no coaxing. But at the end he always came through for me,” the artist describes. “When I had just arrived, minutes before auditioning for the scholarship I so depended on, Mikowsky just took me aside, saying, “don’t worry, you probably won’t get it, but you may as well play…” And he held on, rather stubbornly, to all of his opinions.

“He also was the one who revealed the ingredients of Cuban music to me. South American music had never been part of my vocabulary before, something ethereal, with incredible traditions and sonorities,” he says, and “for introducing me to that world [alone], I have to be eternally thankful. There is this special knowledge of how to treat ‘time’… one of the big secrets in music.”
Photo Credit: Ellen Apple
Sometimes personal accomplishments counted more for Mikowsky than competition laurels, even if it was hard to pinpoint an attitude of praise: “At one point, I was introduced to the legendary Alicia de la Rocha, who I had never heard about before; that certainly put me on a new path and a new program, which brought me to the Zaragoza competition as a young pianist, and then the Van Cliburn in 2001. While I only got a discretionary award, my performance had been broadcasted on the radio, and I received a letter from a woman in federal prison thanking me for my touching performance. Showing him the letter, upon my arrival, he said: ‘Alex, now I am really happy for you, and can see a bright future for you playing in all the jails throughout the United States.’”

                                                                               Photo Credit: Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Moutouzkine has certainly inherited his mentor’s somewhat restricted and unforgiving stance on collective success, accomplishment, and praise, seeing it as something standing in the way of the never-ending search for the fulfillment of artistic promises: “As a performer you don’t ever really feel accomplished, it would be counterproductive to the whole process, the continuum of being creative. New York certainly is the right place to be inspired with so much to offer, you just need the energy to fully take advantage,” he says.
Moutouzkine himself is a bit weary of the general direction of self-promotion used these days by young performers who feel pressured to get creative on social media platforms in order to further their reputations, given the lack of performance opportunities for them at established institutions.
In 2013, Moutouzkine joined the faculty of his Alma Mater, the Manhattan School of Music, and says, “I always tell my students that this whole way of getting superficial attention does take a lot of time and energy, which might be better spent where it really counts – with the music. Ok,” he admits, “there should be a good balance. You don’t have to not announce your events on your facebook page…but ultimately, if you concentrate on getting the real work done, other things will fall in place.”
Photo Credit: Yi-Fang Wu


Moutouzkine himself has been taken on by different management during different areas of his emerging performance career, including Astral Artists, whose 2012/13 season he opened with a very original concert that included a specially commissioned animation entitled Who Stole the Mona Lisa, accompanied live by Moutouzkine performing his own transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The performance was repeated in its entirety at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.


Perhaps this example best illustrates that while self-proclaimed talent on facebook may not count as press or facilitate artists’ recognition, participation in audience-friendly artistic projects may definitely contribute to an artist’s career advancement – if, as Moutouzkine says, “there is substance to build on.”



Moutouzkine’s greatness lies in the elusive product of personality, technical knowhow, and the artistic transparency of his expressivity – and this quality isn’t something you can necessarily achieve through practice. “It is that level of greatness that is intoxicating, connecting with great art and with the meaning behind it all…rarely achieved, but always strived for. It is that energy, which comes from the music itself, these sounds that embody a message…as a performer you are in the ocean, with the movement of the music, and when the wave rises – and you catch it – it raises you – and your audience. It’s magic, and all about that energy that is in the sound, just like ultrasound has the power to heal; music can change everything on a molecular level. But on stage you are in the moment, you can never play the same exact way again, but you have that energy and what you do with it - like in real life – is up to you in that instant.”


In the spirit of shared passion for bringing classical music to alternative venues and in his support of GetClassical's efforts to reach new audiences, Moutouzkine will perform at GetClassical's new series at Zinc Bar on January 15th, 2015.
More info on that to come on http://getclassical.org

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sivan Magen – fresh sounding promise of David’s harp

Meeting with enthusiastic harpist Sivan Megan turned into an eye-opening conversation about the instrument: one which is typically sidelined by composers and concert venues alike.
photo credit: musicians designs
While there are an astounding number of harpists around, who, as Sivan shares, are flocking somewhat regularly (every three years) to worldwide harp conventions by the hundreds, a harp performance these days, whether solo or in a chamber music setting, is still quite the rarity.
Harp performers will often combine teaching positions with an orchestral contract, like Sivan’s mentor at Juilliard, Nancy Allen, who holds the position of principal harpist with the New York Philharmonic. Sivan himself has built a reputation as teacher, holding a teaching position at Brooklyn College and giving international master classes.
Growing up in Israel, Sivan first studied piano and then harp with Irena Kaganovski-Kessler at Jerusalem’s Academy for Music and Dance. He eventually reached Juilliard via Paris, where he had initially found his love for the harp, and continued his studies at the somewhat authoritarian Paris Conservatoire. Relating strongly to his mentor, Isabelle Moretti, he still longed for a different artistic climate: “When I came to New York for my master’s degree, I felt so free; it’s a much easier city to become a part of than Paris, especially the music scene. It’s so vibrant,” he says. “I was always astonished to hear others complain about the competitive character of Juilliard when I felt it was such a relaxed environment – at least next to Paris,” he remembers.
At Juilliard, Sivan connected with a group of Israeli friends, among them pianist Assaff Weisman and clarinetist Tibi Cziger, and became one of the founding members of Israeli Chamber Project, (photo)an ensemble that started concertizing in Israel in 2007/2008. The group’s initial goal was to bring musicians who had left Israel for their studies abroad back to their roots, where they would teach and perform for the people they left behind. Under Weisman and Cziger’s entrepreneurial leadership, the project grew and succeeded, giving the talented group of young Israeli musicians – piano, clarinet, strings and harp – many opportunities to showcase Israel’s culture throughout the United States, and recently, internationally as well. A CD recording on the Azica label with works by Saint-Saens and Martinu (Debussy, and others) grew out of Sivan’s collaboration with the ensemble in 2012.  “Martinu,” Sivan says, “is one of the few composers within the repertoire where the collaboration between piano and harp is working incredibly well; more often the piano’s resonance easily overthrows the resonance coming from the harp.”                                                                                                                 
Some of Sivan’s most musically formative experiences happened to him during his four summers spent at Marlboro, where he plans to return next summer. His first all-Britten recording in 2012 on the Avie label grew out of the collaboration with baritone Nicholas Phan at Marlboro, and he formed many other fruitful relationships there, both musical and personal. When Sivan was placed with violist Kim Kashkashian and flautist Marina Piccinini to explore chamber performance at Marlboro in 2010, “we all really hit it off,” he says, identifying the special environment and the musicians’ capacity to freely and fully explore repertoire, as what made his time at Marlboro one of his most rewarding musical experiences. Their trio, Tre Voci, has just released a recording on the ECM label. “As a harpist,” Sivan says, commenting on the importance of exchanging musically with others, “one often feels isolated from other musicians. We are on a musical island, rarely play with each other, and it’s infrequent that one gets to perform with such exquisite musicians in a chamber situation, like one finds at Marlboro.”                                                                                                                                            photo credit: musicians design
Like with any artistic instrumental interpretation, there are completely different musical approaches possible while mastering the harp’s expressiveness. “I admire certain approaches, even if they differ tremendously from my own, or my mentor’s,” he says, referring to Isabelle Moretti, after whose communicative playing he molds his own performance style. “For example, I greatly admire the Berlin Philharmonic’s harpist, Marie-Pierre Langlamet, whose soft, lyrical quality of playing lures the listener in,” he explains, “yet my playing has a completely different character. Sound can vary a lot,” he claims. Critics have hailed Sivan’s performances as exhibiting an “impressive virtuosity and great range of expression... a breathtaking performance…played to perfection” (telavivcity.com). American Record Guide picked up on his “rhetorical flow,” WQXR hailed him as a “magician,” and Sivan was the 2012 winner of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust rewarding musical excellence. With his particular sound, Sivan seems to go all-out with astonishing vigor and a crisp, energetic sound – which is perhaps rather unexpected from an instrument associated with angels’ delicate voices.
“There are hundreds of different tone colors achievable on the harp; this is what makes the instrument so special to me – this, and the matter of resonance, which is based on the fact that there is always sympathetic resonance, which is such an asset and at the same time its inherent difficulty,” Sivan explains. “The specific quality of sound is connected to the tension between the different registers of the harp, and its extreme differences. The art is to both use this tension, and then to get rid of it where you don’t want it. It’s a matter of utmost tone control and it’s very directly connected to the grasp of the fingers – much more directly than at the piano, where the tone is transferred through the keys that hit the strings, or the string instruments, where the bow is used to transmit the vibration of tone. At the harp everything is happening at your fingertips, and just the slightest variation in how you pluck the string creates a different soundscape,” he says.
Sivan also explained to me the unique struggles that harpists deal with while finding new and challenging repertoire: “When it comes to repertoire, we were not lucky enough to have the great composers of the 18th and 19th century write for us, so we have to transcribe a lot of works, meant for other instrumentalisation, or commission new works, for the instrument - I do a lot of both, and then the question is, what is technically possible. There are certain limits, for example as to how chromatic a piece can be, in order to be transcribed. If there is a lot of melodic movement in the base, it rarely works for the harp, because of all the resonances; it’s hard to muffle the base at a certain time, since it loses the momentum for a strong enough attack, coming from the lower register to create the right texture. Complex contrapuntal writing, unless it’s solely in the upper register, is problematic to transcribe for harp, limiting its possibilities of choices.”
photo credit: Lyon & Healy Harps
He continues, “For example, The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its many configurations in the middle and lower register, would not work well for the harp, losing its explicit clarity…But certain works of Bach can work rather well; I would, for example, love to transcribe the six French Suites, or also some of Chopin’s Mazurkas,” he says and confirms that “there are many, many possibilities.” He continues: “I love collaborations with all strings, in particular the violin, or viola, but also percussion works well with the harp’s resonances, even electronics, and I am constantly looking to expand the repertoire with new commissions.”
“The almost violent dynamics reached on the harp, especially in modern music, is something audiences are often fascinated with.” Sivan’s recorded and live work has garnered a great deal of praise both critically and popularly. His debut solo album, Fantasien, released in February on the Linn label to critical praise, aims to show the broad range of expressive possibilities of the harp, exploring the form of Fantasy from the Baroque to the early 20th century. A second disc recorded for the same label this June, is forthcoming. It will juxtapose French music of the 21st century with the golden age of the harp in France – which is the early 20th century.
Being so intimately familiar with the vast potential of the instrument, Sivan sometimes shrugs in frustration at how fringed the harp still seems to be in the eyes of even avid concert-goers: “There is definitely a tendency for people to underestimate the expressive potential of the instrument and its diversity of sound,” he says. “Many imagine a harp solo recital to be boring. I always get responses after a recital, like ‘I did not know that harp can sound like that,’ or ‘now I want to hear more…’ The difficulty is bringing people in for the first time, audiences and concert presenters alike.”
Sivan Magen will perform at LePoisson Rouge on October 6th as part of the trio Tre Voce, celebrating their Cd-release with music by Rameau, Debussy, and Sofia Gubaidulina and as soloist at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on October 21st.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pianist Lily Maisky and Cellist Mischa Maisky – musicality in the genes

(This article is published in this month's German Ensemble magazine.)
Lily Maisky - photo credit: Benjamin Brolet
As the daughter of world-renowned cellist Mischa Maisky, pianist Lily Maisky always felt a special connection to her father, who naturally inspired her reverence for classical music. “My father always was this enormous figure in music and naturally shared his gift and the joy of music.”
It was obvious early on that Lily’s younger brother, Sasha, would become the missing violinist of the Maisky family trio, which had been a dream of her father’s. “My father always had that vision of us making music together, but it was never forced. He gently encouraged both of us, giving musical advice in a way that was fun, not pushing technique, but rather inspiring my imagination,” says Lily, who freely admits to being somewhat of an awkward child, not fitting in with her classmates’ social climate. “I was never accepted, I was eccentric and always running off to practice, “she says,
“Music just was in our lives, always,” she says, and while it was mainly her mother, Kay, who oversaw her daily practice routine while her father was on tour – making her get up at six in the morning to practice before school, and seeing that she practice for at least an additional hour after the rigorous school curriculum –Mischa Maisky’s exceptional place in the music world sparked Lily’s motivation.
(photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - taken during rehearsal at the Martha Argerich Festival in Lugano)
Born in Paris and growing up in Brussels, Belgium, Lily started piano lessons at age four. Her teachers included Lyl Tiempo, Hagit Kyrbel, Ilana Davis, and Alan Weiss. “As a child, I was not the most eager piano student, always finding ways to cut daily practice time, often reading a book while pretending to pay attention, playing with one hand,” she says. But it was her early experiences of the musician’s lifestyle that preserved her fascination with the music’s context and the musicians in her personal life. “I always got along with adults better than with my peers. The grownups around my parents were my friends as well,” she remembers.
“In the summers we would travel to music festivals with my parents, where my father performed.” At age six, Lily was present at the first edition of the illustrious Verbier festival; there were tours to Israel and Sienna, Italy, where Mischa Maisky gave master classes at the academy. Lily’s exposure to the world of performance over the years instilled in her pervasive ambitions: in 2001, she became a pupil at the Purcell School of Music, where she also expanded upon her classical training, foraying into Jazz performance. She began to partake in master classes with famous musicians like Dimitri Bashkirov, Joseph Kalichstein, Pavel Giliov, Vitali Margulis, and Oleg Maisenberg, and when she was 15 years old, she performed with her father for the first time, which both of them describe as a revelation: “I was working on the very intense Brahms E-minor Sonata; I asked him to run it through with me. We had a party for my mom’s birthday, and we decided to make it a surprise performance for her. My mom got nervous, but when we played together, it was the most natural thing in the world, it felt as if we had always played together,” says Lily, and Mischa confirms: “we did not rehearse but sat down and played, and it was fantastic. She was ready – if you can ever be ready - and played with such great instinct, emotion, and sensitivity; in that moment I realized – my dream is coming true, it felt like we are related,” he says with the typical warm and humorous fashion of his storytelling. (photo - Mischa Maisky and Lily Maisky - courtesy of the artist) 
“I am the luckiest cellist in the world,” he continues. “I met Pablo Casals, studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, and made more than twenty recordings with Leonard Bernstein, performing in many concerts with him conducting,” he says. His love affair with his cello, which was loaned to him, shared with the greats of the international music scene, among them Zubin Mehta, Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, Radu Lupo, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim, and only became his prized possession after a good many of his forty years-worth of award-winning performances. “I played with great and differing musicians, many of which I am connected with through special friendships, on- and off- stage. But playing music with our children is something else. Music begins where words fail and it becomes part of our personal relationship. I love all of my children either way of course, whether they play music or not, but going through this experience together is an emotional bond that’s powerful and uniquely special,” he says.
(photo credit: Ilona Oltuski - father and daughter after the rehearsal)
In 2005, Lily performed her first professional recitals with her father in Emola and in Ravenna, Italy: “I was still finishing up school and was building up repertoire, and this was my first serious collaboration as a chamber musician. I knew then that chamber music was to become my forte, and that this was meant to be. I was never built for nor interested in a virtuoso career,” says the petite-framed pianist, who at that time had experienced some fatigue symptoms and was battling a severe case of tendonitis. The rehearsal schedule of a chamber musician, which was less physically demanding than performing with orchestras, appealed to the pianist, who refers to herself as: “unteachable, by the pedagogues in my life.”
“All my teachers told me I was pretty much too strong headed to be taught, I always learned by performing.  And I feel it was faith that the performance with my father inspired my independent interest in chamber musician.” In 2008 she performed as a soloist, with a program of Scriabin, Chopin, and Janacek at the yearly Progretto Martha Argerich festival in Lugano, and built up her experiences with different chamber music partners. “It is important to know one’s strength and weaknesses and I feel I have the gift to listen to others and have the flexibility to adept to different styles and performance situations and I find the dialogue on stage utmost exciting. Every chamber music partner has the potential to inspire a different kind of collaboration and to explore and present the repertoire in a different way,” she explains.
(photo credit: Bernhard Rosenberg)
For nine years now, father and daughter have frequently teamed up for duo performances, or have performed as a trio with her brother, Sasha. Deutsche Grammophon extended her father’s 25-year recording catalogue to include two collaborative CDs performed by the father/daughter duo: The first double CD, titled Song of the Cello, compiles live recordings of pieces by Rachmaninoff and Brahms from festival performances at Verbier and Utrecht. The second recording, titled España! Songs and Dances from Spain, was recorded in the studio. Lily is also featured on a Shostakovich recording on the former EMI label, along with violinist Alissa Margulis and pianist Nicholas Angelich, both of whom are regular participants at Progretto Martha Argerich, as is the Maisky family.  Lily’s latest CD release, a recording with violinist Philippe Quint released on the Avanti label, was featured by The New York Times in November 2013. She is currently preparing a performance program with violinist Hrachya Avanesyan, with whom she feels she has an especially strong musical and personal connection. Lily’s concerts have been frequently broadcast on European and Asian radio and television, and last year, she made the cover on Harper’s Bazaar Korea.
The young artist is very aware of the pitfalls of being a famous musician’s daughter: “Of course there is always a struggle for finding your own voice, the fact that I do not play a string instruments is helpful.” After all, the rigorous musical training necessary in every musician’s upbringing does not except the fact that many musicians come from musicians’ families, where the recognition of musical talent and its necessary nurturing and sustained support are standard practice. Referring to her famous father she says: “Of course I became very associated with him, and perhaps I felt a bit more pressured on stage, carrying more responsibility with the name, that goes without saying. But at the end, you have to find your own voice and not care too much about what people think or say. He would not perform with me if he felt I could not play well enough. He is too much a musician for that; but the fact that our musical alliance developed so naturally and we matched so beautifully gave me the necessary self-confidence to overcome the feeling that I had to constantly prove myself. Of course it’s a continuous learning process, I constantly keep on growing over time, and that learning process continues with each new collaboration. My father is my most important musical influence, and I separate the father from the cellist. I learned many important musical principles from him, more than from anyone else, and I am still picky when it comes to collaborate with a different cellist; his sound is so ingrained in my head.”
In rehearsal there is not much being spoken between father and daughter. Most things vital to making music together, like timing and phrasing, are picked up by listening and an occasional glimpse of the other’s moves. The two musicians are in great correspondence, exercising a lot of body language as they play. “Naturally, I try to share my experience, what I know and love about music, through my playing, but it’s a two way street, and I am very open minded,” says Mischa. “ She influences me as often as I influence her; that’s the beauty of playing music together and keeping that kind of communication going – this is also what keeps me young,” says Maisky, renowned for his individualistic sound as well as his distinctly relaxed and youthful performance outfits.
The father-daughter team has never been stronger, it seems. Maisky’s very public separation from his wife when Lily was 14 years old was a traumatic event for Lily that forced her into an early maturity beyond her years. She says: “I was often the mediator, I was outraged and it took me years to recover, but it also made me fiercely independent and eager to support myself.”
(photo credit Ilona Oltuski: Lily and her brother Sasha, with their mother Kay, visiting the Lugano Festival)

Today, Lily feels close to her mother and father, and loves her young siblings from her father’s second marriage. Playing chamber music gives her a sense of belonging to the artists’ community she grew up with and enjoys. “It trumps the solitude of a soloist, on stage and…en route,” she says. 
For 2016, the father and daughter plan on touring with the charismatic violinist Julian Rachlin.


hear father and daughter perform here