Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra - Happy 80th Birthday and Happy New Year!

It’s a season of celebration for an exceptional orchestra, in an extraordinary land full of music. Yes – against all odds, the soil that saved so many from the ashes of the Holocaust and inherited the soulful tradition of Russia’s virtuosi as they fled communist repression harvests its musical talent in an embrace of its own individual flavor with the best of what international music culture has to offer. Originating as The Palestine Orchestra under Huberman, Maestro Toscanini called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which has been intimately intertwined with the history of the State of Israel, “the most extraordinary orchestra in the most extraordinary place in the world” during its inauguration. (photo: memorial plaque at the Charles Bronfman auditorium)
Just returning from a visit during which I sampled some of the extraordinary concert season’s highlights held at the Philharmonic’s newly renovated concert hall, I am still in awe and eager to share my impressions.
In the midst of Hanukkah, the spiritual Jewish festival characterized by seemingly timeless buoyancy, everlasting in the face of oppression and persecution, each of the concerts on the holiday’s eight nights commenced with an inclusive candle-lighting ceremony. Sometimes lit by young artists and on one occasion Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President, the lighting of the candles sets the festive framework of the evening accompanied by the beautiful Hanukkah hymn “Ma'oz Tzur,” at times regally accompanied by Zubin Mehta, and the orchestra.
Mehta, the orchestra’s longtime companion and its international leading figure since 1961, when he began at the Orchestra in an advisory role that evolved into a lifelong championship of Israel and its musical talent, incidentally also celebrated his 80th birthday.
His announcement of his retirement for the 2019 season reminded audiences of their part in a historic, almost bygone era. (photo: Maestro Zubin Mehta)
The series’ 7th concert featuring star pianist Evgeny Kissin in Rachmaninov’s Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18 marked Kissin’s second performance this season, following his solo piano recital of German classics and Spanish Romantics some days before. Given the fact that his programs are conceived each year and performed around the globe, it seems absolutely mind-boggling how his revelatory Beethoven Appassionata, for example, that had already sent audiences at his Carnegie Hall rendition earlier this year into a trance, proved here to be equally sublime.
This is Kissin – the exceptional artist – convincing, time after time, with his straightforward, yet truly poignant touch. His Rachmaninov II that evening was nothing short of riveting. Some die-hard fans, who never fail to beleaguer the patient and generous artist backstage after his performances on a regular basis, are familiar with his 1989 recording of the inimitably romantic concerto with former performance comrade Valerie Gergiev on the Red Seal label. Kissin’s nuances have not changed all that much, except perhaps for his maturing full-fledged outlook, which does not seem to lose any of its fresh excitement over time.
When Kissin entered, performing within the context of the orchestra’s free-leaning kinship under Mehta, it became clear at once that two forces of nature met on stage, both maestros in their field. The number of collaborations between Mehta and Kissin, which arch back in time to Kissin’s first emergence as a prodigal pianistic talent, his reputation quickly surmounting the iron curtain, were palpable in their warm and supportive musical embrace. Mehta once had pointed out to me his personal appreciation for Kissin’s art, when saying: “[Kissin] has this almost unattainable musical gift; like almost no other artist alive he can play the notes in-between the bar-lines.” And Kissin, who, throughout his commanding career has performed with literally every renowned conductor alive, appreciates Mehta in return. As he mentioned once with warm admiration at a rehearsal with Mehta some years ago: “[Mehta] is such a joyful and wonderful accompanist; we click immediately.”
This performance was certainly one to remember – significant and elevating, its best moments exalting and exemplifying all that the classical genre has to offer. I had been wondering if Kissin, who identifies greatly with Israel and has taken on Israeli citizenship, feeling truly at home, would offer some of his own compositions as an encore; instead he kept it close to context with a Rachmaninov Prelude and a Tchaikovsky Waltz. Returning to composing recently, after only some initial, early compilations of his youth means Kissin has added yet another creative outlet in addition to his publicly acclaimed recitations of Yiddish poetry, and writing novels and poems of his own. But modestly smiling, he protests: “No Ilonushka, this has not even crossed my mind.” (photo: taken by Kissin's mother)

A concert with a very different dynamic, yet equally wonderful when it comes to artistic energy of ingenious dimension and zeitgeist, was the prior evening’s performance by pianist Yuja Wang, who was just named Musical America Artist Of The Year, in collaboration with percussion virtuoso extraordinaire Martin Grubinger Jr. and his Percussive Planet Ensemble.

In rehearsal, Yuja, a powerhouse at the piano with an electric personality, transcended perceptive musicality in precise communication with Grubinger Jr., whom she later introduced as an internationally renowned “wizard of percussion” during a concert. A film crew of Germany’s Bayrische Rundfunk, led by Alexander Hellbrűgge, the TV station’s journalist for classical programs, follows Grubinger on tour, for their klick klack documentary series on artists’ perspectives.
Born in Salzburg, Grubinger’s strong Austrian accent is personable. His father is part of the ensemble, and every member, including Alexander Georgiev and Leonhard Schmidinger, works equally hard. The virtuoso brings informality to the stage while maintaining excellence, demanding different takes on various passages, which seem to work for the others. Yuja similarly is all business. “I can’t hear myself,” she complains to the sound engineer. She is focused on trying to follow the cues while blending with the percussion sounds immediately surrounding the piano in close proximity. Thanks to her fingers, which seem to be made from steel one moment and velvet the next, Grubinger in turn complains: “The piano is so loud, at times,” as they figure out how to adjust to each others’ soundscapes. But when it works, it’s all fireworks.
Addressing the audience unassumingly, Grubinger expresses thanks for the invitation to perform. He conveys the dilemma of a percussionist’s typically sidelined visibility within the classical orchestral setup, noting his experience studying at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz and at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and explaining his desire to create transcriptions that offer more vociferous displays of percussive instrumentation. With the transcription of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (for one piano and percussion here), Grubinger makes it clear how exciting it can play out when percussion plays an equally important role. In a brand new transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, originally conceived for piano and orchestra, both Grubingers, Jr. and Sr., displayed the full potential of orchestral dimension with such a novel blend. Not only did this performance showcase the incredible range of the percussive idiom to a much broader harmonic end, it also brought out the interest of the piano’s percussive character – a commanding feat in Yuja’s hands – to its full realization.
Yuja, who like the iconic Lang Lang graduated from the Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of their mutual mentor Gary Graffman, has built a remarkable international career, fusing dazzling mastery of the piano with a uniquely captivating stage presence. While her insistence on revealing, sexy stage attire has provoked some negative clichés associated with her by traditional critics, her pianistic dexterity has managed to convince even reluctant followers of her trending celebrity, which in itself proves to be an asset in bridging the gap between the generations in audiences of classical music.
At Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium, at least, audiences were ecstatic, clapping and stomping for more as Yuja changed outfits and Grubinger’s ensemble designed the stage to fit the mood and instrumentation for the following encores. Assorted groupings were arranged to incorporate different percussive modes, from pots and pans to marimbas, for varying genres ranging from Piazzola’s Libertango to jazz improvisations. It was an evening quite unlike any other, filled with a tremendous virtuosity and the high energy of a truly electric artistic exchange. Captivated, Zubin Mehta watched this one from the auditorium, next to the orchestra’s leading man, Avi Shoshani, Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: a seat the eminent maestro will take more often following his 2019 retirement. (photo: backstage right after the phenomenal performance, Yuja, Maestro Zubin Mehta and Avi Shoshani, who always got his artists' back.)

Jewish identity in music – pianist Elisaveta Blumina explores Mieczyslaw Weinberg's oeuvre, and her own heritage in the process

Multilingual, with a vivid personality and eyes that bare her soul, the prodigal pianist born in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), has built her career as performance and recording artist in Germany and beyond, and serves as artistic director of the Hamburg Chamber Music Festival since 2012. (Photo Credit: Frances Marshall)

When it comes to new discovery, Blumina’s creativity as curator and performer unite, combining skilled professionalism with passionate investigation and expression. In a highly idiosyncratic manner, she follows her instincts and curiosity. Certainly such passion is grounded in her deep motivation to express diverse musical facets, which, like little puzzle pieces put together, are larger than the sum of their meaningful morsels. Time after time, she closes the gaps, shedding as much light on her finds, as on own identity as woman artist of Jewish heritage.

Growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors, yet in an environment rooted in high brow culture – the Russian school of piano, which dominated the St. Petersburg conservatory and idolized Germany's music tradition – certainly left a strong emotional imprint on her personal and musical identity.

At age 19, Blumina moved to Hamburg all by herself to advance her piano studies, and there was no looking back. Several years in Florida followed, where her older son was born, then Rome, Geneva, and Madrid, where her younger son was born, and finally Dublin, where she spearheads a music school. Among her teachers she counts Andrἁs Schiff, Evgeny Koroliov, Radu Lupo and Bruno Canino.

(Photo Credit: Mathias Mayer, Laetzhalle from Hamburg Chamber Music Festival, Elisaveta Blumina, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Sennu Laine, Andrei Gridchuk)

She became a frequent guest performer at international festivals, like the Schleswig-Holstein, Colmar, Verbier and Lockenhaus festivals and gained a distinct reputation as pianist, chamber musician and lecturer. While she settled in Germany and did not revisit Russia during the twenty years after she had left her hometown, her connection to Russian music culture grew stronger as she grew more conscious of her personal background. That awareness translated into her drive to bring back some of the pearls of that almost lost traditional Russian Jewish inheritance.

While Blumina's multifaceted pianistic interests include repertoire that ranges from Russian masters and moderns, to Brahms, to French music - her 2014 CD with the Ensemble Blumina Trio (with Kalev Kuljus, Oboe, and Mathias Baier, Bassoon) features works of French chamber music from the 20th and 21st centuries and garnered the Echo Price of that category - it became her passion to help composers who had remained unjustifiably unknown to the public, be heard anew.
It is no coincidence that her special focus on Jewish composers received an engaged reception throughout Germany, especially with the second postwar generation.

Founded by Blumina in 2014, the Giluim Festival in Schoenebeck – Hebrew for ‘discoveries’ – became an additional platform to expose such lost art with a Jewish component, pairing unheard performers like George Dreyfus with the work of renowned Jewish composers, like Gershwin and Mendelssohn.
In 2014, Blumina also devoted much attention to the composer Grigori Samuilowitch Fried, a contemporary of Weinberg. Blumina also became fascinated with thecompendium of female Jewish  composers, many of them cultural icons of their time, who found a special place in Blumina's heart. She has devoted diverse programs ofher Hamburg Chamber Music Festival to these Jewish musical heroines, planning to expand the exposure of their works and continue to explore their challenging cultural roles as women, musicians and Jews in society. (photo: courtesy of artist)

Broadening her “exponents'” presence with her curatorial ambitions has become as important as Blumina’s performances as a pianist and chamber musician, which in the meantime, also brings her annually to Safed, as participant at the Israeli Klezmer Festival. (photo: courtesy of artist)

Perhaps none of Blumina’s efforts, though, has taken on such panoramic volume and broad follower-ship than her rediscovery of Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. With her continued championship of Weinberg's brilliant work, Blumina has managed to play a central role in a recent perpetual Weinberg Renaissance.

And her enthusiasm is contagious.

Blumina was in New York when Weinberg’s work was first brought to her attention in 1995 by Russian Cellist Yosif Feigelson, who had already recorded some of Weinberg's works.
It was then she realized she had been familiar with Weinberg's music all along, as had most everybody growing up in Russia at the time, through his compositions for films including the beloved cartoon Winnie the Pooh.
Upon further research, she was surprised to find that this favorite melody from her childhood was just one of sixty-five film scores Weinberg produced next to his prolific output of twenty-six symphonies, seven concertos, seventeen string quartets, twenty-eight sonatas for various instruments, seven operas and ballets and various other works, including a requiem and countless songs.
Sixteen albums of Weinberg's music were released on the Olympia label between 1994 and 2000, many of them releases of Soviet-era recordings of live premiere performances; this recorded repertoire gives a representation of the composer’s oeuvre, alas with differing recording qualities (Reilly 2000). An important force behind these recordings was Tommy Persson, and subsequently releases on the Chandos label followed.

When Blumina started to explore the substantial musical material, she fell in love with his Children Note Books, I-III, Op. 16, 19, and 23, consisting of 23 pieces for piano, which had been written in 1944 for his daughter Viktoria.
Just recently, Blumina had a chance to meet with Viktoria in person in Israel, where she had emigrated with her mother Nataliya (Weinberg's first wife) in 1972. The meeting was momentous, remembers Blumina: “An important personal connection for me was the fact that perhaps the most beautiful of Weinberg's works, which also incidentally started my big recording project with CPO, was dedicated to her.” Blumina had the opportunity to interview Viktoria in her native Russian language, hearing about her close relationship with her father, and her memories of listening to her father's compositions before they were played through for his close friends: Dmitri Shostakovitch, Boris Tschaikowski and Volik Bunin. Viktoria used to add the page numbers by hand into her father's manuscripts, and she accompanied him to rehearsals of his new works. Music remained in the forefront of Weinberg’s daily routine, just like it had dominated his youth in Warsaw, where his father practiced violin and composed for a Jewish theater company, he also conducted. (photo: Deutschland Radio Kultur, Berlin)

Interestingly, it was Weinberg's Jewish identity, which initially had led to his persecution, subjugationand neglect, that brought him the renewed interest he so well deserved.
“His music is overflowing with Jewish spirit and sentiment, and his melodies carry in them the essence of Jewish pain and melancholy,” says Blumina, who, several years ago, began a series of recordings for the CPO label which upon completion will span Weinberg's complete collection of Solo Piano and some of his Chamber Music works. “Once I started to occupy myself with his work, I realized I just had to go deeper and deeper. His work is full of individual idioms, diverse and multifaceted, it just did not let me go.”

Others feel equally engaged after making the acquaintance with Weinberg's talent. Star violinist Gidon Kremer once thanked Blumina personally for having infected him with her “feverish passion” for the composer, and since has performed Weinberg on a regular basis. In 2015, he and rising star pianist Daniil Trifonov put Weinberg on Carnegie Hall's stage. This season under the title: “Masks and Faces,” Kremer and his exalted Baltic chamber group, Kremeratica, will present works by Weinberg, Tschaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Arvo Paert at New York's 92Y, during his US tour, placing Weinberg's presence firmly within Russia's artistic heritage. (photo: Gidon Kremer with Elisaveta Blumina, courtesy of artist)

Weinberg [sometimes appears also in print as Vainberg or Vajnberg – New Grove Dictionary] was born 1919 in Warsaw and lost his entire family during the Holocaust. Escaping Nazi occupation, he fled his native Poland to the Soviet Union, and following a personal invitation from the famed composer Dmitri Shostakovitch to perform for him in Moscow after receiving the score of his First Symphony, settled there, in close proximity. Suffering arrest, interrogation and imprisonment in 1953 under Stalin's Anti-Semitic persecutions, Weinberg only barely escaped deportation to Siberia thanks to Shostakovitch's intervention on his behalf and Stalin's timely death. Official recognition was only slow to follow in his life in form of honorary titles: “Honored Artist of the Russian Republic” in 1971, “People's Artist of the Russian Republic” in 1980 and “State Prize of the UDSSR” in 1990, but he died in1996 in poor health and largely forgotten, his legacy almost lost behind the Iron Curtain.

“While often engaged with and inspired by some of the tragic events surrounding his life, Weinberg's artistic imagination stands above his life's biographic accounts, standing the test of time. While uniquely present, his personal idiom rises above any biographical data, connecting it to a larger artistic truth and humanistic experience,“ says David Fanning in his autobiography, which was published in 2010, partially based on materials collected by Per Skans, who passed away in 2007 before finalizing publication.
Blumina, who is currently assembling her own collective of interviews for her upcoming Weinberg compendium with musicians who directly collaborated with Weinberg and include among others Pavel Kogan, Thomas Sanderling and Michail Jurowski, aims to dig deep:“Despite his immense productivity during his Soviet years, Weinberg continuously suffered from Antisemitic sentiments, affecting both his work and personal life. During all of his life he remained an outsider within Soviet society, keeping his strong polish accent and a low profile, often missing out on opportunities, which were given to others instead.” she says. When Fanning mentions that Weinberg never allowed himself to be “victimized by oppression,” Blumina feels he was rather “deeply affected” by it. “His solace were those rare triumphant moments, when his work was championed by established artists like violinists David Oistrach, Rudolf Barshaj and Leonid Kogan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Emil Gilels, the Borodin Quartet and conductors Kirill Kondrashin and Vladimir Fedoseyev.”
The conductor Thomas Sanderling, another great champion of Weinberg's works, with whom Blumina also recorded her latest, much lauded CD of works by post-Soviet composers Ustvolskaja, Silvestrov and Kanchelli with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, (released in September of 2016 on Naxos' Grand Piano label) describes Weinberg as:
” A human being of incredible purity; he did not live in a country – not in the reality that surrounded him.”

Weinberg found his most powerful and fervent advocate, friend and inspiration during his life in Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, already impressed by Weinberg's promising early work, engaged on behalf of the young composer with the KGB, safeguarding him from deportation, and commended his work in public. While never enrolled as his pupil, Weinberg deeply admired Shostakovitch's work and persona, (according to Fanning) declaring himself as his “pupil, his flesh and blood.”
But there are certainly many other influences observable in Weinberg's work, like those of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók and Mahler for example.
“Both Shostakovitch and Weinberg worked across a wide range of genres and in a gamut of styles, from folk idioms (including Jewish ones especially for Weinberg) to twelve-note elements. Yet for all the unmistakable echoes of his revered role model, Weinberg,” observes Fanning, “retained a higher level of independence than many of his Soviet colleagues wanted to believe, distancing himself both from official academic conservatism and, in the 1960s and after, from the younger generations' fervent embrace of Western-style modernism.”

And Robert R. Reilly, music critic of Crisis Magazine, points out: “Like Shostakovitch, Weinberg wrote expansive music with big gestures and extraordinarily long-lined melodies...both composers were classical symphonists who wrote essentially tonally oriented music... and [certainly], each composer in tribute, liberally quoted the others works. [But] the similarities with Shostakovitch, may cause one to overlook Weinberg's own significant melodic gift and his extraordinary ability to develop [highly original] themes. Weinberg, [at times ridiculed as ‘the little Shostakovitch]’ worked with traditional harmonic and tonal expectations and rarely failed to meet them in satisfying and novel ways. He could sustain a sense of expectancy over long spans of time with vast melodic and contrapuntal structures. Weinberg was more romantic than Shostakovitch, and wrote with irony, sometimes humor, instead of Shostakovitch's sardonic bombast and cutting edge. Of Weinberg's Sixth Symphony, Shostakovitch had exclaimed: ‘I wished I could put my own name to this symphony,’ and he dedicated his tenth string quartet to Weinberg. “
“Terminally ill, in March of 1975, Shostakovitch attended all of the rehearsals for the premiere of Weinberg's opera The Madonna and the Soldier,” writes Martin Anderson ( 1996).
He also knows about Weinberg's role as collaborating pianist with Shostakovitch: “When Shostakovitch presented his latest works to the Composer's Union and to the Soviet Ministry of Culture , it was generally in four-hand versions, in which Weinberg was his habitual accompanist. In 1967, Weinberg replaced the ailing Shostakovitch in the premiere of his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, with Vishnevskaya, Oistrakh and Rostropovich.”

In the last years, some of Weinberg's operas have received live performances to high acclaim in Germany and Austria.
In 2015, The Lyric Opera of Chicago presented David Pountey's production of Weinberg's opera "The Passenger" Op.97 (1967-68) under Sir Andrew Davis; certainly further confirmation for the increased appreciation of Weinberg's idiom internationally. (photo credit: Weinberg by Tommy Persson © Olga Rakhalskaya)
But despite all recent activity, Weinberg can still be regarded as a composer whose work leaves room for revelation to performers, concert producers and new audiences alike. Hopefully, more passionate champions of his work like Blumina will follow suit, inspiring further emanation of his work.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

AICF - In Support Of Israel's Talent Network

dsc00064An astounding display of musical talent was offered to guests and supporters at the festive 77th America-Israel Cultural Foundation Gala last Tuesday evening, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater under the auspices of Israel’s Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan. (Photo: Ilona Oltuski -Prize ceremony David Stern for Ivry Gitlis )
Honoring the memory of Vera Stern, the musical program unified three generations of virtuosi, all of whom had received support from AICF at the start of their careers. The partaking artists were friends, colleagues, students or protégés of the influential music power couple Vera and Isaac Stern, and included world-renowned performers Itzhak Perlman and Yefim Bronfman. The Sterns’ three children, David, Michael and Shira, guided audiences through the program, which was compiled according to Vera’s musical taste spanning works by Prokofiev, Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, Bloch, Chopin, Bach and Brahms; the trio of siblings shared personal remarks and historic memories in between performances by ensembles of interchanging sizes and configurations.
After saving Carnegie Hall and inspiring its development as one of the premier music institutions under his presidency, Isaac, the great performer and educator and the ever-energetic Vera, left their cultural legacy and a remarkable imprint that still holds its impact on today’s classical music scene.
Vera became involved with AICF in 1960, realizing the dire need for support for local talent in Israel. Through AICF’s dual corresponding activities in Tel Aviv and New York, American patrons are able to actively support music and art education in Israel, making it possible to train aspiring talent “chuz la aretz,” outside of Israel, ultimately introducing new artists to international audiences, while helping them to forge the networks careers are built upon.
In turn, some of its great artists return for performances in Israel, keeping the cultural exchange fluid.
Although the opportunities to develop their talents and continue to build careers abroad represent an ideal for many capable Israeli musicians, the musical import of Israel’s talent - many of Russian heritage - to the US and Europe has also created a bit of a newly exiled generation. Less obvious perhaps in a profession that requires so much touring, but Israeli talent still aims to prove career-worthy outside of their native borders, which of course in Israel’s case spans a comparatively minuscule region, creating a difficult scenario for a performer.
Given its small population, the amount of talent emerging in Israel is quite impressive, and many of the artists serve as Israel’s “ambassadors,” taking on the responsibility of presenting Israel’s strong embrace of international culture, while others rather distance themselves from being labeled.
Under the leadership of its New York director, David Homan, AICF has expanded its outreach into all creative areas, including dance, fine art, theater, and to the media and production side of curating and performance, which made this year’s inaugural ‘Vera Stern King Solomon Award’ especially meaningful.dsc00068
Photo; Ilona Oltuski  Alon Goldstein ( piano) Vadim Guzman ( violin)
The prize was presented by Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to media expert, producer, and President and CEO of WNET, Neal Shapiro, to reward visionary programming in support of the arts. The other award this evening, the ‘William A. Schwarz Aviv Award’ named for AICF’s previous longtime president William Schwarz, was presented by Vera Stern’s son, David, to a much-beloved figure of the music world, the violinist and perpetual enfant terrible, Ivry Gitlis, who embraced the audience saying: “Je vous aime le plus (you are my very favorite),” bringing the evening’s sentimental touch into the foreground.
The opening work of the evening, Prokofiev’s Overture on Jewish Themes, op.34 provided an early ample outlook on the caliber of the evening’s performers, with Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet), Vadim Gluzman and Itamar Zorman (violins), Shmuel Katz (viola), and Yefim Bronfman at the piano.dsc00077 Other highlights included a perceptive rendering of Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life – Baal Shem: Nigun by pianist Alon Goldstein with Vadim Guzman, a velvety performance by soprano Rinat Shaham in Bach’s Erbarme Dich from St. Matthew Passion, with a trio accompaniment by Itzhak Perlman (violin), Amit Peled (cello) and Alon Goldstein, as well as the scorching finale of Brahm’s Piano Quintet in F minor with Yefim Bronfman, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Guzman, Shmuel Katz, and Amit Peled, closing with another Opus 34.dsc00088
Pianist Tomer Gewirtzman represented the new generation of young Israeli artists. As winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Gewirtzman makes his New York recital debut on December 13th at Merkin Hall. He received the Audience Price at the AICF Aviv Competition in 2013.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Collected Counsel – Steven Isserlis revisits Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians

Steven Isserlis meets the pearls of wisdom in Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, originally meant to accompany the master’s renowned 1848 piano suite, Album for the Young, with directness and allure. Isserlis relates guidance from his vast experience as a performer, educator and writer/broadcaster, which, while closely based on Schumann’s precious aphorisms, adds his own didactic playfulness. His revised suggestions and bonus chapter, which outline his personal interpretations on Schumann’s original work in a light-hearted and humorous tone, avoid the trap of haughty weightiness while managing to address high-minded ideals with the seriousness of the matter at heart.
With recommendations like the importance “to stay true to one’s convictions, courageous in facing adversity and to never lose the love for music itself,” Isserlis keeps the conversation simple, real and encouraging, counterbalancing much of the anxiety-provoking frenzy that generally dominates the competitive scenes typical of music institutions.
With many contradicting opinions on the subject available, Isserlis does not underestimate the importance of putting things into perspective, especially when it comes to overzealous practice habits: “Genuine technical command allows us to play the music we’re performing without having to think about the [technical] difficulties; it gives us the freedom to listen to ourselves. The point of scales and exercises, ultimately, is to help our fingers/voices acquire the precision they need in order to produce the interpretation we hear in our heads/hearts.”
With his don’ts striking wit more often than his dos, he may just prevent another generation’s disastrous misconstruction of the craft: “…Don’t turn your performance into a lecture-recital! How many times does one play Bach, for instance and we hear from their playing what they’ve learned about double-dotting, ornamentation, etc.; and we also hear that they know when the music is changing key, because they take time over every modulation. The music will modulate whether you point it out or not…Ideally there should be no sense that you’ve made decisions in advance – more the impression that you are (re)creating as you perform. That way, the music you play will always sound alive – and new.”
Intrigued by the composer’s musical genius, Isserlis, an acclaimed British cellist, has devoted much of his illustrious career up to this point to Schumann’s oeuvre, making him a recipient of the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwieckau, where Schumann was born. The cellist’s chamber cycles have been staged internationally and include programs about varied aspects of the fascinating composer’s life and work, revealing a keen understanding and personal kinship to the fantastical world of the master’s imagination, musical idealism and purity.
Especially noteworthy are Isserlis’ efforts in ‘recovering’ the masters’ lesser-known works as part of a vehement effort to promote Schumann. In 2010, Schumann’s bicentenary, he wrote Grammophone (with Philistines in mind):
“Schumann's music is curiously alive today. One cannot pigeonhole him (perhaps that's why critics have difficulties); he is too experimental, too close to the edge of the known sound world. Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally he is way ahead of his time – outside of time, in fact, looking simultaneously into the past and the future…In short, he is a genius, unlike any other, one who can lead us into worlds undreamed of by anyone else. Every time I work on his music (as I am now doing for my upcoming residence at the Cheltenham festival), I marvel afresh, not just at the power of his imagination, but also at the brilliance of his mind. It is so exciting to follow his thought patterns as he moulds formal conventions into new, half-hidden shapes: miracle after miracle,” he offers, explaining his ongoing fascination with Schumann, the man his work.
“This bicentenary is the chance for more of us to engage with him (concert promoters, record companies and performers permitting). Far be it from me to be fanatical – but if you catch anyone being condescending about any aspect of Schumann's music or personality this year, please feel free to gently, but firmly, shoot them. For their own good.”

Isserlis’ examining of the master’s directions on how to implement artistic goals into routine principals could open up a slew of possible reflections on the creative process. He presents thoughtful critique on the role of the musician within society, the tradition of music education and the goal of music performance to a higher end, leaving room for a more in-depth evaluation of the creative experience of young musicians. While Isserlis could clearly analyze such matters in a wider context, he rather chooses here – in tune with Schumann’s inflections – to adhere to the more concrete approach, giving comprised, practical ‘how-to’ directions, and addressing the nascent musician in this intimate discourse.
Bestowed with a direct lineal heritage of musical tradition, as well as a code of ethics, by his great mentors Jane Cowan, Sándor Végh, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados, each of whom inspired Isserlis the musician and helped shape Isserlis the cellist in their own personal manner, Isserlis the educator is in turn consistently reaching out to the next generation. About the teachers in his life he has said: “I think I am right in saying that all four of these unique visionaries, different as they were/are, shared a basic set of musical values. In every lesson I took or observed with any of them, there was an over-riding goal: to help the student realize the composer’s vision. It hardly needs saying that none of them were interested in career for its own sake – in treating music like a competitive sport, in fact, which alas is the case in all too many institutions around the world today. These sages followed their musical ideals, and tried to help others do the same; what is the point in being a musician if one is not an idealist?” (Quoted from his 2014 speech at the Prussia Cove Chamber Music Festival).
One of the fascinating discoveries of Isserlis’ mentorship may lie in his recognition that disciplined timing is everything. A set routine – a crucial element for the fostering of inspiration – builds a central aspect of his illustrated children books: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled his Wig, both published by Faber and Faber in 2001 and 2006 respectively. Implementing good habits from the beginning, Isserlis describes the minutely detailed daily schedule of Tchaikovsky, for example, explaining the importance of making time for the mundane to the process of achieving the sublime: “Tchaikovsky will work from 9.30 until one o’clock. After that will come lunch, the main meal of the day, and then a walk of exactly two hours. (An hour and fifty-five minutes isn’t enough. Tchaikovsky is sure that he needs precisely two hours for the sake of his health.) He has to be alone for this, because he’s still composing in his head. The only problem is that the local children know that he’s a soft touch, because he loves children, and also because he loves to give his money away; so they will probably ambush him and beg for coins until he gives in and they run off, satisfied.” (Quoted from Why Handel Wagged his Wig).
Isserlis delivers his commentary with a particular ‘soft touch,’ always reflective of the joy he takes in passing his love for music and Schumann on to the next generation.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

ASPECT Foundation for Music and Art – classical concerts building on cultural and communal context

From its 2011 beginnings in London’s bustling concert scene, the classical music series ASPECT embraced presentations that integrate classical music programs in a specific cultural framework. With its syllabus of accompanying talks surrounding its traditional classical music programs, examining everything from composers’ lives and the historic relevance of their works, to connections between musical expression, art and poetry, the not-for-profit foundation became widely frequented, especially within London’s large community of actively engaged amateur musicians.
A brainchild of Russian-American culture devotee and former pianist Irina Knaster, the series has now – parallel to Irina’s move to New York – found a new musical home at Columbia University’s Italian Academy. ( Photo credit: Andy Filimon - Irina Knaster surrounded by collaborating artists )
The series’ New York debut on October 5th featured a sold out one-off concert, exploring little known links between Mozart and Bach, whose works were performed by stellar artists. Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellist Sergey Antonov, violist Dov Scheindlin and pianist extraordinaire Ignat Solzhenitsyn collaborated in various combinations with remarks interjected by Yale’s renowned professor, musicologist Paul Berry to the evening’s thematic: “Bach and Mozart, a lasting influence.” Clearly caught up in his calling, his elucidations might have fared better with a little less lecturing from the page, but his remarks were informative and thoughtful; if perhaps a little too academic for most of the audience members’ tastes. Any disappointment, though, was more than made up for by the stellar musicians who performed with great excellence and passion. Also delightful was the socially openhanded reception in the venue’s substantial foyer following the concert; many of the attending audience members knew some of the musicians, the organizers, or each other, and the crowd’s chemistry and enjoyment clearly evidenced the value of one of ASEPCT’s attractions: a cohesive, active community of musical people and fans of the artists. The attendance of Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s famed mother Bella Davidovich, renowned as one of Russia’s iconic pianists and teachers, was a special bonus, and it did not take long for her to become surrounded by a flock of former students and admirers.( Photo credit: Andy Filimon, violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Paul Berry)
An important facet of the series’ inspiration though lies in its alliance with musicians who are not necessarily favored by mainstream audiences. Says Knaster: “Many of the greatest musicians are not interested in or just not invested enough to create a huge PR following around them, but they are the true ‘bread and butter’ musicians, dedicated to music for the sake of music. They devote every minute of their time and effort to their work, learning new repertoire, teaching and well, playing with musicians they enjoy working with already, not necessarily looking out for opportunities that will further their own careers. For me, those are the real kind of artists who deserve support and these are the kind of artists that should be featured in the series.” Knaster’s criterion for choosing performers for her series is neither following in-demand “young and sexy” performers, nor is she exclusively looking for artists who are hugely renowned. She says, “even though artists that have an interesting following are geared to bring along some attractive collaborations, every concert is different. Sometimes programming is conceived around a specific artist; sometimes artists bring a whole concept or a specific presentation along.” Thematic choices of the series have been open ended themes, like “Composers on Composers,” Musical Capitals,” “Great Muses,” or” Words on Music,” with performers touching on a specific angle.
Sometimes it’s either the charismatic speaker who can have an enlightening impact, or the artist who connects particularly well with the audience. Thanks to the great support of the foundation’s sponsorship, Knaster has presented twenty-seven London concerts, pamphlets of each she collects in a big folder that she affectionately refers to as her ‘bible,’ flipping through the pages reminiscing, and a little bit in awe. She has received some positive press, including an article in The Strad, which she feels impacts her audiences less than it does her artists. “It’s a lot of trial and error that makes the series grow, and apparently the more parts there are to an event, the more there is that can go wrong,” she says. It is a risk, however, that the petite yet vigorous young woman, who admits to being somewhat of a perfectionist, is willing to take. “When it all comes together, it’s exhilarating,” she explains, “one of my favorite ones was actually the last concert in London; it just worked perfectly.”
She refers to a concert that centered on the love triangle of Shostakovich, Rostropovich and Britten, presented by BBC’s Lain Burnside, a concert she feels had exactly the right balance of instruction, music and personal input, and also benefitted from being presented in the amazing venue, she found after trying other locations for the series concerts: Notting Hill’s recently renovated 20th Century Theatre, which fit the ideal audience of 200 that Knaster had in mind. That last London evening was also enhanced by the presence of a former classmate of Rostropovich, equipped with old photos of him with Britten. “It was just special in every aspect, but projects are likely to take on a life of their own,” says Knaster.
Clearly the orchestration of every detail becomes much more important in an overall experience that focuses on music, but does not end there. “In the concert hall, people come to listen to the music, often holding their coat on their lap and then are getting up and leave without talking about their experience much, nor connecting with others. Here, you check your coat at the wardrobe, and you hopefully come away with an all-around meaningful encounter.”
Bringing the audience and the artists together, it seems the reception does fulfill an important objective, perhaps by balancing the emotional impact of the music, perhaps by affirming that audience members have become individual members of this newly-created social environment, or perhaps just by allowing that audiences continue to nourish and nosh.
While Knaster counts on the help of some of her former London collaborators, especially that of her former Art Professor, Patrick Bade, as well as longtime friend and BBC producer Misha Donat, getting started in New York brings a whole slew of new players onto her team.
Knaster’s versatile experiences are certainly a plus in her new endeavor. In addition to her education as a pianist, Knaster absolved a master’s program in art history and studied law, working as a corporate lawyer for an American company in Russia for many years during Russia’s phase of opening to the Western World. For personal advice, she has turned to New York’s legendary Edna Landau, co-founder of IMG and former personal manager of piano prodigy Evgeny Kissin. Edna, whose experience and endless knowledge of everything musical in the city, currently disperses career advice to conservatory students and musical talent throughout the country and knows just about every musician.
It looks like even if all the kinks haven’t been ironed out before Aspect’s next concert, it won’t take another twenty-seven concerts to land Knaster’s programing in the public eye as a local institution. New Yorkers may not be able to rely on a community of amateurs as huge and engaged as that which London has to offer, but the New York music scene is quick to pick up on refined programming and solid performers, and not one to dismiss socially accommodating presentations. With political worlds separating society increasingly, perhaps New York needs an active music community more than ever.
ASPECT’s next concert, titled “Romantic Vienna,” will take place on January 26th and will present works by the Austrian capital’s musical pillars that frame either end of the Romantic Movement: Schubert and Brahms. It will feature Arnaud Sussmann, violin, Paul Neubauer, viola, Rafael Figueroa, cello and Vsevolod Dvorkin, piano, emceed with an illustrated talk by BBC broadcaster Stephen Johnson. You can read more about this event and about the ASPECT Foundation at