Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An evening in Tel Aviv to remember Israeli pianist Varda Nishri

On April 7th 2010 an evening of words and music was held at the Felicja Blumental Music Center (Tel Aviv) in memory of pianist Varda Nishri, who died 15 years ago. The evening was organized by Nishri’s daughter, Natalia Paruz, herself a musician. Born in Israel, Varda Nishri began giving concerts at age eight, studying with Dinu Lipatti, Claudio Arrau and other great artists. Her studies later included the History of Renaissance Art (Florence University), Musicology (Sorbonne University) and Philosophy (Bar Ilan University). She directed the Israel Bach Center and was considered an expert on J.S.Bach, made deep studies of Mozart’s works and was an authoritative interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music.

The evening opened with a recording of Nishri’s playing of the first movement of Paul Ben Haim’s (1897-1984) Music for Piano - 1957, opus 53, a work composed for her.

Israeli composer and teacher Professor Tzvi Avni (b. 1927, Germany) spoke of Varda Nishri’s wide field of interests, those including the plastic arts, literature and Jewish mysticism. He referred to her seriousness and humor - the play of “light and dark” in her personality - both of which were constantly reflected in her playing. Avni spoke of Nishri’s interest in a piano piece he was composing in the 1970’s; it was she who gave it its title –“Epitaph”. “Epitaph” – Piano Sonata no. 2 (1979), a musical tribute to Reb Nachman of Bratslav, was performed in this program by Zecharia Plavin. An intimate, compelling, contemplative, atonal work bristling with interesting pianistic sonorities, Plavin brought out the pain and vehemence expressed in the piece. He paced it carefully, setting out each gesture clearly, his minimal use of the sustaining pedal never blurring the motif at hand. Above all, Plavin’s impressive performance presented the deeply personal and moving message of the work.

American composer Scott R. Munson was present at the event. “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is fleeting) is part of a quotation from the writings of Hippocrates. Munson composed his work of this title in memory of Varda Nishri; it was premiered at this concert. Scored for string quartet and musical saw, we heard it performed by the Israel Contemporary String Quartet – violinists Hadas Fabrikant and Andrea Helm, violist Katya Polin, ‘cellist Ira Givol – with Natalia Paruz joining the quartet with the expressive, floating timbre of the saw. Munson’s work is an atonal kaleidoscope of textures, its humorous moments contrasted by more nostalgic ones. The four string players infused the work with youthful energy, Paruz’s contrasting role sounding almost vocal in timbre.

Another of Munson’s works, “Bend”, also scored for string quartet and saw, presented a busy, syncopated Ragtime scene depicted by the strings, with the saw contrasting in a more flamboyantly melodic manner.

Composer, arranger, orchestrator and vibraphonist Scott Munson graduated from Rutgers University in composition, percussion, jazz theory and jazz improvisation. In 2000, Munson was composer in residence with the Goliard Chamber Ensemble. He has written works for ballet and was recently commissioned by the NYC Musical Saw Festival to compose two works for saw and string quartet. His works are performed in concert halls throughout the world, on radio and television and he is the recipient of several awards. Munson’s newly formed ten-piece band AmeriKlectic will begin performances in the summer of 2010.

Paruz began her music education at the age of five with recorder lessons, taking piano lessons and ear-training with her mother from age six, studying voice, theory and guitar in her teen years However, as a child, Paruz was convinced that one musician in the family was enough and she turned her focus to dance, graduating from the Bat Dor School of Dance and dancing with the Bat Sheva Two Dance Company, both in Israel. Paruz went to New York to become a trainee in the Martha Graham Dance Company, but was hit by a taxi there one day, this accident putting an end to her career in dance. On a trip to Austria with her parents, she heard a saw player performing in a show for tourists. She was fascinated by his playing and asked him to teach her. He refused, explaining that saw players must teach themselves. In her work on the saw, Paruz has developed her own technique. This, coupled with her outgoing, communicative personality, gives her performances vitality. Paruz aims at preserving the art of playing the saw and encourages contemporary composers to write works for it. To that end, she has brought the sounds of the musical saw to the concert hall, to radio and television; Paruz plays the saw in the New York subway, offering passing travelers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the instrument. She also organizes the NYC Music Saw Festival, which is in its eighth year.

Israeli composer, arranger, pianist and educator Eyal Bat was no stranger to Varda Nishri. They met when Natalia and he won first prize in a competition for writing French songs and Nishri had then watched Bat develop his art into a fine musical career. Bat’s nostalgically emotional piece “1905 for Piano and Saw” really “sings” . (1905 refers to the year the building in which the building where Paruz lives nowadays in New York was built.)

Bat’s “Canticle of Angels” for two musical saws and piano was premiered in New York in July 2009. This charming miniature, appealing in its use of the cantabile qualities of the saw, was performed at this concert, however on saw and recorder, with Katya Polin on recorder. Polin’s fine musicianship on both viola and recorder lends versatility to her concert work. Another unusual item on the program was a duet written by Scott Munson for musical saw and music box. The music box had been a present to Nishri from a Japanese pupil of hers.

Speaking of his relationship with Varda Nishri, Bat mentioned the inspiration and support he had received from her. Three weeks before her death, he played her a new piano piece of his – “Aliya” - the title referring to the rising up of the soul, a concept taken from Jewish mysticism. Bat performed the piece at this concert. With associations to eastern European Jewish scales, the work is richly harmonic and melodic. Broken chords in the left hand give rise to a fantasy of caressing melodies in the right hand. Bat’s mellifluous phrases are long and sweeping. Bat’s musical canvases are characterized by good taste and a sense of well-being.

Nishri had lived in France and French culture became very much a part of her artistic palette. Paruz and ‘cellist Ira Givol performed a piece from the 1991 French film “Delicatessen”, in which a young woman ‘cellist plays duets with a man who plays the saw. In the concert at the Blumental Center, roles were reversed; however, both artists addressed every melodic phrase and each other in this charming and sweetly sentimental piece of musical, non-verbal wooing.

Retired director of the Givatayim Conservatory of Music, Aharon Shefi talked of Nishri’s founding of the Israel Bach Centre and Nishri’s sister spoke of Varda as a person, drawing together the threads of a varied and colorful event at the Felicja Blumental Music Center.

No comments: