Sunday, May 4, 2008

Composers in Discussion at Beit Avi Chai

This was a very different musical event from most in Jerusalem. It was one event in a series called “Duet” - a meeting between two Israeli composers and it took place in a tiny auditorium seven floors below street level in the new Beit Avi Chai complex. Tal Gordon emceed the evening. On the stage, seated behind a small table on which were a bottle of red wine and three tall glasses, were Dr. Benjamin Yusupov (b.Tajikistan 1962, in Israel from 1991), Professor Oded Zehavi (b.Jerusalem 1961) and Gordon.

The event began with each composer presenting his professional I.D. card, after which we heard a performance of two of Zehavi’s songs to words of Israeli poet Natan Altermann. Soprano Michal Okon performed them, with Zehavi at the piano. Okon, a musician of fine technique, emotional depth and understanding of the complex material at hand, captured the dark, pensive mood of these songs. Zehavi’s accompaniments were delicate and poignant. Yusupov then performed a short piano work of his – “Melancholia”.

The ensuing discussion focused on many issues facing Israeli composers, such as the difficulty in defining the term “classical music”, styles, individuality versus a common approach to composition and how “Israeli” a local composer should be. Zehavi began his career as a pianist, hoping to become an arranger. After his experiences in the 1st Lebanese War, he felt a need to compose his own music in order to express what the ordeal had meant to him. It is a fact that he wrote a Requiem at the age of 28. Today, Zehavi is Associate Professor of Music at Haifa University, where he enjoys the wide ethnic mix of students. Yusupov’s background is vastly different to Zehavi’s. He is heavily influenced by the ethnic musical styles of his native Tajikistan. However, coming to Israel, battling with and learning a different mentality and a new language have opened his mind to new styles in music. Yusupov’s early studies were in piano; today he teaches, conducts and is a prolific composer whose works are widely performed.

Yusupov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano was performed by cellist Hillel Tzori with Yusupov at the piano. Composed in Tajikistan before Yusupov left for Israel, the work uses authentic folk motifs and textures based on music and instruments of the region. The first movement, with its mesmerizing drone anchor, gives both players much individual expression. With the very first strains of sound, you are transported far away from the world of European music…far away from everywhere familiar to most of us…into the Pamir mountain region. The second movement is fiery, rhythmic and earthy, intense and syncopated, ending magically with a bubbling piano effect. In the third movement, Tzori fits the cello with a mute, thus totally changing the cello sound quality to produce a very different and folk-type of effect. The movement transports you into a landscape of endless distances and mystery, moving into a dramatic section and, then, back to the meditative mode of the beginning.. Kudos to Tzori for his very convincing and profound reading of a work in a musical language so different to that of European music. His own conviction inspires the listener to follow his every nuance.

Okon and Zehavi performed three more of Zehavi’s songs, this time to texts of poet Yair Horowitz. Horowitz’s restrained poetry expresses the gentle sadness of one aware of his own mortality. Zehavi’s sometimes atonal melodies are suggestive and delicate. Okon meets the challenge with fine diction and competence, revealing the text’s inner and somewhat disturbing messages with humility. Zehavi, a generally gregarious, outgoing person shows another side of his inner self in his fragile, introspective piano accompaniments.

Beit Avi Chai offers much in the way of cultural events: and, for the music-lover, a very different fare. This was an enrichening and worthwhile evening, with a nice balance of music and discussion.

Duet: Benjamin Yusupov and Oded Zehavi on One Stage.
Beit Avi Chai, 44 King George St.
February 13, 2008

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