Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Talking to Omer Meir Wellber about "Proximity or Closeness", the Raanana Symphonette's upcoming project - Mahler, Schnittke and dance

Omer Wellber (photo:Wilfred Hoesl.Courtesy Raanana Symphonette)

The domains of music and dance meet and intermingle naturally, with the initiative for connecting the two arts usually coming from dance companies. However, such a meeting of the two in "Proximity or Closeness" is the initiative of Maestro Omer Meir Wellber and the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra, of which Wellber has been music director since 2009. This project, featuring Mahler's "Quartettsatz" and Alfred Schnittke's Allegro (from “Piano Quartet in a minor after Mahler) will be presented to the public in two concerts (February 7th, 8th, 2023, at the Raanana Centre of Performing Arts). The piano quartet will consist of three members of the Zori family - Carmit Zori (violin), Nitai Zori (violin) and Hillel Zori ('cello) - with Omer Meir Wellber at the piano. Two dancers - Giorgia Leonardi and Emilio Barone will perform to the works, as choreographed by Ermanno Sbezzo; all three dance artists hail from Italy. The concert will conclude with Beethoven's Symphony No.5 in C minor. 

On January 16th, I had the pleasure of talking to Wellber in Milan, Italy.

 PH: Maestro Wellber, I have noticed that, throughout your career, your music-making has had connections with other art forms. 

OMW: Yes. I am presently doing a lot in conjunction with dance. My relationship with dance started when, as a young adult, I worked as a pianist for ballet lessons. Today, I make a point of involving dance in my productions in Palermo and Vienna. For some reason, dance is considered a "secondary" art (with conductors often being paid less to conduct for dance productions than for concerts of music.) I see great importance in bringing the status of dance to the level of concert music. 

 PH: And your collaboration with choreographer Ermanno Sbezzo? 

OMW: This is a new connection. We wanted someone young and to bring the younger generation of artists to Israel, especially as Israel has an interesting dance scene. I met with Ermanno Sbezzo before the summer. We talked, I introduced the music to him and then left it with him. I want him to do what he chooses to do with it. He is very young. I like to see what these young artists can do. 

PH: The music you have chosen is certainly very different from more familiar concert fare. 

 OMW: Yes. Audiences will be in for a big surprise. They are used to hearing Gustav Mahler's symphonic works for very large orchestras and some might have heard his songs. However, together with the dancers, we will be performing the Quartettsatz (the first and only complete movement of his Piano Quartet in A minor) followed by Alfred Schnittke's original reworking (and not completion) of Mahler's sketches of the quartet's second movement. Schnittke starts off with fragments of one of the main themes from the quartet, proceeds with music of his own taste and style, then finally bringing back the mood of Mahler’s quartet before ending the movement. I am a great admirer of Schnittke. For me this production is a dream. It is a discussion between time and between two sick men who find themselves on the same canvas. 

PH: Why did you decide on Beethoven's Symphony No.5 to end the concert? 

OMW: It is also built on one motif. And Beethoven is another giant. 

PH: This is a very unique program! 

OMW: Yes and no. One hallmark of the Raanana Symphonette's repertoire is that it is enterprising and different; so, you might say that "Proximity or Closeness" is yet another unique program of the orchestra's repertoire and the direction in which it is going. 

PH: But don't you find the conservative taste of Israeli concert audiences limiting for such different programs? 

OMW: No. I think the problem lies with those in charge of programming concerts. 

PH: So, what is the secret to attracting audiences to different programs such as this? 

OMW: Trust. Once you gain the public's trust, you can do it. That is the main issue. It's like telling the truth. 

PH: Maestro Wellber, many thanks for your time. 

Born in 1981 in Beer Sheva, Israel, Omer Meir Wellber began his musical training at age five, playing the accordion and piano, taking up composing by the age of nine. He studied conducting and composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. He was assistant to Daniel Barenboim for two years. Today, in addition to his role as director of the Raanana Symphonette, Omer Meir Wellber serves as music director of the Volksoper Wien, music director of the Teatro Massimo Palermo and artistic director of the Toscanini Festival.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Talking to pianist/fortepianist Shuann Chai about her career, pianos and her thoughts on music and on performance

Ⓒ  2019 Shuann Chai


On September 15th 2021, pianist/fortepianist Shuann Chai and I spoke at her home in The Hague, Holland. The Chinese-American artist is an active and engaging performer, critically acclaimed for her interpretations on both modern and historical instruments. A soloist and chamber musician, Ms. Chai has is also increasingly in demand as a teacher:


PH: Shuann Chai, I see you started off with an undergraduate degree in both biology and piano performance at Oberlin College. Were you on your way to making a career in the sciences?


SC: Well, I was very interested in studying medicine, but also biology, anthropology, and languages! So, Oberlin was a great playground for me. I was able to take a variety of different classes, scratch all of those itches and see what I wanted to do. Gradually, I realized that, despite my fascination with other subjects, I didn't feel compelled to make a life in those fields, but did feel compelled to make a life in music. 


PH: Are you from a musical family?


SC: Both my parents are musical and love music very much, but neither are musicians. My father was a physicist and my mother a restaurateur.


PH: What were your first musical experiences?


SC: Saturday morning cartoons! I remember hearing some music on the “Smurfs” that was so exciting and my mother said it was written by a man called Beethoven. I was so impressed that someone could have a job writing music for my favourite cartoon. I think I’ve always really associated music with narrative, even if it was just an internal one. I was also lucky to have had a really wonderful piano teacher named Jack Radunsky, who was almost like a grandfather to me. My mother ran a restaurant at that time, so I brought him lunch most school days. Some days, to be honest, I never went back to school! He would play recordings and we would chat for hours. (This was back in the days before mobile phones. I don't think it I would be able to get away with it today!) I learned so much listening to Cortot, Rachmaninov, and all the ‘Golden Age’ pianists. Jack encouraged me to be a critical and open listener, and he had a lifetime full of stories to share. As a teenager he heard Ravel play in Chicago, ran into Rachmaninov on a snowy NYC street, and also once found himself seated next to Leonard Bernstein on a flight. All these things made an impression on me and gave music some three-dimensionality far beyond just sitting at the instrument and playing. It was kind of a whole-life philosophy. Those were really meaningful influences for me when I was young. 


PH: Where did you grow up?


SC: In the Cleveland (Ohio) suburbs. When I was 11, we moved to Oberlin, which was great. I was just on a bicycle in a small town and could go to the Conservatory, the library, or hear some concerts. As a young person, I had a lot of autonomy to just follow my whim. 


PH: And your higher music education?


SC: I went to Oberlin as an undergrad, and for my Master's I went to Boston - my first experience of a large city. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was right on the doorstep of the New England Conservatory and I made use of that. It was such a completely different world, to be surrounded by musicians in a conservatory setting as well as a whole community of professional musicians. It was an eye opener for me and a lot of my friendships from that time have endured.


PH: When did your interest in historic keyboards begin?


SC: I became interested in historical instruments in high school when. I attended a master class of Malcolm Bilson. I was totally hooked right away and went to his master classes as often as I could.


PH: Are you more at home with the modern piano than the fortepiano?


SC: In the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure to choose one instrument or the other, to identify myself as an early keyboard player or a modern piano player, but I stopped worrying about that a while ago. I think of pianos as more of a family tree, without a stark ‘historical/modern’ division, and I feel it is my task to get to know the piano that is in front of me and play my best on it, whatever it may be.


PH: Have you played harpsichord?


SC: Unfortunately, I was never able to make the time to do so.


PH: I understand that a major project of yours has been performing the Beethoven Sonatas on period instruments.


SC: Indeed. Well, that has been a big stop-and-start thing. I started having the idea in 2012 and was hoping to finish all 32 of the sonatas around mid-2020. (That was, of course, derailed by the corona crisis.) It has been a fantastic journey for me because this repertoire and Beethoven's life just happen to span the development of the piano from an early five-octave instrument to a six/six-and-a-half octave instrument at the dawn of the Romantic Age. By the end of Beethoven's lifetime, the piano was going in all sorts of directions. He couldn't hear these last steps, but he could feel them. I think that's a powerful statement and we're so lucky to have one repertoire that encompasses the gestation and the growth of our instrument in this way.


PH: On what pianos have you been playing them?


SC: I’ve been able to perform many of the sonatas on the 6-octave Rosenberger piano (1820) that I’m fortunate to have on loan. Some other excellent instruments I’ve been lucky to play on have been 5-octave originals from the collection of Edwin Beunk in Enschede as well as a 5.5-octave Broadwood piano that was the direct predecessor of Beethoven’s Broadwood at the Cobbe Collection in England. Recently, I made a video recording of the “Appassionata” on a Broadwood from 1808; what a wonderful sound, so illuminating! (I’ve also performed the sonatas on modern pianos, of course.) Every fortepiano is so different, depending on the maker, the geographical origin, whether it is original or a copy. It's a little like chemistry - that you have to calibrate and re-calibrate every time you meet a new instrument; there are things that they teach you. For example, with the five-octave pianos you really get the sense that Beethoven is trying to push through a sound barrier, an instrument barrier, an aesthetic barrier. The excitement generated by this tension often gets lost on the modern piano, because, of course, the modern piano can do anything, mechanically; and our 21st-century ears have been challenged by plenty in the meantime. But I think if you are clear about that sense of challenge, of trying to break through boundaries, you can bring that idea to any instrument.  


PH: Would you like to mention the keyboard instruments you have?


SC: Sure. The earliest one is a 5-octave Stein copy made by Philip Belt.  It is a delightful, crunchy instrument, fantastic for C.P.E. Bach and Haydn. The 6-octave instrument is an original built by Michael Rosenberger (Vienna, c.1820) and restored by Edwin Beunk This piano is on loan to me from the National Music Instruments Foundation here in the Netherlands. It's a very lyrical instrument with a deep bass tone, a beautiful, silvery top register and a Turkish stop. Then I have a lovely French Erard (1862) and my New York Steinway D, which has been with me the longest. A big family of pianos! I’m incredibly lucky.


PH: Would you like to speak about your chamber music activity and collaborations?


SC: Yes. I have so many wonderful colleagues and very different ones, as well. It's inspiring. My husband is a violinist, so we do a fair bit together and that's always a pleasure. I am also very fond of playing piano four hands and two-piano repertoire, which is something I think pianists should do more often. We can learn so much from each other.


PH: I read that you have collaborated with dancers.


SC: I have, yes! One was with the music of John Cage; I hear so much movement and physicality in his music, even in his silences. I also put together a project around the music of Prokofiev, whose music I find uniquely narrative. With both pieces it was important to me that the musicians were a dynamic, interactive part of the show and not just accompanying the dancers from the side wings of the stage. Both experiences were fantastic fun and I learned so much. I really hope to do it again. 


PH: Do you engage in much modern/new music?


SC: Well, in my Boston days, I did a lot. There were so many universities in Boston with Composition departments and there was always new music to play. I have done less of that since coming to the Netherlands, but my chamber music connections bring me in contact with modern programming and that's wonderful. I love to swim around in new sounds, looking for that personal connection, that personal “way in”. That's important to me, whether it is music from a classical- or contemporary era. 


PH: Let's go back to early music. Where do you personally stand as regards the Authentic Performance Movement of the mid-20th century?


SC: I think the word "authenticity" has been applied in many different ways since the movement for historically-informed performance first began, but it has recently become a catch-all for performances on any historical instrument. When a concert is advertised, for example, with the tag line "This is authentic Beethoven”, I wonder what that’s supposed to mean. Authentic to whom, exactly?" A music critic, a teacher, a connoisseur in the audience, one’s own colleagues, perhaps? The only certainty is that all of those people will have their own views and standards of ‘authenticity’, which turns out to be yet another subjective label. On the other hand, the authenticity of one’s Self, when expressed in performance, is something that every musician can develop and aspire to. In this case, an authentic performance is an informed one, and the performer has to do the groundwork. That means that you have to think about the composer and his or her intentions, and there are many aspects to consider - the instrument, the aesthetics of the time, articulation, expression, rhetoric...all of these things.  And then, informed by all of this, the score becomes a message from the composer to you, which you then have to relay to an audience in your own voice, in your own sound. This is the process of interpretation. I am always mystified when people say the performer has to "stay out of it" or when a performer says "I don't want to get in between a composer and the audience." I suppose I understand the intention of a statement like that, but I feel it's my responsibility, my duty, to "join the hands" of the composer and the public. And then, to think about authenticity, you have to take a risk and there will be people who are going to say this isn't authentic. And I think: "If it isn't authentic to you, if it doesn't jibe with your vision of how Chopin should sound or whatever, that's absolutely fine." That's actually necessary. We don't have to like- or agree with everything we hear. But I think, as an interpreter, you have to put your foot down and you have to say: "This is my interpretation. I have done the groundwork to the best of my ability." And every performer also has to say: "As I grow and change, as I learn more and hear more, so will my interpretations of pieces change.”  I hope they do. I hope they grow. I think that's what we can best hope for ourselves, that, as musicians and artists, we continue to grow, that we continue to change, that we continue to learn from the composers, from the generations before us, from our colleagues. All these things can shape authenticity. The short version of that is that I believe authenticity should come from yourself and not from the idea that a performer cannot hope to meet some external standard of authenticity, because, frankly, I have no idea what that means, as it means something different to everybody. 


PH: Would you like to talk about your work in education?


SC: I love teaching. I absolutely love it. I think it is amazing that someone comes to play for you, that they open themselves to your musicianship in such a trusting way. Teaching is a synthesis that you make. I try never to come and say "This is the way I think this piece should go and here’s how you should play it." Rather, I try to hear what someone is offering and where they want to go with it and then I think of a lesson as a dynamic interface, of where your aesthetic and their intentions meet. I also find it interesting when students ask me for tips on practising or something and, after helping them, I go to the piano and realize that I haven't even taken my own advice! That can be very confronting, but I love moments like that and I have to ask myself: "Why haven't I done it?” I love seeing that the tradition of teaching and learning still goes on and seeing the energy and enthusiasm of young musicians who are really stepping onto the stage and putting themselves out there out of love for this craft and the love for music. I think it is so moving and I absolutely love being a part of that process. 


PH: And your future plans?


SC:  I have several some recordings that have been rescheduled multiple times because of the corona crisis, but I hope they will come around: Songs by Alban Berg, chamber music of Brahms, and a couple of solo recordings - the Schubert Impromptus and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. And, of course, Beethoven is always on the radar!


PH: How has the corona pandemic influenced your thinking?


SC: It has been a really challenging time for everyone, and for the arts, globally, it has forced us to reckon with the fact that the place of arts in society is not where we would like it to be. It makes a lot of us question our place in society, which is painful, but personally it has forced me to focus and not just go through my agenda on autopilot. I’m much more intentional now. It's a silver lining for me and I think we have to try to find something positive in all of this, because positivity keeps our hearts open and open hearts are what arts need in order to thrive and grow. 


PH: When it's not music, what interests you?


SC: I love to cook; I love to eat. I love to read and I'm fascinated by my daughter, who is seven. I'm such a lucky mother (not that it is easy all the time) but I find her, and children in general, amazing. And I'm grateful for friends and the community that I have...also family. So, when it's not music, I'm wondering if there is someone I would like to call. Sometimes people just need a little lift, and I feel good about reaching out and letting friends and family know that I think of them and that they're loved. Keeping friendships and connections alive is really important to me...recommending books to each other, passing on recipes… It's all a part of enjoying life and finding your enthusiasm and just hoping for the best for everyone. 


PH: Shuann Chai, many thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts and experience. 


Sunday, July 4, 2021

An interview with Mahan Esfahani from 2014

Mahan Esfahani (


On November 2nd 2014 I spoke to harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani at his London home. Born in Tehran in 1984, his father gave him his first piano lessons. He then went on to explore his interest in harpsichord and organ in his teen years. In 2009, Mahan Esfahani made his Wigmore Hall solo debut, then making history with the first solo harpsichord recital ever at the London Proms of 2011. A celebrated soloist and recitalist, Mahan Esfahani has performed much in Britain, Europe, the USA, Canada and Japan.


PH: Mahan Esfahani, what are your earliest musical memories?


Mahan Esfahani:  My earliest memories are of my father playing on our upright Petrov piano at home in Tehran. I guess I have no memories that are not connected in some way to music. In 1970, Deutsche Grammophon put out a giant set of LPs, which my father bought. It included a lot of Beethoven works - all the symphonies (the bad stuff too, like the “Battle” Symphony) but also works of Verdi. So I grew up hearing a lot of recordings of Klemperer, Ferdinand Leitner (there was the great Leitner recording of “Fidelio”), Wilhelm Kempff, etc.  (This seems ironic today, as I recently signed a contract to record on Deutsche Grammophon!)


PH: So you are from a musical family.


ME: Yes, certainly. On my father’s side, they are all quite artistic: they played music and wrote poetry. My uncle was a painter and my mother is a painter.


PH: Would you like to say something of your early musical training?


ME: I was five or six and was always asking my father to teach me about music. He taught me some of the rudiments of piano – scales etc. I had such a strong desire to play the piano and could not get enough of it.  After listening to my father’s LPs, I remember once saying to him that I wanted to do “that”. So, he taught me to play melodies, like that of the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. When I was probably around six years of age, my father sent me to a piano teacher for lessons. I never needed to be told to practice; in fact, the worst punishment for me was to have the piano locked! I also played the violin from age of nine.


PH: So you did not go to a music school.


ME: No. It was all private lessons. I studied piano throughout my childhood and teen years. At school, I was the musician-clown, playing piano for all the various occasions. However, what I really very much wanted to do was composition. I was really into it when I was about 9 or 10 and all through high school. I wrote a lot. Then I discarded most of what I had written, but kept a couple of movements here and there – a couple of movements for string orchestra I had written at age 14 or 15 when we were away on vacation, a few songs, a couple of pieces for piano, a small piece for piano and violin, and some other things. It is all charmingly mediocre.  I never took composition lessons and had nobody to guide me, but I did read books on theory, harmony, modern music and all that.


PH: What kindled your love for the harpsichord?


ME: I was very interested in music history and, at some point, I read a book about an instrument called the harpsichord, found a harpsichord kit, put it together and started playing on the instrument. At age 17, I went off to Stanford University, where I studied Musicology and History. (Actually, my parents were intent on my studying medicine, but I really did not want to…which was a bit awkward). In the Music Faculty there were a number of harpsichords. A student friend and I would always meet for dinner on Fridays. My lessons ended around three o’clock and he would study till six. While waiting for him, I would go to listen to the Kirkpatrick’s complete Bach recordings, to a lot of Landowska, Leonhardt, Koopman and Růžičková, George Malcolm and others.  And then I had some lessons. I would contact any harpsichordist coming to San Francisco and ask them for a lesson or two. Well, I was studying Musicology for four years, but, somehow, I was always at the harpsichord practicing. In the corner of the harpsichord room at the university, there was a virginal and I would also play on it. So, I just really found my own way into the field. Then there were some summer courses I attended, one of which I took with Ed Parmenteer in Michigan. He talked about ornamentation and that was quite interesting. I took an ornamentation table and put it up in my dorm room and studied it. Then I went to hear British composer Brian Ferneyhough; he lectured on modern music - Serialism and Stockhausen. And I met American composer Lou Harrison, who, of course, has written music for the harpsichord. So, I got into modern music, but just on a theoretical basis.


PH: So you finished your undergraduate studies at Stanford. Where did you go from there?


ME: I finished my thesis and moved to Boston, where I began to take private lessons with (Australian-born) harpsichordist Peter Watchorn. And then I worked with Alan Curtis. But of all the harpsichordists I had heard on recordings, I liked Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičkova’s playing the best. She heard some recitals I played and was very encouraging.


PH: How did you start performing?


ME: In 2006 I played a recital in Berkeley, but my first really professional recital - my European debut - was at a festival in Tuscany in 2007. I played a big all-Scarlatti program. Well, I was just 23 and chose to play all the difficult pieces! My performing career just kind-of happened. If you give one concert, another concert comes along and then you get called for four concerts…and on it goes until you realize you are making a living from performing. I was, however, never really a part of the “harpsichord circle”.


PH: What does your performance diary look like at the moment?


ME: I play around 75 recitals a year. I’m a recitalist. That’s what I do. I do not really play much chamber music. I don’t play in ensembles but I have played a lot of concertos.


PH: Do you prepare editions?


ME:  Only for my own use. I did, however, orchestrate Bach’s “Art of Fugue” for the Proms a few years ago. I transcribe a few little concert pieces for myself. 


PH: How do you see the solo harpsichord recital stage faring at the moment?


MS:  I would like to see the harpsichord respected as a recital instrument the way the piano and violin are! That’s my goal. If your average concert-goer attends harpsichord recitals as he does piano recitals, I will feel I have achieved something. Actually, there have been no problems with the mainstream public. If there has been any resistance, it has been from the harpsichord community itself, which does not accept the harpsichord as a solo instrument…especially when it comes to modern music.


PH: How do you relate to the Authentic Movement?


ME:  I address it with much curiosity. I have always read sources and continue to read them in French, German and Italian.  I think “authentic” is a marketing trick. I believe in authentic performance, but the whole movement has led a lot of people to teach certain mannerisms, resulting in a lot of artists doing exactly the same thing! They seem to have a set of strict rules and anyone who thinks outside of them is shunned.  I think that reading the sources points to the spirit of what this music was supposed to be. I do not want anyone to stand between me and the composer. Well, when working on contemporary music, I often have the composer sitting right next to me by the harpsichord and that is such an advantage!


PH: This brings me to my next question. Do you play much modern and contemporary music?


ME: Yes. I play a lot of modern music on the harpsichord. I think it is wonderful. I also commission works. So, I play works by such composers as Poulenc – modern music let’s say – but I also play music of living composers.


PH: What contemporary composers have you played recently?


ME: Well, I recently played a piece by a young British composer called Daniel Kidane. He won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Composer Award and received a commission from the society to write a work for clarinet and piano. He is very good. I have just had a piece sent to me by a German composer called Markus Zahnhausen and am learning a few works by Danish composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen. Then there is Sunleif Rasmussen, another Danish composer. And I have just recorded Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” and Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto for Deutsche Grammophon, coming out in April. 


PH: Do you see playing the harpsichord in today’s concert halls a problem?


ME: No. It has not been an issue till now. Especially for recitals it is a non-issue, in my view.  Modern listeners’ ears become used to the fact that the harpsichord is quieter than a piano. The decay of tone of the harpsichord comes very late and a piano is not that much louder. The piano has a big contrast of sound, which is why you hear it so clearly in a piano concerto. The harpsichord, on the other hand, integrates with the sound of an ensemble.


PH: When you are playing a recital, are you in your own private world of deep concentration or do you sense you are communicating with your audience?


ME: It depends. There are times when a recital is all about communication and there are times when I want nothing more than the audience to just watch me play and I share with them what I am doing for a couple of hours. But sometimes it is a sort of voyeuristic act; the audience is just watching me practice, in a sense.  However, that is also a form of communication. And, of course, performance has got to be about communication. To some extent, I cannot resort to baby talk: I simply have to play the piece for what it is and the people will glean from it what they will, but, now and then, I will underline a point musically. One might resort to unauthentic means to point out something to the listener, and I think that is perfectly fine if the listener gets what the composer is saying.


PH: So how do you feel on stage?


ME: It is probably the only place where I am completely happy. You see, life is much more difficult off stage. On stage it is easy. You do what you want to do. There are no restrictions on stage…for me, at least. You know, I just do what I want. I take a lot of risks; sometimes they work, sometimes they really do not work.


PH: In which case, recording must be a very different ball-game.


ME: Of course, it is. You have got to commit something to disc which can bear listening to again and again and again. That is difficult.


PH: Do you find yourself compromising when you record?


ME: Rather than say “compromise”, I would prefer to say “I acknowledge that what you hear on the recording is simply the decision I made at that time”, whereas in recitals, I will make different decisions every time on some things; but there are some things that are obviously fixed – there are fixed variables, fixed posts and there are variables.  In recitals, some decisions depend on what I pick up from the audience and sometimes I might just decide to try something new that day. The performer, the interpreter, if you like, especially in Baroque music (but actually in all music) has a sort-of position of co-creator with the composer and that will change as I think of new things, discover new things or realize certain mistakes. I think there is a tacit agreement between listener and performer that there are no fixed interpretations. Unfortunately, in the age of recordings, we assume otherwise, but that is just not tenable.


PH: Let’s go back to your composing. Have you returned to it?


ME:  Yes. a little…for enjoyment.


PH: Do you do anything with oriental music?


ME: Yes.  Am very interested in Eritrean music and have been transcribing a lot of their folk music. I also like listening to Turkish music – classical Turkish singing, Ottoman court music, actually.  This is a new-found interest; I like non-western music. I am very keen on Bartok’s music and have started to write some music inspired by Bartok’s style but based on Eritrean music.  These are still early days of my composing, but one is always looking for new material.   And living in London means being in a diverse city; as it happens, I live in an area where there are a lot of Africans.  It is really interesting seeing and hearing their culture.  


PH: What composers are you performing at the moment?


ME: A lot of Rameau, whose complete works I recorded for the Hyperion label; that recording was released last month. Am also playing pieces of Johann Christian Bach, Friedemann Bach, Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach… I happen to be performing the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 tomorrow for the London Bach Society. I am also busy with a work by the modern Czech composer Viktor Kalabis and a concerto by Hugo Distler, which is really great; also, a piece by Jørgensen, whom I mentioned before, and some music by modern French composer Maurice Ohana. Oh yes, and I am transcribing a Bach concerto to be played by mandolin player Avi Avital and myself!


PH: I wanted to ask you about your conducting.


ME: I tried it for a while. It is not my thing. I could be a middling conductor, but as a harpsichordist I feel I could really do something.


PH: What does your average day look like?


ME: I get up around 7 or 7:30, have tea, practise, take a walk, practise, have lunch, practise, more tea, practise, go to the gym., have dinner, then play a concert or go to a concert or play for an hour to an hour and a half before bed.


PH: Do you play fortepiano?


ME: No.


PH: Have you totally left the piano?


ME: I would love to have a piano in the house at some point. Do you know what I would play on it? I would play show tunes – I have a couple of books of Warner Bros. pieces - and some cabaret songs. I would have friends over to sing them…and some Kurt Weill.


PH: What are your future plans?


ME: There are a few big commissions coming up. Then there is a big concert of modern harpsichord music. I shall be spending the next year working on (although not performing) some Scarlatti from a manuscript that has recently been discovered. I am also doing research for a book project on Landowska. And in April, as I mentioned earlier, my first Deutsche Grammophon CD will be issued - the Bach Concerto in D minor, Gorecki, Steve Reich…


PH: An interesting mix.


ME: Yes.


PH: When it is not music, what interests you?


ME: I read a lot. I really like Russian literature - Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, for example, As well as a picture of Bach on my wall I also have one of Tolstoy there.


PH: Do you read them in Russian?


ME: No. I read their books in English, but am going to be studying Russian pretty soon. I travel, also for fun. And I like other cultures. They have so much to offer, not just in language…but also clothing, cuisine, and so on. I like that. When I was a kid I used to go to the airport just to see different kinds of people. I am simply interested in other people.


PH: Mahan Esfahani, many thanks for your time and for sharing so many ideas and experiences.




Recital at the Israel Museum (Miri Shamir)




Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Keyboard artist and researcher Jochewed Schwarz talks about early keyboard instruments and what we know and don't know about historic performance

Photo: Lauren Pressler
In June and July of 2020, Jochewed Schwarz and I met at her home in Kfar Saba, Israel. Ms. Schwarz talked of her life as a musician, about her career and her approach to early music. The Israeli-born harpsichordist and early keyboard artist is a graduate of the Rubin Academy of Music (now the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music) Tel Aviv, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensas (Switzerland) and the Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University. Jochewed Schwarz is active as an international soloist and chamber musician in leading concert series, has recorded for Israeli radio and for the Meridian and Toccata Classics labels and has taught at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. She is often invited as guest lecturer in different countries and was granted the 2011 Israeli Artist Residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. For six years, she served as director of the Felicja Blumental Music Center and Library, Tel Aviv.

 PH: Jochewed Schwarz, you have studied piano, performance on early keyboard instruments, historical keyboard construction, keyboard instrument maintenance...and Law. How does one combine all of these disciplines in one career?

JS: Well, it's a rather long story…
I had and still have a great passion for music. As a child I played the piano and eventually studied piano at the Tel Aviv Music Academy with Edith Kraus before my military service (in the "academic reserve" unit). As a student, I would get to the Academy early in the morning to look for a practice room. In those days, the building was much smaller than today. I arrived there one day to find that all the piano practice rooms had already been taken. There was only one room free and that was a room with a harpsichord. I had never "met" or played a harpsichord before; So, I took its cover off, opened it, started playing it and really forgot myself - I liked the sound very much. And that’s how it all started. I looked for someone to teach me. There was hardly a harpsichord class at the Music Academy. Boris Berman played harpsichord; a few people were studying with him, so I became a student of his, graduating from the Academy in both piano and harpsichord.
After two years of military service I continued my studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis Switzerland, a school and research centre for Historic Performance Practice. I focused on harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano.  
Following my return from Basel, intent on performing and developing my career, I realized how difficult it would be to manage financially. While maintaining my musical career, I decided to return to the university to study Law. That was also very interesting.
Since completing law school some twenty years ago, I have been dividing my time between the two careers, but not always equally. There have been years when I engaged more in the legal profession, but then less so over the last decade, when I engaged in much more musical activity. But studying law had its advantages: I had acquired another discipline, seeing life from a new angle, as well as achieving financial independence.

PH: So where do the studies in construction and maintenance of historic instruments come in?

JS: This also happened for practical reasons. Returning from Basel, I brought back a harpsichord, a French model - Blanchet (c.1730) - from the William Dowd workshop in Paris. In those days, it was not easy to find technicians in Israel for harpsichord upkeep, so I decided it would be best if I myself looked after its “needs". I was able to carry out the simpler tasks, such as changing strings and plectra. But, with the Israeli climate very different to that of Europe, in particular the high humidity here, other problems arose and, in order to address them, I felt I would need to have more technical know-how. In addition, I was curious to familiarize myself with the harpsichord action in more depth. Unlike the piano, there are many styles and types of harpsichord with which I felt I needed to become acquainted.
So, some years after returning to Israel, I went off again, this time to do an apprenticeship for two months at Reinhard von Nagel’s early keyboard studio in Paris. There, I gained some knowledge on solving more complex problems than just changing strings and plectra. Today, I could not claim to be an expert technician and would not take on the responsibility of working on other people’s instruments, but I do have an understanding of the action, the soundboard and what one can do to maintain an instrument. I now have several keyboard instruments, which is wonderful, but all of them need some work from time to time, and it's great to be able to "do it yourself".

PH: Are you from a musical family?

JS: No. Not at all. My parents were both child Holocaust survivors, were not able to complete even their basic education and immigrated to Israel as young adults. At home, we would sing – both my parents sang well and loved listening to music. They did give my brother and me whatever they could, including a good, solid music education, the ability to dream and the determination to make a dream come true. With me, music became my big love. My brother plays the recorder quite well but engages in music only as a hobby.

PH: Who has influenced you in the world of early music performance?

JS: It really is hard to say. First and foremost, I owe a lot to my teachers, especially to Boris Berman, my first harpsichord teacher at the Rubin Music Academy. Of the many things he taught me was the importance of getting to know early repertoire.
When studying in Basel, I was greatly influenced by my teacher there, Rolf Junghanns. He had been a student of pianist, harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist Fritz Neumeyer, who, in turn, had been a student and colleague of Curt Sachs, musicologist and music ethnologist as well as the founder of modern organology (the study of music instruments). Junghanns was very thorough: he addressed touch and technique as well as theory-based interpretation. But, the emphasis of this school of thought was on two aspects of music-: being familiar with the many early instruments and getting to know as wide a variety of repertoire as possible. Junghanns himself owned a large collection of keyboard instruments, located, at the time, in a health resort close to Freiburg im Breisgau – Bad Krozingen, Germany. This fantastic, playable collection, the many concerts that were given there (which I could always attend) and Rolf’s vast knowledge have equipped me with a very special perspective.
Different in approach to other people of that time, he understood and emphasized (apart from technique and the repertoire) the great importance of knowing from what background a work had come. He taught me to dare and look for the unfamiliar, to be very cautious of convention when playing, to take careful note as to who had written the piece, what his style was, at what time it was composed, for what purpose, what instrument the composer had (or might have had) at his disposal, what else he had written in the same short, to put together a profile via a larger view of the repertoire.  To some extent, Rolf Junghanns and Boris Berman shared similar characteristics in their artistic approach. For both, what was important was to be curious about everything, to read essays and treatises and peruse all possible information. This school devoted a lot of time to the study of background information and not only to performance. 
Regarding other harpsichordists who have had an influence on me, this would be a very long list. I love listening to other players; there are so many inspiring musicians I have been lucky to listen to their playing live and to so many recordings… I could, however, mention some of the players hosted by the Schola Cantorum at the time I was there for masterclasses.
One was the Belgian musician Jos Van Immerseel, who also possessed a large collection of instruments; he, himself, is better known today as a fortepianist and conductor. Gustav Leonhardt visited the Schola annually, often teaching 17th-century repertoire; the way he presented a subject and the examples he brought to his lessons have left a lasting impression on me. Anthony Woolley dealt with the lute song in his eye- or rather ear-opening masterclasses. Of the faculty members there in whose classes I participated was Johann Sonnleitner; he always made connections between texts and music and he had a wonderful sense of humour.  I made a point of attending Jordi Savall’s lessons; they were informative and innovative...very interesting.
As to harpsichord recordings, my first strong impression was of Wanda Landowska's recording, of Bach's fifteen Inventions with the Concerto d minor. I didn't like the Pleyel harpsichord sound but hers was a very charismatic performance. There are so many fantastic harpsichordists! Mentioning only a few does injustice to a great many wonderful musicians, but I simply cannot mention all.
However, maybe Violet Gordon–Woodhouse, another pioneer of early keyboard instrument playing; Igor Kipnis, Kenneth Gilbert, Scott Ross, Davitt Moroney, Bob van Asperen, Ottavio Dantone, Pierre Hantai, Olivier Baumont… and I take pleasure in the “harpsichord personality” of each and every one of them. Those I listen to most scrupulously are the players who have made connections between musicological research and performance; that is very characteristic of Moroney’s approach, for example.
But it is not just harpsichordists. I absolutely love vocal music of all times, enjoy 19th-century symphonies and, of course, always have a place in my heart for chamber music…
PH: Where do you stand vis-à-vis the authentic early music performance movement?

JS: I am not sure one can reach any decisive point of authenticity in performance, but I do think and believe that, as far as possible, it is worth aspiring to understand in which musical world a composer existed in order to hold a dialogue with a work of his in the way that would be closest to what he might have imagined or wished to hear, the sound of instruments or media at his disposal and to his ideas and musical language. A work of art, including a musical composition, has a context which I feel must be respected, in the case of music this being sound, melody and harmony, tempo, rhythm and much more. Of course, one can only aspire to knowing all there is to know, without reaching any decisive point, and there will certainly be my own personal understanding, preference, musical ideas which I bring to my interpretation.  
I remember a concert I heard many years ago played by an early music ensemble at the Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv - one of the more modern halls, its construction consisting of much concrete. One of the players introduced the concert program saying: “This Is what it would have sounded like in Mozart’s time”. Such a presentation was needed then in order to make a point, to show differences and explain artistic decisions taken. Today, of course, we would not be making this kind of error. With time, I think we have come to realize that we will never have the possibility of knowing exactly how music sounded in any specific time and place. And it's not only the inability to know things "for sure". When you read a book, it is not just the book’s text that is involved in your reading: you bring your own personality and life experience to the way you understand it; a meeting point is created…this is inevitable.
Preparing a composition for performance is a long process which anyway may produce various results. In playing a work, I don’t think I have ever performed it twice in exactly the same way, in any “authentic” manner; and I cautiously suggest that the ideal performance of a composer's work does not exist as the "one and only" possibility. A performance also depends on the acoustics of the music room or hall, on the instrument being played and on the audience present at any specific performance. And I would rather think of “historic” performance according to my philosophy, if I may say - “historically informed performance” is what I would prefer to call it, rather than “authentic”. 

PH: Do you play chamber music?

JS: Yes. A lot of it and with great joy. I love playing music with other people and have played a great deal of chamber music. This was my major focus all through the years before I took on directing the Felicja Blumental Music Centre and Library. The job there meant my having to limit my chamber music playing due to time constraints and to do more solo playing.
At home, I have been running a series called “Concert & Coffee”. Till now, the events have taken place twice or three times a year, but next season, if possible, I plan increasing the number of house concerts to as many as possible. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to perform in Israel because of the high cost of moving the harpsichord to various venues.
Overseas, I am able to perform in venues that have historic instruments in place, which makes it easier.  But I am looking forward to returning to the long-established tradition of salon concerts. 

PH: Would you like to talk about your partnership with harpsichordist Emer Buckley?

JS: Yes, of course. Emer and I have much in common, in that we both come from small countries in which, at the time we were both students, the tradition of early music performance was very sparse. Emer is Irish. She studied in Dublin and in Italy and then in France, where she studied with Kenneth Gilbert. We were both very enthusiastic about playing the harpsichord, having encountered the instrument at our academies of music.
We have been close friends for decades. We met at our harpsichord maker's workshop - Atelier Reinhard von Nagel. During 2011, when I had a six-month artist residency at the Cité internationale des arts (Paris), we met often and decided to use the time for playing together. From the moment we started playing together, we have found so much enjoyment in it we cannot stop! Our work together is rewarding: we hardly speak, taking up ideas from each other as we play. Either I go to Paris or she comes to Israel and we engage in long playing sessions, but not before each has worked through the material alone. We both carry out much research.
Repertoire for two harpsichords that is in print or even written out is limited. But there are many different verbal descriptions from various sources and suggestions here and there for the practice of playing musical compositions written for other instruments – on two harpsichords or two keyboards. We do not only play existing scores but are constantly trying out all sorts of works, arranging music, looking for- and thinking about musical possibilities. This is very enjoyable.

PH: Some years back, you ran the “Sounds and Words” series.

JS: Yes. This was a concert series I initiated and in which I was involved with for nearly twenty years. At first it was called “Sounds and Colours” and was a collaboration with flautist Erella Talmi (the concerts were held in various art galleries; we looked for connections between the plastic arts and musical repertoire). Later, with traverso player Geneviève Blanchard, the series became called "Sounds and Words from the Baroque", our approach emphasizing historical performance practice. The focus was a question we asked ourselves: what had taken place in a certain year, or in a specific genre, what was happening with a certain vocal colour or timbre and so on. 

PH: You are about to complete a six-year tenure, in which you have directed the Felicja Blumental Music Center and Library.

JS: Yes. The Music Center houses a large library - a public music library. The former A.M.L.I Central Music Library, it is the largest and only one of its kind in Israel. It was established almost 70 years ago. The library comprises very interesting archives and there is a musical instrument collection, mostly of folk instruments, built up from many contributions and preserved there. The centre provides music information for all music lovers: teachers, students, musicians, amateurs, journalists, researchers and whoever else is interested. The archives offer a service to the academic world, to people engaging in communications - films, television programs, to people conducting research and writing books, newspaper articles both in Israel and overseas. It even serves to help people carrying out genealogical research. We have had more than one instance of people looking for family roots and who, through us, have ended up discovering previously unknown details or even unknown skills of family members.
The musical instrument collection has great value in that it can widen musicians’ perspectives on sound possibilities. It is important for us, musicians from one field of expertise, namely "art music", to get to know other fields. For example, kamenche player Mark Eliahu can be heard in the television spy series “Teheran”, for which he has written the soundtrack. An outstanding artist, he plays on instruments unfamiliar to westerners. Visiting the FBMC’s instrument collection can acquaint the public with this and other wonderful instruments.
The library also offers opportunities to the general public to get to know other disciplines - music therapy, music via the computer, film music, etc.
Throughout my six years there, I have made huge efforts to expand the collections, to present some of them on open shelves in order to make browsing possible; also, to gain new patrons and make the library appealing to children. For example, we have collected and added many children’s books about music as well as educational musical instruments, in order to enable parents to present the world of music to children in an attractive way. For adults, we have also built up a collection of novels that have some connection to music; there are many such books by writers like Natan Shaham, Vikram Seth, Batya Gur and Uri Adelman, to mention just a few, these ranging from high-quality literature to some fine detective novels, all with some element of music, bringing people closer to music. For those interested in playing music we have built up a modest collection of instruments - guitars, pianos and more, which can be used there, subject to availability. The library has sheet music, informative books and a huge collection of discs and records. It has something for everyone. 

PH: Now that you are leaving your position as the director of the Felicja Blumental Music Center, what is on the agenda?

JS: I will be devoting more time to playing music, discovering it again in all its fascinating aspects, and I hope to be teaching again. I have also begun PhD studies at Haifa University and am enjoying that very much!

PH: What music is occupying you at the moment?

JS: What I can say with confidence is that there is no day without Bach. This has to be. Either I play through some Bach works or work on a specific piece. At the moment, I am also working on Couperin’s Book 4; it is so different from his other collections…I find keyboard music of the second half of the 18th century, bridging the harpsichord and the fortepiano very interesting and my plans include covering works of all Bach’s composer sons. I am interested in understanding more closely the years from Bach’s sons to Mozart and Haydn, a subject on which I have focused less in recent years. 

PH: What about the local concert scene?

JS: I usually attend concerts when abroad; that's time for myself.  At home, always busy, I lack the time and, quite often, the peace of mind...  I love listening to non-classical music of many styles and, over the years, have attended many performances of popular music; but, in recent years, the sound volume in these performances has increased to a degree at which I find impossible to take. This is a pity, because a live performance is so much more interesting than a recording.
PH: What instruments do you have?

JS: All my plucked instruments were made by Reinhard von Nagel at his Paris workshop. I really fell in love with his work when I was a student at the Schola Cantorum and am still very happy with my harpsichords. He is a very good maker, aware of the gap between old instruments and newly "rebuilt" instruments. Just as an example, years ago, Reinhard and his team beautifully restored a 1765 Blanchet harpsichord. They even made the original leather from 1765 fully usable again using marmot fat. (Today, the instrument is in the Mamamatsu Museum, Japan).
My Reinhard von Nagel “continuo” harpsichord is quite a small, light instrument. Its external dimensions are according to the Couchet harpsichord of 1679, but expanded; it has 56 keys instead of the 49 keys of the original instrument. The compass is GG-d3 (56 keys, plus transposition) - the 1679 Couchet has a compass of C-c3 (49 keys without transposition). The compass of the old instrument lacked the short octave but had its C-c3 of 49 keys - chromatic. "This is the range that J. S. Bach, two generations later, uses for Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Jan Couchet was ahead of his time" says Reinhard von Nagel. The construction is interpreted freely; the instrument could not be considered a replica.
My double-manual William Dowd harpsichord is based on an instrument by Nicolas & François Blanchet, Paris 1730. At that time, François was an experienced builder at 30 years of age and head of the workshop, while Nicolas, his father, was close to death. The Blanchets were a dynasty of keyboard instrument makers. Their harpsichords were based on models of the Flemish Ruckers family, but they enlarged and improved their harpsichords to suit the new French style and taste. The compass of the original old instrument was FF-e3. My instrument has the very popular compass of FF-f3 + transposition, tuned on 392/415 Hz (it was originally tuned to 415 - 440, but I have tuned it down to 392, to early 18th century French pitch – and 415 - because I play a lot of French music and it really sounds well that way). It is about 24 mm wider than the older instrument, therefore, claims Reinhard von Nagel, not a replica. The construction is also an interpretation. In the choice of materials, von Nagel has tried to stay very close to the original instrument, but he has also used creative freedom there.
My single-manual harpsichord is a completely "free creation", even less of a copy, but clearly of the French school. 
Another instrument in my collection is an Anthony Sidey clavichord (built from a kit by Heugel Keyboard Instruments). It's an instrument with two independent strings for each key - a "bundfrei" clavichord. Compass -   C to d3. Anthony Sidey, a Parisian harpsichordist, learned his craft with Arnold Dolmetsch in England. He studied clavichords of various epochs and has restored a whole range of these instruments from private collections and from the Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. This "historic" instrument has also been designed after these instruments.  
And finally, a square piano, a Broderip and Wilkinson from 1798, London. It's compass is FF - c4, five and a half octaves. Francis Broderip made use of three features under patent rights he was able to purchase from their inventor, William Southwell: a type of damper which was attached directly to the back of the key lever; additional notes in the treble for which the hammers could appear through an opening at the far side of the soundboard and fretwork apertures backed with silk on both sides of the keyboard to help the sound present itself with fullness. The instrument was restored by square piano restoration expert Michael Cole, Cheltenham, UK; it has a very rich sound and a soft touch.

PH: Do you edit music?

JS: Not as yet, but I have a manuscript sitting here that has never been published and on which I am trying to work. It is still in its very early stages…
PH: Do you write about music?

JS: Yes. About music and the people around it... Before taking on the job at the Felicja Blumental Center, I was writing quite intensively on my blog - “Keys and Strings”. I then started another blog called “A Musical Moment”, which covered the work we were doing at the Felicja Blumental Music Center. Some of this material was presented by me in recent years in lecture series for music lovers and the general public. Although I very much like writing, I do need a lot of time for it. I hope to be able to continue it….

PH: Do you write music?

JS: No, apart from noting down my own interpretations of certain embellishments here and there, I have never tried composing. Writing music is such a specific and complex skill

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

JS: Mostly spending time with family and close friends. My favourite hobby is baking cakes and bread. I find it relaxing. I also enjoy reading, cinema and… walking the dog. 

PH: Jochewed Schwarz, talking to you has been most interesting. Many thanks for your time.