Saturday, December 17, 2016

Talking to violinist Shunske Sato about performance, repertoire and teaching

Photo: Yat Ho Tsang 

On December 8th 2016, I talked to violinist and violist Shunske Sato at his home in The Hague. Born
in Tokyo in 1984, he moved to the USA at age 4, then winning the Young Artists Prize in 1997 and making his New York recital debut in 2000. Recently returned from performing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Shunske appears widely in Europe and the USA as soloist or concertmaster, also performing chamber music. He currently serves as concertmaster of Concerto Köln and the Netherlands Bach Society. In 2013, he was invited to join the faculty of the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he teaches violin in the context of historical performance practice. His most recent recording (October, 2016) is of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Concerto Köln for the Berlin Classics label.

PH: Shunske Sato, having lived in different countries, you seem to be a citizen of the world.

Shunske Sato: Something like that. This is the fifth country I have lived in. A lot of moving around and new languages. From quite a young age I have really loved linguistics and language. And now, living in the Netherlands, the country with the highest English language proficiency rate, I dove straight into learning Dutch. Knowing German has helped.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

SS: I guess I could say that. My mother is a pianist. She teaches piano. Her mother, my grandmother, never really played an instrument, but she listens to quite a lot of music, enjoys it and was plunking at the upright piano at home at the young-old age of 80-something! So, there is definitely a musical strain in the family, but no performers, apart from myself.

PH: Would you like to talk about how it all began and your early musical training?

SS: Yes. Because my mother was a musician, there was music regularly in the house – her own playing and records. It was a musical environment. It seems I was drawn to the timbre of the violin and my mother noticed this. She also noticed that there were a lot of children around our Tokyo neighbourhood at that time walking around with their mothers and violin cases and she asked one of the mothers about this, thinking there must be a music school nearby. There was and it was a Suzuki method school. So, my mother took me there and, apparently, for a solid 45 minutes (I still remember this; it must have made an incredibly powerful impression on me. I was two at the time!) I was observing a room full of young children playing Suzuki-style and completely enraptured. The teacher noticed this two-year-old sitting in the corner and found it unusual for such a small child to be so incredibly focused like this and suggested I try the lessons. And then I had some very good teachers, including the first two in Japan. Years later, I came across a book of exercises of one of them and they are very good…very good material. Altogether, I have been lucky with all the teachers I have had and still remember the many, many good things I learned from each one of them. I have been very lucky.

PH: When was your first performance?

SS: Oh gosh…I believe it was at the age of three at a Suzuki concert, and there is even a video to prove it. I had knee-high socks with  little dogs imprinted on the top. Being much encouraged, little class concerts were a very regular part of my musical upbringing.

PH: In the USA, did you go to a music school?

SS: Yes, I did, but it was as a supplement to my regular school in Philadelphia, where I grew up. It was called Temple Prep School. Children went there once or twice a week after regular school. After school the kids came and had orchestra, where we  played our Grieg “Holberg Suites” etc. And what I think is incredibly good, I had chamber music lessons. So, I was playing my Haydn Trios and Beethoven Trios at the age of six or seven. Even in a childlike manner, I think that opens one up to the world of playing together with other people and to working towards listening to others. That was very important. I had some very good teachers, with whom I kept in touch for a very long time. In Philadelphia about three years ago, I visited one of them, now in her 90s and still cheerful.

PH: And after Temple Prep?

SS: At the age of 11, I started going to Juilliard Pre-College on Saturdays and continued there till age 18; it was very informative and significant. There, I  studied with Dorothy DeLay. On completing Juilliard Pre-College, students can proceed to the Juilliard School (college level), but I did not do that.

PH: So where did you take higher studies?

SS: I was living in Philadelphia and applying to different schools. I sent an application to Juilliard; oh, and down the street from me there was the Curtis Institute of Music, so I applied there, too. Was accepted to both, I believe, but, after seven years at Juilliard, opted for Curtis. I did one year at Curtis, but, already before that, I was starting to become interested in the goings-on in Europe, in a lot of the European musicians, having heard their concerts and CDs. (My outstanding Juilliard teacher Ms. DeLay, musically-thinking and analytical, always strong at filling in background information, had a funny little thing about Classical and Baroque music in Europe. She would say: “Sugar plum, when you go and give a recital in Europe, avoid the classics because they play them differently over there and you won’t be met with good feedback if you play them there”. Well, of course, when somebody tells you not to do something, you want to do it, to find out.)

There was one teacher – Gérard Poulet - with whom I had done summer courses two years prior to that, who invited me to come and study in Paris with him. I went to Paris, planning a year there and to return to where I had left off in the States, but that did not happen. I stayed in Europe; after the two years’ study with Poulet I stayed on in Paris for a couple more years.

PH: When did you develop your taste for Baroque music?

SS: It is hard to say. In the USA, I did have the odd Christopher Hogwood recordings lying around in the house. I did take notice and quite liked them, too, but didn’t think of pursuing Baroque music. However, I think the sound and idea that that all of this music could be done differently was planted then and there.

PH: So, when did you start getting involved in Baroque music?

SS: It was during those years in Paris. Paris and Europe, as a whole, offered the environment. There I discovered Baroque music and Baroque performance practice, which had been completely absent, at least, to my immediate environment in the US before then. It added fascination to be able to explore the violin in a completely different and new way. And it was so common in Europe. You could go to a concert of Rameau and Telemann and Bach and Beethoven on period instruments, which is still hard to do in the US. Then I drifted, drifted, drifted and decided to do some proper study, as it were, at a music school to really immerse myself in that and found a lovely teacher, an American teacher – Mary Utiger - in Munich.  The funny thing was that, 30 years before I did, she had also studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. By that time, I had decided that, as far as my studies were concerned, I really wanted to focus on Baroque violin.

PH: So, no more modern violin?

SS:  I was also playing modern violin at that time and still do. Every now and then, I get asked to do a Brahms concerto or whatever and still love doing all of that repertoire. I haven’t bid farewell to any of it. In fact, I have been able to revisit a lot of it – Brahms, for example – viewing it from a historic perspective, like discovering what kind of pianos or string techniques were used. 19th century Brahms was probably very different: you very quickly find out that it’s quite different to the modern 21st century, as a matter of fact. It has been very interesting to be able to see all of this repertoire from a completely different perspective.

PH: When did you start playing the viola?

SS: I’m surprised you mentioned it I love playing viola but don’t do it so much. I started playing the viola at 14 or 15…it was out of curiosity.  I bought one of those very cheap instruments, probably with water-and-bulletproof varnish, I scraped away and saw my way through it. I still do not play it as often as I would like.

PH: Do you have a Baroque viola?

SS: No, I still have the cheap, very red viola I bought then. I don’t have the incentive to acquire one as am known much more as a violinist.

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as a Baroque musician at present?

SS: Well, I’m not sure about me. Certainly, a for lot of people, yes. I think people would associate me with the Baroque violin, just from the sheer amount of work I have in that direction. For me it is actually quite remarkable to see how little the violin per se has changed in comparison to, say, the harpsichord versus the modern Steinway. Moving from the harpsichord to the modern piano is a much more difficult adaption, even from the fortepiano to an Érard piano. In that way, I think, as a string player, you actually have the advantage of taking more-or-less the same instrument and playing it in so many different ways. As I said before, I love doing Brahms and Schumann and much later repertoire. In fact, in February I am doing a 20th century program – Stravinsky, Khachaturian and Milhaud and on “historical instruments”! We found a nice Steinway from the beginning of the 20th century in an incredible workshop where they have three or four of these early Steinways. One of them, apparently, is a piano on which Vladimir Horowitz gave a concert.  Quite a remarkable collection. Anyway, there will be the Steinway, my violin with gut strings and steel and the clarinettist has also found a clarinet from this time. I think you can just extend this in so many ways. I enjoy a lot of kinds of music and like to have a broad repertoire.

PH: I read you played Paganini on gut strings. Is that authentic?

SS: Yes, yes. I did that in Australia, as a matter of fact.   Authentic? Yes, absolutely. Gut strings were in use on the violin till 1930 or ’40, but even longer for ‘cellists and double bass players. Violinists were the first to use steel strings. So, basically all the repertoire we now associate with Classical music, right up to Debussy and Ravel and Bartok was intended to be played on gut strings.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

SS: Yes…my teaching. I love it. I’m learning just as much as the students – even more. I knew that I liked it very much, even before I started teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory. If anything, I think I have always been a very self-reflecting musician. I have never been a person to “just do something” – a difficult passage – and not know why or how. And then there is realizing that all of those students coming through the door bring with them their life. You see them for an hour and a half every week or two weeks and you give them this homework or that – a task to complete for next time – but a lot of them work at a shop five days a week, for example, in order to make ends meet…or to teach, and this little snippet of time is, in a way, so superficial! I realize that you can teach them about the violin and what to do when you encounter a diminished chord, how to ornament, and all of these things, but, in the end, what I try to do is to get that person to give his maximum, and what that means for every person is different. Some people…honestly…are not soloist material or they are more suited to group playing or even I would say, some people are much better geared towards teaching or research. I have one student who is incredibly good at research, brings along pieces I have never seen or heard of and knows so much about things. He is not the strongest player, but he really has a head and heart for music in a completely different way; I am not going to expect him to play a Bach fugue, but I can develop him in so many other ways. I really have to say I have a very good class of motivated students (young adults), and I think I am getting better. One of the things my teacher Dorothy DeLay said was when asked why she was such a good teacher was: “I do a lot of it every day”.

PH: Shunske, what is your current project? What is on your mind musically at the moment?

SS: Oh, gosh. Whatever is next! Actually, it has been interesting. Speaking of later Romantic music, 19th century repertoire – post-Beethoven - on historical instruments, you have a lot of Baroque ensembles, but those who focus on later repertoire…there aren’t so many. Actually, I have found a few “partners in crime” who know a lot about this period. We are trying to get a group off the ground. It will be very interesting to see how that goes.  We have sent out our first round of concert offers to concert halls throughout Holland. Reactions have been very positive, saying they like what we are onto and would like to have us for the next season. This is incredible: it must be a combination of a lot of factors as this is something that is not done much as yet. That is something I would love to expand. Just as the way we revolutionize the way we do Baroque music, we can go much, much further with other genres.

PH: Are you referring here to chamber music?

SS: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

PH: What do you find audiences want to hear at the moment?

SS: What do they want to hear? I think that depends. I can’t be a judge of that. It is such a synergy of different things, the synergy being between performer, listener and composer or whatever piece of music is being played.  And with the same three people in the same roles on Monday and then on Saturday, it is going to be different, even with pieces very well known to us.  I think it is exactly that which I try to really bring to life. The fact of the matter is that music is born and dies at the same moment, if you will. The moment the sound finishes it is gone and will never come back again. That is how I see it and, I think if you must go on that, unless you have a very jaded, skewed and strange audience (which you do have. Some audiences are in for a much more canonical approach, sticking to the “status quo” of the music. You have different audiences and can’t predict that sort of thing.) I think what does usually succeed is being genuine, being yourself – for better or worse. It’s just like when you talk to people, you know if they are being honest and genuine with you. I think if you are there 100 per cent the audience will be there 100 per cent too.

PH: Are you into new music?

SS: I have not been as such. There was a time that I did do more of that. New music is a bit in its own category. There are musicians who specifically dedicate themselves to it.  It’s a bit like what is happening with Baroque music: there is a certain circle that has been established to perform this kind of music. As to new music, I think I am not really exposed to it very much and so it is hard for me to say whether I would like it, as I haven’t yet done much of it. My personal experience of it has been mixed. I have sometimes come across new works that are brilliant, that I really like, and others not. The same thing goes for earlier music. There are some pieces of Beethoven or Mozart that are nice, but I don’t care to play them so much. It happens. So, I think it is mainly a question of exposure and simply of time, because, with what I have already now…it’s incredible; I’m already covering three centuries of music.

PH: Do you do any Japanese music?

SS: No. As a whole, and it is not just me…it is a very specialized area of music, even within Japan, actually. There you will much, much more easily find a classical or non-Japanese music concert than traditional music. Maybe that has a lot to do with the history of the country itself in the 19th century, when America and Europe came knocking on the door with cannons, guns and ships. The Japanese were, on the one hand very frightened and, on the other, fascinated by this new culture and, within a span of 20 to 30 years, they had completely turned their culture upside down and westernized it. And with that came also the ascent of western classical music and, at the same time, the decline of traditional things. Since then, it has become a bit marginalized. I don’t understand Japanese music at all: it follows rules that are completely different to what I know.

PH: Is this visit - end of December ’16 - going to be your first to Israel?

SS: Yes. My very first. I will be playing with two friends who live in The Hague (we quite often play here together) – Benny Aghassi (bassoon) and Hen Goldsobel (double bass) – and Israelis whom I have not yet met: Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The concerts will take place in Jerusalem, Raanana, Haifa and Herzliya.

PH: Shunske, when it’s not music, what interests you?

SS: For sure I could say: cooking and architecture. What I like about both is the combination of science and creativity, and balance, too. Well, cooking simply because I like food – I just love food and am fascinated by how food is prepared and where it is sourced. However, by no means do I know terminology and things like that, for example, what part of the cow is called what, but that doesn’t deter me from enjoying it a lot. You can combine more-or-less the same ingredients in so many ways. In architecture, there is the construction – the science part of it – and then there is what you do with that. My fascination with architecture started early. In particular, I remember in Philadelphia, where I lived in a big apartment complex, they would send a monthly newsletter to all the residents and on the very back page there were advertisements for apartments for rent or for sale, including floor plans. I would take those floor plans and copy them to make variations on them – add a new room or make a three-bedroom apartment from a two-bedroom apartment. Where architecture is different is that in music or food, once it is gone it is gone, of course, remaining in the person’s memory and soul, but it’s not there.  The crucial difference is that in architecture when you build something it serves people every day in a very tangible way; small things impact, for example, the way you feel comfort at home, or discomfort. The wrong placement of a wall can really have a negative effect. The architect has to find solutions to problems that are optimal. Well, living in a country like Holland, you have old buildings all over the place and it is sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing, to go into a 17th century building. Sometimes whoever renovated it did a terrible job, with ugly tiles and laminate all over. Or not: somebody has really taken care and brought out the characteristics of the house, also making it very modern and comfortable. I think that food and architecture would have been very nice alternative professions for me.
PH: Shunske Sato, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you and hearing about your career and thoughts on music.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Talking to Shmuel Elbaz, mandolin artist and recently appointed resident conductor of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra

Maestro Shmuel Elbaz (photo: Natan Yakobovich)

On October 10th 2016 I spoke to mandolin artist and conductor Shmuel Elbaz at his home in Giv’ot Bar, a small town in the Negev Desert, close to Beer Sheva. A graduate of the Beer Sheva Conservatory, the Faculties of Performance and Conducting of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Sweelinck Academie (Amsterdam), he founded and led the Kerman Mandolin Quartet in 2000, becoming principal conductor of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod) in 2002. He has been guest conductor of several Israeli orchestras, becoming the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s resident conductor in 2016. Elbaz’ world premiere recording of J.S.Bach’s Six Sonatas and Solo Violin Partitas on mandolin has created much interest.

PH: Shmuel Elbaz, with your activity all over Israel, I see you have remained close to Beer Sheva, where you were born and grew up.

Shmuel Elbaz: Yes. I am a “desert animal” and need to be in the Negev. The desert is where I feel the best.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

SE: No. I was the first to take music lessons, but then my two brothers took up music. One brother is a bass player, playing mainstream pop and rock music. Another brother was a drummer in bands, but today is involved in the culinary profession.

PH: So how did you begin your involvement in music?

SE: At age 7, I went to the Beer Sheva Conservatory. I did not know enough to choose an instrument, but there was a most charismatic teacher there – Simcha Nathanson - who developed a school of mandolin-playing, now famous worldwide, from which some of today’s finest mandolin players have emerged. Simcha Nathanson immigrated to Israel from Russia in the 1970s. Actually, he was a violin teacher who made the switch to teaching mandolin; both instruments have the same tuning, meaning that the fingering is the same. He just needed to learn plectrum technique. He addressed the mandolin as if it were a violin. As children, we played classical violin repertoire, including the technical exercises of such great violin pedagogues as Carl Flesch, the result being that the mandolin gradually became accepted as a classical instrument rather than just a traditional or folk instrument. And it was also becoming a solo instrument.

PH: So Nathanson was an important influence on you.

SE: Yes. Knowing him has been a gift for life. It was he who opened the magical world of music to me and who inspired me to choose music as a way of life; by the age of eight, I already knew that I wanted to be a musician.

PH: Where did you go from the Beer Sheva Conservatory?

SE: To the Jerusalem Academy of music.  Actually, I was the first graduate on that instrument, taught by Moti Schmitt (also a violinist, who, years later, became conductor of the Israel Plectrum Orchestra, Rosh Ha’Ayin); that was before the Academy established the mandolin department. Schmitt also advised me to study conducting and I completed a degree in conducting under the tutelage of Mendi Rodan. I then went to Holland to take a Masters in conducting, attending the Sweelinck Academie in Amsterdam, studying with Peter Eötvös, David Porcelijn, Lev Markiz and Roland Kieft. I chose to study there as they ran a course in which every week each conducting student would conduct an actual ensemble or orchestra (and not pianists playing the score).  In order to graduate in conducting there, the student was required to set up his own symphony orchestra, to find and audition players, thus using all the organizational and artistic skills he had learned for his final project. This approach gave me invaluable skills in the field of orchestral management and rehearsal organization.

PH: You returned to Israel in 1997. What then?

SE: I began taking an active part in the Israeli music scene both as mandolin soloist and conductor. The first orchestra I conducted in Israel was the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Idit Zvi, its manager, offered me the opportunity, and from there, there was no looking back. Idit Zvi is one of the people who have influenced my career and I am grateful to her. I then served as visiting conductor with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, the Raanana Symphonette and other orchestras.

PH: Would you like to talk about the upcoming season of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra?

SE: Yes. There will be eight subscription programs. I will conduct two of them. One will consist of only classical music and the other will intermix classical and oriental works in the same concert: we will, for example, host oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias in a concert that will include classical Turkish, Egyptian, Andalusian and other works alongside works by western classical composers who were influenced by the east. Take, for example, Mozart’s “Il Seraglio”, Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” and Weber’s “Abu Hassan” Overture; the composers of these works were familiar with sounds of the orient from the impact of the Ottoman Empire on Europe. The concert-going audience will be able to compare the original oriental sounds and aesthetic with their influence on European music. It is also interesting for the players, who will become exposed to repertoire which is new for them, to a different kind of interpretation and aesthetic - be it playing in quarter tones, different bowing, phrasing and articulation – giving all a broader perspective on music in general. Based on the vectors of rhythm and melody (and less on the complex elements of harmony and counterpoint) oriental music exudes energy. Appearing alongside classical music in the same program, it is liberating, communicating directly with the audience and creating a special atmosphere not experienced with other orchestras and in classical music concerts.

PH: This is a drastic change in the NKO’s programming.

SE: Not that drastic: under Yaron Gottfried’s direction, this orchestra spent years moving between world music and classical music, constantly engaging in stylistic crossover programs: he brought much from the world of jazz, pop, etc. Oriental music is also world music, be it Andalusian, Egyptian or Turkish; it is not that non-European music has not been played on this concert podium, but this season will be the first season in which music from Arab countries will be performed at NKO concerts.  In Israel, the influence of Mediterranean music is definitely present and felt and our audiences have been exposed to it…more than to, say, Chinese music. It has become a significant part of our cultural identity in Israel.

PH: Are your listeners not put off by it?

SE: No, they are accepting of it as long as it is presented well and on a high level, with suitable orchestration, etc. It opens doors to them, inviting them to enter the magic world of oriental music. This music is indeed user-friendly if one opens one’s heart to it. It is not music that demands previous lengthy preparation on the part of the listener. I personally find this all very interesting as, when I examine classical music I can identify “natural schemes”, musical elements shared by oriental and western music – emotion, psycho-acoustic phenomena, how to create energy and feeling.

PH: What will be focal in your work with the NKO?

SE: To address all the needs of the orchestra and accommodate to the taste of the Israeli concert-goer. For me, the subscription series we present are most important. In addition to those, I am also involved in educational projects – concerts in different places and cities, taking part in festivals, etc. I am very happy with my connection to the orchestra; it is an orchestra I have been admiring for several years and whose concerts I have attended frequently prior to my taking on the position with it.

PH: In what ways do you find it special?

SE: It is a very energetic orchestra with a group of  very young and ambitious players, each a soloist or chamber musician in his own right. This year we have quite an international group of instrumentalists:  joining Israelis we have players from Japan, from Switzerland, from Spain, South America and, of course, from the former Soviet Union. It is an orchestra with a good, healthy signature sound.

 PH: Would you like to say a few words about the NKO’s new musical director Christian Lindberg?

SE: Yes. Christian Lindberg is a Swedish composer, conductor and trombonist. He has been referred to as the greatest trombonist of the last 100 years!  It is most important for the orchestra to have a musical director with such a wide scope and who is so meticulous about music-making. He has already motivated the whole orchestra to engage in serious and intensive work.  He will be with us three times this season, and in the next season, four times. The combination of Lindberg and myself could be seen as a kind of “double power”: when he is not in Israel, I continue and implement the mode of work he wants the orchestra to follow – be it punctuality at rehearsals, rehearsal procedure, work in groups, in sections, intensive enquiry into detail, etc. This is all very good for the orchestra, challenging the players, giving them a sense of vitalness; the orchestra is certainly moving full steam ahead.

PH: You are about to conduct the second concert of the NKO’s 2016-2017 season. I believe its programming has a unique side to it.

SE: True. The concert is titled “Hidden Treasures of the Orchestra”. Here the soloists will all be members of the orchestra and they themselves have chosen the works. It will give the audience an opportunity to experience the great ability of our players. For example, in Dvořák’s “Serenade for Wind Instruments” each of the players in the ensemble is a soloist with a meaningful role. Similarly, Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No.4 will feature three soloists – two flautists and one violinist (our concertmaster); the string ensemble will play standing. Then we will hear Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.1 for Two Clarinets with our clarinettists as soloists. I will perform Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C-major. To conclude the concert, the orchestra will once again join to become one organism to perform Haydn’s Symphony No.96; actually, in this work there are also some solo sections. By the end of the concert, the audience will have become familiar with the names of some of the players, their unique personalities and abilities and will enjoy this closer acquaintance with individual players right through to the end of the season.

PH: What can you disclose about Concert No.7 of the current season?

SE: It will be a crossover program titled “Maestro Elbaz’ World of Wonders”.  The idea is that I will present works from my different musical worlds in the concert hall, combining east and west in a broad variety of works. Professor Taiseer Elias will be the soloist; he will play both oud and violin. In some of the works I will join him on the mandolin. We will also have someone playing the darbuka (a middle eastern goblet-shaped drum).

PH: I understand the audience is in for a season of diversity and innovation!

SE: Yes. For Program No.8, for example, “When the Public Decides” the audience will choose the program from a long list of overtures, choral works and symphonies. Another new project this season will be for young composers from the Buchmann Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) to compete in writing a three-minute piece. The three most outstanding works will be performed by the orchestra in our subscription season, quite an honour considering each concert is performed eight times and all over Israel! This way we also meet the new generation of Israeli composers, from whom we hope to commission larger works at a later stage. Talking of young talent, in Concert No.5 - “A Rising Star” - we will give the stage to the outstanding 14-year-old ‘cellist Danielle Akta, an Israeli artist already busy with an international career. Each NKO season will now feature a rising star, introducing the audience to the next generation of up-and-coming young artists.  So, with all these new ideas and young promising players, we are working very hard in the hope of attracting new listeners in addition to our regular audience members.

PH: Where does the kibbutz come into all of this?

SE: The orchestra was originally formed to offer musical events to kibbutz communities and to provide opportunities to kibbutz orchestral musicians. We maintain the tradition of performing our concert series in several kibbutzim, but nowadays have only two or three kibbutz musicians in the orchestra. We do, however, make a point of performing works by composers who have come from the kibbutz movement, composers such as Michael Wolpe and Arieh Rufeisen. 

PH: And where does Netanya come into the orchestra’s programs?

SE: With Netanya, a city that has immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia etc., we have made a several valuable connections with the city, its inhabitants and its cultural life. We are active in its suburbs, with its local dance group and within its community. Last Purim, for example, the orchestra played Andalusian melodies and orchestral arrangements of festival songs; we came in fancy dress costumes and it was all most jolly. We also play at the annual Netanya Guitar Festival and cooperate with “Tremolo” – the Israel Percussion Center.  Whoever is active in Netanya’s culture connects with the NKO in one way or another. Not long ago, we appeared outdoors in the city centre in a happening in which the orchestra was “looking for a conductor”. Passers-by (including the mayor) took up the baton and the orchestra played under their direction. And we recently took part in the Netanya International Clown Festival. Then there is our outstanding educational project, in which all primary school children in Netanya attend a series of explained concerts, receiving visits of our players in their classrooms and engaging in pre-concert study. I am amazed to see full concert halls of school children, listening intently, involved and informed. As a result of the success of this project, the orchestra now also appears in the same educational capacity in other towns – in Kfar Saba, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva. This year, I added another dimension to our educational programs; “Integrated Sounds” hosts four Arab musicians in musical dialogue with us between east and west, in which the children learn about the similarities and differences between the two musical worlds. In the end, both groups join forces to play a joint work. The program has received much praise.

PH: The NKO, in which case, addresses many sections of the community.

SE: Yes. What once began as cultural pluralism here in Israel has ended up becoming a series of cultural ghettos, with each ethnic group focused on its own niche and not open to others. I feel that my mission is to break down those barriers. In a concert about to take place in Independence Square, Netanya, we will present two superb singers – one opera singer and one who sings piyut (Jewish liturgical poetry) – each singing her own repertoire, repertoire of east and west, then singing together.

PH: Let’s go back some years. How did your musical life turn to directing an Andalusian orchestra?

SE: In 2001, I was approached by the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod). The offer came as a shock to me; this was not a style of music with which I was familiar or had been engaged in, I was not attracted to it and was hardly aware of its existence in Israel. The Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra had been the first Andalusian orchestra in Israel; its conductor was Dr. Avi Elam-Amzalag. I became its musical director in 2002.With a good dose of curiosity and open-mindedness I began the job, gradually becoming drawn into the style and reorganizing the orchestra. I began writing music and arrangements for the orchestra, acquiring familiarity with the repertoire, with the orchestra’s subscription season, the players and the ensemble. In time, I found myself totally involved in it and my strategy of serving as guest conductor in the various classical orchestras became less of a focus temporarily but was certainly not abandoned. Looking back, I am happy about this period with the Andalusian Orchestra as am now feeling completely a part of the gamut of music-making in Israel. I can use this material, set it against other styles, use it to produce more original programs that are not purely classical and write arrangements in the style.    

PH: Your musical life seems to constantly connect east and west.

SE: My musical background and early performance were exclusively in classical music – classical mandolin and conducting – but, as chance would have it, the episode with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra that began as something short term and ended up as a 13-year-long project meant a lot of involvement in oriental music. Today, having generally returned to the genre of classical music, I am left with that extra dimension – a whole world, in fact – enabling me to connect east and west and show what is so remarkable in the meeting between the two. In contrast to the trend in which each genre has been isolated into its own separate niche, on the concert platform I like to show the colours and beauty that exist generally in the varied art of music, and it is good for the different audiences to get to know each other.

PH: So have you left the field of Andalusian music?

SE: Not entirely. This year, for example, I was asked by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion to create a series of four concerts of Andalusian music. The orchestra has decided to broaden its repertoire and to reach out to new listeners. For this series, there will be 80 players on stage - not the typical Andalusian ensemble, which generally consists of a small group of authentic instruments.

 PH: Maestro Elbaz, thank you for your time. I wish you much joy and satisfaction in your work with the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra.  




Saturday, October 1, 2016

Talking to JanJoost van Elburg (Holland) about his career in choral conducting

JanJoost van Elburg (photo: Sander Heezen)

On August 17th 2016 I met with Dutch conductor and singer JanJoost van Elburg in Ludlow, Shropshire, UK. JanJoost van Elburg (b.1962) studied conducting with Barend Schuurman and singing with Jelle Drayer, Margreet Honig and Ghislaine Morgan. Recent and current conductorships include The Renaissance Singers (London), The Reading Bach Choir, the Bartholomew Consort (Oxford) and the Lelikoor (Amsterdam); he serves as vocal coach for the COQU Vocaal Consort (Utrecht). Van Elburg has been invited to work with such ensembles as “Cantiones Sacrae” (Dundee) “Polyhymnia” (New York), the Monteverdi String Band (UK) and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. He has directed “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral.  As a singer, he has performed with such ensembles as the Tallis Scholars, the Netherlands Radio Choir, Capella Pratensis, Capella Coloniënsis as well as his own ensembles. He holds workshops and lectures on such subjects as Renaissance- and Baroque music, madrigals, Flemish polyphony, Tudor music and choral conducting. On the board of the “Le Pavillon” Foundation for contemporary music, Van Elburg initiated and is principal tutor of the annual DESCANT International Choral Conductors’ Course in Amsterdam, where he lives.

PH: JanJoost van Elburg, I see you have a great love affair with England.

JanJoost van Elburg: I do indeed. It flows from several canals. I had a British uncle, which started my love for the English language. My work, however, frequently brings me to England: in the early 2000s I sang several concerts with the Tallis Scholars, working with Peter Phillips at the Tallis Scholars Summer School and, as of 1998 have led many of Andrew van der Beek’s “Lacock” courses (as I am this week). In 2003 I started working in London, conducting The Singers of London and the Renaissance Singers, I conducted the Reading Bach Choir for several years and I still conduct the Bartholomew Consort in Oxford. I have directed a few of the “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral; in one we performed Muffat’s “Missa in Labore Requies”, one of those incredibly large-scale pieces with three orchestras, two choir, eight soloists and six natural trumpets. Another very grand work I directed there was a Biber Mass, with two organs and two or three choirs. It was great fun. These large works are not performed often, but Blackdowns Early Music Project (which supports “Grand Baroque”) dares to produce these works because it believes in presenting them and I am very grateful that they do.  So the love affair with England hasn’t stopped yet.

PH: Not living in the UK, how do you work with the Bartholomew Consort?

JJvE: We start rehearsing on the Friday, work through the weekend and give a concert on the Sunday. This October they will be coming to Amsterdam to do the concert there.

PH: What is the Blackdowns Early Music Project?

JJvE: Established in 2004 in Culmstock, but also giving concerts in Exeter, Wellington and other places nearby, it draws together groups of experienced singers to perform less-heard, pre-1720 works.

PH: What was your first musical experience as a child?

JJvE: I think the very first significant musical experience that made my mother decide that she had to do something about it was when I was probably five. We were at the museum in The Hague, where they have old instruments. In the main hall a harpist was playing. We walked by and listened and I was completely mesmerized. After a few minutes my parents wanted to leave and I decided I didn’t want to and started screaming and disrupted the whole thing. They were forced to stay for as long as I decided I wanted to.  I seem to remember – or, at least, that was what I was told – that the harpist enjoyed the fact that he had such an impact on such a little child.

PH: To where did that experience lead?

JJvE: My mother thought they should do something about it, so I started playing harp at age six – a tiny harp – and I had a very, very severe teacher who came from Russia, I think. She was too stern for me. I tried it for two years and then gave up as I wanted to be playing everything except the exercises and runs I was supposed to practise.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

JJvE: Yes – I say this with hesitance. My father played the harmonium and I remember him playing the piano when I was young. My maternal grandfather conducted choirs and was a good singer and I think that is the background to my own musicality. My sister plays in an orchestra, but the rest of the family are medical people…not really musical.

PH: Let’s go back to your musical training.

JJvE: Our system in Holland is very bad; there is just about no music at schools but I went to a conservatory where I learned theory and sight-reading and enjoyed that very much. I also played the recorder from age eight and continued for several years, playing the usual recorder repertoire, including Jacob van Eyck’s “Fluyten Lust-hof” with all the ornamentation. Then puberty hit and I was bored with the recorder. My father passed away when I was 14 and I really wanted to do something else. I picked up the guitar and played bass guitar in a band and then left it for a while. Music was still attracting me but there was nothing I could do really well at that stage.

PH: So how did you get to choral music?

JJvE: When I was 16 and 17 I sang in a church choir for a short time. Then I abandoned that. In the early ‘80s I started singing in choirs again. My sight-reading was still quite good. (Actually, I had only gone to a choir audition to support a friend who was feeling very scared about auditioning.) And then I was asked to help four people who were preparing to sing at a wedding. Helping them learn the material seemed to go easily for me. I enjoyed it very much; it had opened up a new world for me. So following the teacher training course I took, I went to study conducting in Rotterdam, as I had been singing in a choir in Amsterdam conducted by that teacher and I loved the way he worked.

PH: When did you study voice?

JJvE: At the same time, but it was not my main focus. I thought it very important for a choral conductor to be able to sing; I mainly studied singing in order to understand how the instrument works, to be able to show what the mistakes are and how it could be done better. That is why I never settled into one voice part. I think it is useful for a choral conductor to be able to sing in all ranges and, luckily, I have a voice that can do that. When I sing properly I mostly sing countertenor. That feels easiest to my voice.

PH: Have you done solo singing?

JJvE:  I have done a little solo singing. That requires different preparation and I never thought I was good enough to start a solo career. So I have done it where needed – if soloists have dropped out, but not really as a solo career.

PH: When did you actually start appearing as a choral conductor?

JJvE: Quite early on – around 1986.

PH: Have you done orchestral conducting?

JJvE: Yes. At the moment I am working at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam (next to the Anne Frank House), where they have their own orchestra run by Daniel Boothe. We do a Bach cantata service every month at the church.

PH: Tell me more about music in the Westerkerk.

JJvE: We try to get some “mystery guests” from time to time. This year we had Phillipe Jaroussky. We did not publicize the fact and people entering the church were gobsmacked when he walked in. So we had a Bach cantata sung by him. It was wonderful and his fee was not more than what other solo singers would take.

PH: Which ensembles have had the strongest influence on your career?

JJvE: In the very early 1980s, it was the professional English choirs, like The Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen and the Hilliard Ensemble. I thought “this is really good” and I really liked Renaissance music because of its inner balance and incredibly soothing quality; the structure in it is just wonderful – complex and simple at the same time. The way these ensembles on the English scene performed it – led by Paul Hillier, Harry Christophers and others – was opening up a new world for me.

PH: What about the Dutch scene?

JJvE: Yes, but that was later music in the hands of the like of Jos van Feldhoven and Ton Koopman, who are still active today. Actually I am going to work with Ton Koopman this coming Autumn; I will prepare the B-minor Mass with the choir of The Hague Conservatory for him. We will then go on tour to the United States.

PH: What artists or ensembles do you find inspiring?

JJvE: At certain stages in one’s studies or musical career you hear performances that have suddenly sparked off a new idea that carries you on for a few years. Then you hear another one – it’s a string of people, really. For example, at the moment, someone I find very inspirational in the way he sings and works is the German baritone Dietrich Henschel. I work a lot with Paul Phoenix and Charles Daniels, both fantastic singers. I recently did a concert with Daniels and “Vox Luminis” – a Belgian vocal ensemble of young singers. “Vox Luminis” has a new approach – a warm, perhaps less academic- but more human approach; there are some very beautiful voices in it and the members have a very natural way of singing, which I really like.  So I did a Charpentier project with them. It was fantastic to be able to work with them. Another artist who has inspired me is the Dutch baritone Max van Egmond.

PH: Now that the hysteria of the authentic early music movement is behind us, what is your approach to early music performance?

JJvE: The early music movement has been around in the Netherlands for a long time, with the great “rebellion” taking place in the 1970s.  In the past I religiously followed the principle of very clean, transparent singing. I have lost the idea of too “sterile” a sound, now finding a fuller-blooded vocal sound more to my liking.   It is people who are performing and so the individual qualities of these performers should shine through. If we then combine their voices into a unified sound, it becomes more realistic in a way, a more living sound. I have heard early music performances that were absolutely perfect, but so boring, and I didn’t like that. For an example of how I do choral works: in the St. Matthew Passion I did, I did not choose for the mezzo-soprano to sing “Erbarme dich” because it would be too easy, simply too beautiful. I chose the countertenor to sing it because he has to work quite a bit harder to make it work. To me, that is more where it comes from. To me this aria is so related to Peter himself – it is Peter himself speaking, uttering a heart-rending plea; it makes much more sense then when the violin offers him soothing comfort. That adds an extra layer to the music. That is how I now approach performances such as the Matthew and St. John Passions.

PH: Do you broach the subject of vocal vibrato nowadays or do you not?

JJvE: I do, I do, yes When choosing a soloist, I normally choose one who already fits the picture I have for that certain role. For instance, with the B-minor Mass I am presently preparing with students in The Hague, where some of them have a tendency to add vibrato to every note, I ask them not to do it or to limit it, explaining why. A bit of a “fight” sometimes ensues, but vibrato should function as a form of ornamentation, to add warmth to the tone, as a means of expression.

PH: How do you find the attitude of the young musicians you work with to early music?

JJvE: It varies a lot. Those I work with in The Hague have chosen to study early music, so they find it completely normal to work along those principles. In Bulgaria I worked with a professional orchestra of very young players; they told me they all hated Bach. Bach was bad music…all of it! I found this amusing and interesting.  When I then asked them why they had chosen this project that said they wanted to understand why I like it! We started working on the Bach Magnificat and it sounded awful at first; we all agreed it sounded awful. We then started working on the way they were playing – how they were using the bow, where to cut off certain notes, how to make the music more dancelike – and gradually they started understanding the principles, grasping the light transparency of the dance. Actually, they started to like it, begrudgingly admitting that they thought it was good. I like that very much and find these moments the best when they “get it”, not just doing what I say, and then they can do it that way themselves.

PH: Are you coming across different approaches to singing early music?

JJvE: Yes. Working with Bulgarian singers, for example, they come from a different background and they also have different vocal techniques. When they sing early music it is with a different voice and it works differently, but this doesn’t mean it is wrong; it’s just different and this adds to the quality. When you have altos from Bulgaria you won’t find them in western Europe and you won’t find English countertenors in Bulgaria. The original language has an influence on the singer’s voice production, hence a certain fullness and sharpness of tone quality in singers from Russia and eastern Europe.

PH: Do you compose?

JJvE: I used to. I used to write music for theatre productions. That was in the ‘80s. I haven’t written so much for choirs, just a few small anthems.  But in order to write music and bring it out in the world I felt I would need the proper training for it. At the conservatoire we learned about composition and we produced some pieces but I never thought they were good enough. However, at a summer course on new music for singers I introduced one of my own pieces, but not under my own name. This was on purpose because I wanted the singers to feel free to say what they thought. They thought it was a “nice piece”; I never told them it was mine.

PH: On the same subject, do you perform contemporary music?

JJvE: Yes. Not so much, but I do. It was a few years back with my Amsterdam chamber choir, the Lelikoor. For St. Cecilia’s Day we wanted to have a few more new compositions on the subject, so we asked some young poets to write texts and a few young composers to set them to music. That created some interesting pieces, some of which we performed at the concert. (I think two of them will probably not be performed again; they were not good enough…) However, with my chamber choir we perform music from all periods, not so much the big Romantic repertoire because it requires a large orchestra and a different line-up. Most Romantic music is not suitable for a chamber choir, but we have performed Brahms and I do perform Saint Saëns and Ravel.  Of great interest was a work we did by Rudolf Mauersberger; he wrote a piece after the destruction of Dresden, referring to it. He had been leading a boys’ choir there; they lost everything, including some of the boys.

PH: And future plans?

JJvE: In October I am going to conduct Swiss-Dutch composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, a fantastic piece. The Mass was mostly written for himself. Am also going to be doing the Requiem by Ildebrando Pizzetti. I have been asked to work with a composer who is very, very, very post-avant-garde. Am a bit hesitant about doing that, so have not yet said yes.

PH: Do you edit?

JJvE: Yes, I do. Particularly for early music. It’s great fun figuring out the mensural notation. Sometimes you think “How is this possible? Why doesn’t it work?” and it turns out that the same composer has written two settings of that particular piece – one, for instance, in 1591 and then one in 1596 – but both are incomplete. In which case it is impossible to make one edition unless you find out that there are actually two versions of it. It’s like a puzzle…I love it.

PH: Another of your many connections to England is the enquiry you have made into the Eton Choirbook.

JJvE: Yes. Actually, I am going to give a lecture on it in New York in September. The Eton Choirbook is the only choir book in England that never left its college; it has been there from 1500 till now. It is a collection of music which is very particular for that time period, which is before the time the principles of Josquin reached England. It is a post-mediaeval book with Renaissance ideas in it, but not really developed. So it is a very specific sort of style – incredibly complex, incredibly virtuosic. Some of the pieces last 17 or 18 minutes. They are text-based, but it can happen that you sing one syllable over 350 notes…by which time you can’t even remember what word you were singing! That’s where it goes wrong and that’s what they found out – that it was a bit of a cul-de-sac. Things improved when Josquin’s principles reached England; then you get composers like Tallis and Byrd, more familiar names than the likes of Robert Fayrfax, Edmund Turges, Robert Wilkinson and John Browne.

PH: This week you are working on the Monteverdi “Vespers” with many amateurs. Do you enjoy working with amateurs?

JJvE: I do, I do. Yes, and I hope that comes across. I like to explain how things work, I like the development from total chaos into some sort of clarity and I enjoy working with people. In some of the professional choirs I work with I have no contact with the person behind the voice and that’s not really for me.  I need that contact, otherwise I can’t cooperate. Some people are very good at just conducting voices, but I can’t.

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

JJvE: Art. I was trained as an artist – in drawing and architecture. I would like to have more time to spend on the art and to actually be doing some again. I have bought the equipment, so I can start painting again at any moment and I am really looking forward to that moment. On a different level, I am interested in group dynamics – people working in groups of 12, then 24 and then 48 as a balance – and how people feel responsible for their own input in the group or whether they simply take from it without contributing. It is fascinating how that works. Another interest of mine is symbolism; I have come across a lot of symbolism in the Eton Choirbook. It is fascinating to see the meaning is of all the little miniatures in that book; they are artistic and that connects with my interest in art.

PH: Maestro van Elburg, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you.



Sunday, May 15, 2016

Talking to harpsichordist and conductor Shalev Ad-El about Baroque music, conducting, different programming, music education and more

Maestro Shalev Ad-ElAdd (

On April 25th 2016, Shalev Ad-El and I spoke at length on Skype. Born in Israel in 1968, Ad-El made his name as one of Europe’s most sought-after continuo players. As a soloist, he has performed several times with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and with most other Israeli orchestras and has frequented most major stages, such as Carnegie Hall (New York), Wigmore Hall (London), Suntory Hall (Tokyo), the Berlin Philharmonic, and more. In 1992, together with some Norwegian singers, he founded the Oslo Baroque Soloists. A member of “Il Gardellino” (Belgium) and the Dorian Consort (Switzerland), he is musical director of the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and “Accademia Daniel” (Israel). Shalev Ad-El has held teaching positions at the Dresden Academy for Early Music, the Brno Masaryk University and Boston University, also holding master classes. He has recorded over 80 CDs for such leading labels as Deutsche Grammophon, CPO, Chandos and Accent.

PH: Shalev Ad-El, where were you born?

Shalev Ad-El: In Ramat Gan, Israel.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

S.A-E: My mother and my maternal grandmother both played the piano for enjoyment. Actually, my mother’s maiden name was “Schneider” and it was only after my grandmother’s death that I found out I was related in some way to the great violinist Alexander Schneider. Till now I have not had time to go into that but may do so now that I am retiring.

PH: What is your earliest musical memory?

S.A-E: I was about 6 and in England with my parents. I saw a sea lion and was so impressed that I composed a small song for it. I still remember the song. My really early memories are more of animals, having lived in Ethiopia for several months, where my grandfather was working. We had a giant turtle and there were monkeys, ostriches etc.

PH: When did you begin music lessons?

S.A-E:  I was seven, I believe. My first piano teacher gave up on me after a year, saying that “this kid” would be no good, was not doing what he was supposed to do. I was anti authority and thus was never really good at school...likewise with piano lessons.  My second teacher was Vera Boiko, wife of Israeli Philharmonic violinist Yefim Boiko (he became first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet.) She is a very special person. I spoke to her not long ago. She lives in Milwaukee to where they moved after leaving Israel. Her son is a very fine conductor, having a great career. Vera told my mum that I was very talented, that I played my own notes without regard to what was written on the page, but that everything would be fine. She left the country and I moved to another amazing teacher, who died at quite a young age. I took it really badly and stopped learning the piano.

PH: So no more music lessons?

S.A-E: I played the recorder, accordion and some other instruments for fun, but at age 11, I began playing the flute, which I continued playing for some years.

PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?

S.A-E: Yes, I was accepted to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts as a flautist.

PH: So the flute became your direction.

S.A-E: Not exactly. I was under the impression that I was the best flautist in the world, but I was the only one holding this opinion. One year into my studies there, my classmate ‘cellist Zvi Plesser expressed that he would like to play something with harpsichord. I did not really know what the harpsichord was, but agreed and then, of course, had to find a harpsichord. I volunteered to do this as all the class pianists were so busy with their solo careers that they did not waste their time going to other people’s lessons to accompany on harpsichord. And I really loved playing with other people.  I was a member of the school jazz group. The only person in the Tel Aviv area with a harpsichord was Shimon Rochman, who was teaching at Bar-Ilan University. He had recently immigrated to Israel and did not speak much Hebrew. I went to see him. He did not understand what I wanted of him and thought I wanted him to teach me the harpsichord.

PH: So did you begin taking harpsichord lessons?

S.A-E:  A couple, but at 15 I was sure I knew everything, including how to play the harpsichord, as it would be “the same as the piano”!   Shimon Rochman had a huge harpsichord in a tiny apartment and it became clear that taking it out would be impossible.

PH: So what came of all of this?

S.A-E: The concert with Zvi Plesser never eventuated, but I started to really like the harpsichord and this new, amazing world was now opening up to me. After two or three lessons I announced at school that I was a “harpsichordist” if anyone needed one. (When you are 15, two lessons are enough for you to imagine you know something!) But it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. I started getting calls, the first being from Ada Yadlin, general director of the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, asking me to play the harpsichord in “Messiah”, with Avner Itai conducting the very superb Cameran Choir and alto Mira Zakai as soloist. I agreed – all I would need was a figured bass and off I went to the Tel Aviv Museum. I listened to the recording of the performance a couple of years later and it was a total disaster: it sounded like a harpsichord concerto accompanied by a pantomime of soloists, choir and orchestra!  There were two concerts. Music critic Hanoch Ron wrote “And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) …a surprisingly good critique for the really poor job I did. Within a few days, this write-up brought me a heap of ‘phone calls – from the Israel Philharmonic, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Haifa Symphony to the Beer Sheva Sinfonietta. All these orchestras appointed me as their official harpsichordist. This went right through my last year at school. So I was hardly at school: I was rehearsing, playing concerts and not really knowing what I was doing, but gaining more and more inspiration to study the thing I was considered knowing; also, realizing more and more how endless the path to knowledge really was.

PH: Where did you study?

S.A-E: On finishing school I was able to defer my mandatory army service to go to Holland to study. Following one year of studies with Gustav Leonhardt and one with Bob van Asperen, I then came back to Israel. Actually, what I really learned in Europe was mostly from playing with other people and not through anyone teaching me “how to play”. I joined the Israeli army (in the Outstanding Musicians’ Unit) as a harpsichordist – I was the only army harpsichordist in the world.

PH: Where did you start to work after your army service?

S.A-E: I went to Prague, where I lived for 11 years. I had one job in Dresden and one in Brno and the beautiful city of Prague was right between the two. It was relatively easy.

PH: Why Prague?

S.A-E: I had thought of going to Brussels, where I had a really good group I had played with when studying in The Hague – including oboist Marcel Ponseele, flautist Jan de Winne and violinist Ryo Terakado, all big names today. We were classmates, we continued playing together and still do! But life was much nicer in Prague; I had a lot of work there as I was the only representative of the Dutch-Belgian-French early music scene in the city.

PH: Was this an advantage?

S.A-E:  Yes and no. If you are the best you are less challenged. In a place with a lot of fine early music specialists you compete and improve. But there is a lot of music in Prague, we were very active and there were a lot of festivals; I am happy I made that decision. Prague was also very cheap at the time so it was easy to make a living there. Seven years into my stay in Prague I got an apartment in New York and started dividing my time between the two cities.

PH: Where did you go then?

S.A-E:  I spent 11 years in Berlin. I changed my USA centre from New York to Chicago. Then, in 2001 I started doing a lot of work in South America, spending time there, and in 2005 began spending time in Asia.

PH: So this was all a focus on Baroque music.

S.A-E: Yes. But in 2010 I began saying goodbye to the Baroque…gradually and naturally.

PH: What happened?

S.A-E:  I said “No more bloodshed”, which was synonymous with “No more Baroque”. I was still doing some Baroque music with orchestras abroad – in Bogota, etc. But I also began with a Romantic program in Bogota and one in Rishon LeZion and with the Jerusalem Symphony. I was abusing all the trust people had had in my knowledge of Baroque as I was trying out later music.

PH: Was this a kind of crisis?

S.A-E: No. It was so amazing actually seeing the Baroque in Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms’ music so thoroughly, a complete Bach fugue, for example, in the middle of the Schumann Piano Concerto. And, before orchestrating it, the sketch Schumann wrote for his ‘Cello Concerto was written in the form of the ‘cello part and figured bass!  So the Baroque has influenced everything ever since. With all the respect and love I have for the Baroque, I have been drawn into the newer ways of expression, experiments and new harmonies. It is impossible to go back – you use your knowledge of earlier music, but you do not go back. Music has evolved and our history has evolved.

PH: End of story?

S.A-E:  Not entirely. In a week, for example, I will be playing a harpsichord recital in Germany. But I am now more interested in trying to see a bit more of the “new world”.

PH: Are you referring to conducting?

S.A-E: Well, I have been conducting for a long time. For ten years I was regular guest conductor of the Baroque series of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Halle, Germany – I directed a lot of Passions, cantatas, CDs, etc. but I am referring to conducting later music than the Baroque.

PH: Do you play modern music on the harpsichord?

S.A-E: When I was a teenager I played the three amazing pieces Ligeti wrote for the harpsichord. But today I lack the patience and the time to learn this repertoire.  However, three years ago, the Israel Philharmonic asked me to play the de Falla Harpsichord Concerto. I should have refused, but, in a moment of weakness, I agreed and I then spent many months working out where my fingers should land in this piece.  Baroque figures flow naturally after 250 years. One is so accustomed to the style and patterns. De Falla has completely different patterns and it was really hard for me to adapt to them.

PH: How do you see the state of musical performance today?

S.A-E: The more professional you become the more difficult it is to get a profound performance.  Professional work is preventing us from that. In order to survive today you have to spend time lobbying, PR-ing, commercializing yourself, meeting with sponsors and working on your relationship with your directors (some of them music directors of four or five orchestras at the same time). You are so busy running around, playing as many concerts as possible that there is not enough time to invest in doing things well or making changes.

PH: Would you like to talk about your time as conductor and musical director of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra?

S.A-E: Yes. I have had a lovely time. It was the first time I ever actually managed an orchestra. I took over the orchestra as it was on the verge of closing down. It owed money to everybody. Musicians were owed money several years back. The bus company refused to work with us, the printer was refusing to print our programs, halls refused to have us perform in them, etc. Already one year into my term there, we finished with more than NIS 150,000 profit. In achieving that, I had to make some enemies my first ever enemies - mazal tov!.  But I am older now and, in retrospect, am happy to be surrounded by the people there. The orchestra had not travelled for 17 years; we have had two very big tours -  eight concerts in China and eight in South America. We have raised salaries by 40% and have people working only full time rather than four days a week. So we are now fully functioning, paying in full, have had three years of amazing soloists and have commissioned many new pieces and experiments. We stick almost strictly to classical music. My predecessor did some cross-over and ethnic music which I have not done, so the orchestra has had to attract a new public and it has attracted an excellent audience and added to its list of subscribers. All this was a major risk; a lot of people around me predicted failure.

PH: What repertoire does the orchestra play?

S.A-E: We stick to relatively known, attractive classical music because we want people to hear music they love, but to listen to it in a very different and inspiring way. You could call it “mainstream but different”.

PH: What is different about the NKO’s programs?

S.A-E: We do not have any of the soloists performing their usual repertoire. Each has to present something he has never performed before. For example, first flautist of the Vienna Philharmonic Karl-Heinz Schütz played Beethoven’s Concerto opus 61, originally for violin, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, countertenor Andreas Scholl sang contemporary Israeli composer Menahem Nebenhaus’ “Dowland Song Remix Suite”, trombonist Christian Lindberg played the Mozart Horn Concerto and Latvian accordionist Ksenija Sidorova performed J.S.Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in d-minor. We have just had German baritone Klaus Mertens singing Schubert Lieder with Max Reger’s orchestration. We also commissioned the excellent Israeli composer Israel Sharon to orchestrate Fanny Mendelssohn’s epic piano cycle “Das Jahr”, which was performed during our tour of South America. What is interesting is that these artists have continued with this “twist”. It’s a great compliment. Andreas Scholl took Nebenhaus’ score away with him and has offered it to other orchestras.  Sidorova has continued recording and performing Bach all over and Karl-Heinz Schütz has toured extensively with the works he performed with us; these pieces inspired him to reconstruct Brahms Violin sonatas and record them beautifully. For the last concert of the season we are going to reconstruct the premiere of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which took place in Vienna on December 8th 1813. We will present the public with exactly the same program. There were 123 musicians on stage. We cannot do that but we will have almost double the number of players of our orchestra nonetheless. We will also inform the public as to who was in the orchestra on that occasion, how much each earned for taking part, how many rehearsals they had, etc.; there were many famous composers playing at that historical performance, among them, Salieri, Meyerbeer, Hummel and Louis Spohr. And we have also hired some amazing chefs to serve food made from recipes from an 1800 Viennese cookbook. 

PH: Some most original ideas.

S.A-E: We also had a competition concert.

PH: Who were the competitors?

S.A-E: J.S.Bach and German harpsichordist and composer Christoph Graupner. The works chosen were written in 1723 when both were competing to get a job in Leipzig. We played works by both, not specifying who had written what and 90% of the public chose Graupner as the winner! They were sure the music of his we had played was by Bach.

PH: Do you conduct the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in modern works?

S.A-E: We have done quite a number, of course, though for me, personally, even Poulenc is modern. I did, however, conduct Alma Deutscher’s opera “Cinderella” last summer. Besides being a wonderful piece of music written by a true genius, if this is to be considered “modern”, just show me where to sign to do that for the rest of my life.

PH: What are you happy performing nowadays?

S.A-E: I am feeling more and more comfortable with Brahms. Am “living” in 1850 or 1860 at the moment. Conducting 20th century music is fine, but I do not feel I understand it well enough to present it respectfully to the public. Performing it once, observing dynamics and conducting it in time is not really the meaning of musical performance. In February-March I conducted Bruckner; I managed to grasp it well as his music is very conservative, religious and very structured. I felt comfortable about the result. I could not say the same about performing Mahler – it is way too early for me to tackle his music. Listening to it, I sit there adoring it but conducting it means being fluent in the “language”. Talking of language, I remember conducting the Norwegian Soloists Choir; we did mostly Baroque music and a lot of Bruckner motets, Brahms motets, those by Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolff. For a concert in Tel Aviv, the concert tour was supported by the Norwegian Embassy, and they insisted we perform music of Grieg.  The choristers knew Grieg’s Four Psalms for baritone and chorus very well. They sat there singing them by heart and I, not understanding a word, had to conduct them from the music, which was a bit ridiculous. So I learned them by heart (Norwegian vocal music, with a long tradition of great choral composers, is very particular and rich; I was very privileged to have experienced it).  Out of the corner of my eye I was focusing on one tenor who was very expressive, one of those singers whose facial expression shows you what is going to happen in the next bar. Having him in sight, I conducted what I saw, changing the character of my conducting according to his expression. This man is a very famous tenor now. Several years later he gave an interview, saying that, strangely enough, after all the Norwegian conductors with whom he had sung the Grieg pieces, mine was the closest to his musical taste!

PH: Do you compose music?

S.A-E: No.

PH: Do you edit?

S.A-E: I did it for several years…before the internet stole my attention. When bass-baritone Klaus Mertens and I met in 1995, we decided there were many, many amazing composers we wanted to research and find works of theirs. We did that with Fasch, a lot of Graupner (we could never finish Graupner; he wrote 1200 cantatas.  We went over some 20 of them) and Telemann (who wrote 1400 cantatas, of which we also took on some 20). We concentrated on baritone-bass cantatas. Each of these projects meant going to libraries, taking out microfilm and figuring out the instrumentation to see if it was something we wanted to perform. The manuscripts of Graupner’s works are sometimes very illegible, so we could not really get any idea of the music. Discovering the correct scoring might mean needing 5 corni da caccia, 3 oboi d’amore, 2 chalumeax; not having these instruments, we could not tackle such a work. But where we found a suitable score we edited it. Of those we edited, there was not one bad piece:  the Fasch, Graupner and Telemann works turned out to be amazing pieces of music. We were so lucky and privileged to perform them - truly touching pieces.  Graupner (as does Fasch) has his own very special language. It is like eating black beans: once you have started with it you cannot be without it. I really became addicted to Graupner’s music, as did some other friends of mine.  And, as I mentioned before, our public also voted him in.

Then, around 1995 I started working on the Hebrew version of Händel’s “Esther”. The libretto was scattered around Europe. It is an amazing story, but complicated. Händel was working at the Hamburg Opera. The head of the Opera was a Jew, who was very, very kind and generous to Händel, making it possible for the composer to travel and Händel travelled a lot.  In 1723, Händel went to Venice. It was February, everything was closed and the only event in town was the Purimspiel (a traditional performance for the Jewish Purim festival). Händel witnessed the Purimspiel and was so moved by the story that, on his way back to Germany, he had already begun his sketches for the Haman and Mordechai tragi-comedy that later became his first oratorio. And, as he was most famous for his oratorios, this was really the “opening shot” of his great career. In London, he was known for his empathy with the Jewish community and he served it well. They had a great friend in him: he was famous, open-minded and influential, which also meant financial support for him.  Händel, a liberal thinker, was one of the most vocal artists on the subject of co-existence, an uncommon practice in those days. He once said that he did not “have the honour of possessing any prejudices”.  A Venetian rabbi, Jacob Saraval, who ended up working for the Portuguese congregation in Amsterdam, was commissioned by them to go to London to hear “Esther” played at Covent Garden in 1759. Saraval, brilliant both musically and with words, was so impressed with the oratorio that he rewrote it in Hebrew – a beautiful libretto based on the existing libretto. We do not know whether it was ever performed in Amsterdam or not; perhaps it was too difficult for them there to perform. Austrian-born composer Christian Joseph Lidarti (1731-1795), living at a time when style was constantly changing, took the text and wrote new music to it. He was already writing in a totally Classical style. A non-Jew in service of the quite liberal Amsterdam Jewish community and writing pieces for them for different holidays etc., Lidarti was no genius, but his “Esther” is a very nice piece. What I needed to do was to collect all 159 of Händel’s direction scores of “Esther” (each different as each time he performed it in a different way, with different players, different soloists. Händel was a very pragmatic, practical person) and I recreated the piece. It took me almost 10 years. We performed it in New York in 2002 and 2003 and it was very successful. I had some really excellent soloists – Michael Chance (singing in Hebrew!), Suzie LeBlanc, Charles Daniels and I also brought my choir from Norway. It was a very expensive project, of the kind only New York could pay. I had planned to do it with the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in Israel next year, but that will not happen as I am leaving the orchestra.

PH: What, in your opinion, is happening in the world of musical performance?

S.A-E: Music is an amazing thing, an amazing mode of expression. One has to keep it in proportion. The music world today is very disproportionate, often not being really about music now. There are many, many things at stake.

PH: What are your thoughts when playing a recital?

S.A-E: I’m hoping they will not shut the kitchen of the restaurant I was intending to go to after the concert.

PH: And your thoughts on teaching…

S.A-E: Nowadays, I only give master classes. It means less responsibility, like being the lover rather than the husband. But I did teach in mainstream frameworks for many years. I have to say I was never a great fan of the academic system and definitely not as a teacher. In Baroque times, ten people might meet together twice or three times a week, playing for each other, writing music, each performing and explaining his own music. For me, the nearest thing to it is the groups I had – my choir and Accademia Daniel, an amazing group of a few people, such as Kati Debretzeni, Nima Ben David, Ofer Frenkl, Dafna Ravid, Ira Givol and Amos Boasson, really the finest musicians. We exchanged ideas. At the beginning, Kati and I were the more experienced, so we contributed more. We all learned a lot and improved so much. This process is much closer to what I personally understand as “music education”. Sometimes a manner of playing is taught is like teaching someone to fly a ‘plane, but without the ‘plane. Music is like a language and you can only learn to speak it in a market, where nobody speaks any other language.  I did teach conventionally, either for the importance of being a professor at 23 or for the money or for whatever, but I have never really believed in this process.

PH: So what attracted you to working in the third world?

S.A-E:  Firstly, making music there is about anything but making money or career, which already is great. My goal is to make them realize how wonderful classical music is and how it can enrich their lives. If you go into a village in Bolivia, everyone plays an instrument. We played the St. John Passion for them for the first time; they are very religious Christians and they have never heard music of Bach. I also conducted the first St. John Passion in Cuba. These are much more meaningful experiences for me. In Mitzpe Ramon I started a mission in 2008, in which I have brought a lot of excellent people down there to play concerts, to play in schools and show the children the instruments – most of these children have never heard classical music. They are an underprivileged society with close to no possibility to even get to Beer Sheva to hear the orchestra there. Luckily, a year ago I managed to get the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra there for the “Sulamot” (scales/ladders) program, thanks to its “magician” of a director Sarah Elbaz. We now have over 100 children playing in an orchestra there. Once a year they go to Tel Aviv to play with the Israeli Philharmonic. For disadvantaged children with many issues, an instrument is such a great solution and they invest all their energy into playing it! Within one year, school violence there has dropped dramatically.  And it has been proved that children who play instruments are better in school studies because of other qualities they develop – discipline, coordination, concentration. This, for me, is of greater significance than teaching someone how to play the harpsichord.

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

S.A-E: My wife and I like many things. We travel a lot to concerts. We love traveling wherever we are, we like to try the local food. If there is some dish we especially like, my wife knocks on some door to ask somebody to teach her how to make it. I also obsessively love all kinds of animals…always did, but after learning more about human nature from the point of view of an orchestral director, even more so. I also like to see the world through the eyes of real estate markets, not from a financial- but rather from a psychological point of view - what things are considered to be, that very often are not.  Also, not the most expensive restaurant will necessarily be the best – sometimes the opposite is true. Likewise, in music.

PH: Do you have any hobbies?

S.A-E: I like collecting air miles. I happily declare that I have some very good “students” who have followed my instructions and are having a wonderful time travelling, living up to their  miles in the most fulfilling way.  In fact, I recently received a letter from a stranger who was sitting next to me on a ‘plane from San Francisco to Tokyo some months back. He invited me to lunch for having saved his life with a little trick I had revealed to him. The fish was great…very fresh.

PH: Maestro Shalev Ad-El, many thanks for your time and for sharing so much of your experience and so many thoughts.