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.