Sunday, May 22, 2011

Violinist Ittai Shapira: how everyone can relate, when personal events transpire into musical compositions

So far, 14 compositions by different contemporary composers have been dedicated to violinist Ittai Shapira. Belonging to the now thirty something generation of performers of the New York classical music scene – he and pianist Jeremy Denk were roommates in college- he is now renowned as a versatile performer of an enormous classical violin repertoire, incorporating past and present, traditional as well as contemporary.
One of these premieres included the violin concerto written for him by Israeli compatriot and Pulitzer Prize winner, Shulamit Ran. It was performed at Shapira’s acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut in 2003 with the Orchestra of St.Luke’s. In 2007, it was incorporated into Ran’s compilation of works performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Shapira’s international performances as a fine soloist with many leading orchestras as well as chamber groups, coupled with his varied recordings, show his widespread interest in standard and unusual repertoire, explaining why so many composers dedicate works for his performance.
Another Israeli compatriot, a composer who lately enjoys great international demand, Avner Dorman, wrote a violin concerto for Shapira as well, in 2006. It was performed with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
Dorman was, as was Shapira, trained at Juilliard after leaving Israel for New York. While Dorman studied composition with John Corigliano, Shapira studied violin with Dorothy DeLay and Robert Mann and privately coached with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.
Since Ittai was involved in the Daniel Pearl Foundation, they decided to dedicate the piece and its premiere performances to the memory of journalist Daniel Pearl, as Dorman mentions in the liner notes to the concerto. Another concerto by composer Dave Heath found his way onto the soundtrack for the film about Daniel Pearl’s tragic death in Pakistan “The Journalist and the Jihadi”, via Shapira.
Glen Roven’s concert piece “The Runaway Bunny” was written for Shapira in 2006 and recorded with the Royal Philharmonic and Brooke Shields as narrator of the children story for Sony/BMG. This piece, as well as his performance on a Jerry Lewis’ Telethon, gained Shapira large audience exposure. The latter performance, nationally televised in the US., had a reported audience of 55 million. Other compositions dedicated to him include the recent “Katrina Concerto”, by Theodore Wiprud.
But even though Shapira could be very happy staying the performer in demand that he is, he has developed a widening interest in the contemporary musical laboratory of collaboration, arrangement, orchestration, a process that would lead him surely to explore his own interest in composition.
“I was presenting a music series, introducing young composers to help establish a connection to a younger audience. We presented virtuoso variations, dedicated to a great artist. I ended up performing and orchestrating the pieces. It was a great learning process,” he explains s he described his beginning experimentations with compositional elements, also a fruitful collaboration with composer Dave Heath, which began during his studies, when writing his own cadenzas, under the tutelage of his Juilliard mentor Robert Mann.
And Dorman says about his concerto,” While composing the concerto, Ittai Shapira contributed much information and advice on writing for the violin – for which I am very grateful to him.”
When we are discussing the development of his dual role as violinist and composer, during our conversation over lunch on the Upper West Side, Shapira becomes animated. This is clearly a passion for him too.
Champs Hill records had just released his own”Concierto Latino”, composed and performed by Shapira with chamber musician, violist and conductor Krzysztof Chorzelski, violist of the renowned Belcea Quartet. Concierto Latino embraces influences by the full spectrum of Latin composers including Villa Lobos and Manuel de Falla to Flamenco singer Camaron de la Isla, Shakira and the Cuban music of Bueno Vista Social Club.
In addition to the Latin musical scenario, a very personal event influenced the shaping of Concierto Latino up to its completion in 2007. The liner notes to the piece describes the decisive element of his composition:
On a freezing night in January of 2005, Shapira had been attacked by a gang of seven or eight men. Released from hospital the next day, Shapira dismissed the incident and promptly went on tour. Yet the attack left an unusual scar: daily zapping headaches, accompanied by a hazy yet distinct series of sounds. When Shapira decided to write down these sounds, the neural response was fascinating: he saw a brief internal snapshot of himself falling on ice. As the composition unfolded, so did his memories…so not only did the mugging prompt a musical response; that musical response in turn enabled a neural reaction, which did… have a remarkably therapeutic effect.
Conceived in three parts, titled:”The Attack”, “Lament”, and “Party”
The fact that this intense personal event triggered a response that influenced the composition so vehemently became a bit of an unintended marketing vehicle, used at pre-concert talks. While his double role as composer/performer stood out in itself, the personal story became a powerful catalyst, resulting promtly in 4 new commissions. Shapira explains further:”While I am actually a very private person, I do believe that it became an important factor for me to share the impact of the literal meaning behind the composition. The bottom-line is that music is really meant to communicate between people and the more the audience understands the background of a piece, also thanks to literal explanations, the better it can connect. It is important to me to be able to add a personal note; it gives the piece another dimension. It does not mean the music cannot stand on its own, but rather that we have a clearer idea to associate an interpretation with the music, which changes the music’s impact positively. Especially in new music, when you take the familiarity of traditional messages away, you need to substitute with something. It becomes essential to add a personal story, something that people can relate to and the public is less defensive, if they can share the knowledge of a meaningful interpretation, as in a real live drama. And who can’t relate to an attack, the lament and the going on of life – the party? “
While still living in Israel, Shapira had studied with the distinguished pedagogue Ilana Feher in Israel, as her last student. Shapira described her influence on him as profound and lasting:” It was not just about the music,” he remembers, “it was about the whole deal. How you dressed for a performance, how you behaved … the teacher was involved in your entire life, not just the music lesson.”
In Feher’s memory, dedicated to the nurturing and promotion of young Israeli violinists, he and his colleague Hagai Shaham recently founded the Ilona Feher Foundation. It is geared to assist gifted students by ”giving them the extra little push they need, advising them on choices of repertoire, networking , supplementing like providing demo-tapes for auditions etc…” clarifies Shapira. :“We focus on concrete projects. For example, we connected a student of Hagai, Itamar Zorman, who was very gifted with various teachers to get different perspectives. We then sponsored a demo tape and gave advice regarding his repertoire. Fundraising for a Carnegie Hall concert helped to get him exposure and he did win 3 competitions and a performance opportunity with the Juilliard Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. So we see the influence of the ‘Feher Foundation’ in personalizing the direction of young artists.” Another artist Shapira is very fond of and mentions to me, is Netanel Draiblate, a talented soloist, also recently became the concertmaster and of the Annapolis Symphony.
Recently the foundation has also worked in partnership with different townships in Israel, training musicians and encouraging their continuous dedication as teachers in Israel.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Do the "shuffle"

Photo:"Shuffle" at the Tel- Aviv Museum, Israel 2011

The latest idea in blending musical genres that were previously isolated from each other has resulted in …well, concerts delivered in a shuffle, I -pod style.
Here, the programming is determined by the audiences from a music-menu, catering almost entirely to that audience’s wishes.
The so called “shuffle- concerts” are performed by a group of classical trained soloists and chamber musicians, led by their innovative artistic director and pianist Eliran Avni. Each concert offers several musical genre choices in varied combinations, from classical to jazz, pop and folklore.
By not negating the existence of any genre, but rather through freshly coordinating its representation by the audience’ selection, these innovative musicians have yet found another dimension to successfully eliminate the judgmental weight of categorization.
By an impressively simplistic means, the “shuffle concert” process translates into a sophisticated experience. The audience is empowered through their own direct impact, shaping the results of an open- ended, exciting musical incident.
The idea was born by a conceptual realization from an everyday occurrence. Avni was on the treadmill, listening to his MP3 player as it shuffled its contents and The Pretenders became Prokoviev’s 5th Symphony.

Photo:Linor Katz (Cello) Eliran Avni (Piano)

“I was shocked and began to realize that it would be interesting to revolve a live concert around the concept of randomly different styles,” says Avni in a recent interview with me. He had also described this experience in an interview with Juilliard faculty member, Anita Mercier:”I was so shocked I had to stop the treadmill….The original shuffle concept is very much a chance concept; it’s about not knowing what piece will come next and enjoying the shock effect of switching between numbers and, in some cases, between radically different styles.”
There was also another experience which catalyzed the decisive decision to go through with this novel approach. Together with his friend Moe, Avni had sat through a classical concert performance of a string quartet which he did not enjoy in the least; not the playing nor the choice of repertoire. Leaving at intermission, he felt frustrated with the stifling atmosphere and shared his thoughts with Moe:”How can I, as a trained classical musician, expect others to sit through my performances, if I am not willing to do so myself… I understood something had to change.” And Moe supported his impulse. So did other friends, like clarinetist Moran Katz, who dared him to go through with his idea of the shuffle.
The concept has developed a bit since its first inception when Avni first started out with his original group of “shufflers”, who were mostly friends and musicians he had performed with before. Some of them also shared his Israeli background. This group included the sisters, clarinetist Moran Katz and cellist Linor Katz , the Juilliard violinist Lauren Basney with whom Avni had performed at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and oboist Roni Gal-Ed, whom he had performed with in Germany. Soprano Amy Justman was especially auditioned for the group.

Photo :Shuffle Ensemble

Relatively early on, they discovered that the difficulty of the program’s variety option was that in order not to compromise on quality, the group had to enlarge its members.
Learning 40 plus pieces and rehearsing on the same day of the performance was a challenge and pretty soon they decided to open the group to include more, equally talented musicians, to devide between the rather busy time scedules.
Avni explains, “We brought soprano Mary Mackenzie to share the soprano’s seat. Because (oboist) Roni is now on maternity leave, Jessica Pearlman shares the oboist’s seat with Hassan Anderson. And Angelia Cho and David McCarroll are sharing the violinist seat. This sort of format is very much in the “Shuffle” spirit of things – this way the audience doesn’t only get a different program each time, but also different talents and interpretations. I personally also find it really interesting to perform the same pieces with different musicians.”
The first “shuffle-concert “was performed on February 15th, 2010, at Lincoln Center’s Rose Studio with a variety of venues following suit, culminating with a recent Israel-tour, at the invitation of the Felicia Blumenthal Chamber Music Festival. Further tours are planned for the West-coast: Oregon, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in November of 2011 and to London in 2012.

Photo:Shuffle at Weill Recital Hall

It remains to see, and I believe it will be truly fascinating how – in the long run- the audience’s choice of repertoire will influence the selection of pieces that will be included in the “menu”, which fluctuates already with the changing inputs from the musicians.
It will also be interesting to see how far the curating aspect of a concert experience will be missed. The “catering” aspects of a “self service” menu will certainly also be challenging, one which offers spontaneity and the zest of free flow, in lieu of a more reflective gusto.
Well aware of these limitations, Avni has led the group to pick the beginning numbers of each half of the program. Says Avni:“We needed to start with pieces we felt really passionate about…and have some control of the concert’s balance and structure by making sure that these pieces involve all the members of the ensemble. Some limitations also apply through the arrangements for the instruments included in the ensemble.”

Photo: Shuffle at Kosciuszko Foundation
Avni recognizes gratefully the support of producers Liat Shetret, Oded Naaman and Richard Lissemore, without whom his project would have remained just a fun idea. He cherishes the high caliber of his classically trained co-musicians, who support his vision of the “shuffle.” All of them see each concert as a random chance to leave the traditional selective process behind for the virtues of a true democratic spirit, broadened by a “cosmic” concert experience.
Go to the Shuffle-Website where you can also find more information about the amazing individual artists, and concerts that let you choose while they play.