Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth – A Conversation with Principal Conductor Roberto Paternostro

On the occasion of his forthcoming concert in Bayreuth, Robert Paternostro comments on the problematic relationship between Richard Wagner’s notoriously famous anti-Semitism and bridges being built between Israeli musicians and German culture.

Wagner in Bayreuth (Photo)

In 2009, Paternostro became Artistic Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the last in a long list of renowned artists, such as Luciano Berio, Rudolf Barshai, Shlomo Mintz and Philippe Entremont.

In 1978, he had been appointed as assistant to Herbert von Karajan; before that, he had studied with Hans Svarowsky in Vienna, as well as with György Ligeti and Christoph von Dohnanyi in Hamburg. Today, Paternostro is not only renowned for his international and very diverse slate of symphonic performances, but also for his well-received new productions of works by

Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss.Photo: Roberto Pate


His frequent appearances with youth orchestras and up-and-coming artists, and the many television broadcasts of his concerts have cemented his reputation as an artist with a very special flair. A lot of recognition is also based on the good sense for interesting and challenging projects this Viennese conductor with Venetian roots is known for.

Just back from his successful American debut in June, Paternostro is now preparing for the forthcoming concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth.

Israel Chamber Orchestra
Works by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and the contemporary Israeli composer Zvi Avni will be complementing Wagner’s music.

The concert, scheduled for July 26 in Bayreuth’s Stadthalle (town hall), is part of „Lust auf Liszt“, a series of events celebrating the 200th birthday of Bayreuth’s famous son, Franz Liszt.

The Wagner Festival on the “Green Hill” starts on the eve of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s Bayreuth performance and lasts until August 28, 2011.

Ilona Oltuski: Maestro Paternostro, how did the concert in Bayreuth come about?

Roberto Paternostro: I love, and I have been conducting Wagner’s music for many years now, and I also feel very connected to Israel. Not only professionally, through my work as a conductor, but also personally; many of my relatives live in Israel. When I took up the position of principal conductor in Tel Aviv, I was hoping to be able to somehow combine the two. I was very well aware of the fact that it still is very difficult to play Wagner in Israel. But I wanted to find a way to break the ice.

Ilona Oltuski: It appears that Katharina Wagner, in particular, displays a very refreshing and open-minded attitude …

Roberto Paternostro: Yes … and I have known Katharina Wagner, as well as her father, for quite some time. Serendipitously, her new concepts and ideas for Bayreuth coincided with what I had in mind. I talked with her, and she was very excited about the idea right away; as patron of the concert, she supported me a lot. The city of Bayreuth also offered an incredible amount of support.

Ilona Oltuski: What made you stick with your decision for a concert in Bayreuth, despite all opposition?

Roberto Paternostro: Even before my decision to play the Bayreuth concert I felt a certain curiosity and an openness to take on Wagner’s music in many of my conversations with musicians in Israel. I have to add that for me, above all, this was an artistic decision. I am not a politician.

And I want to again state very clearly that I understand the reservations of people who are opposed to this concert. I do not want to hurt anyone, and I have also discussed the matter with my family – a family in which we are mourning many victims of the Shoa. We do not force anybody to listen to this music. And it was totally up to the musicians in the orchestra to decide if they wanted to go and play, of course. But all of them are going …

I very much agree with the whole discussion, but not if it’s used to score political points, as has happened just recently. On another note, and irrespective of my activities, the first Wagner Association was founded in Israel. This is also a very interesting development.

Ilona Oltuski: Does the performance by the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth contribute to coming to terms with the past?

Roberto Paternostro: That’s a very difficult question. The relationship between Israel and Germany is very good, isn’t it? We do not need to elaborate further on the exchange taking place in many areas here. At the same time, I think we can best deal with this past if we come together; also, everything has to be done so that Auschwitz and Birkenau will NEVER be possible again. Perhaps music can contribute to that.

Ilona Oltuski: Artistically speaking, which level of importance would you assign to the Bayreuth performance?

Roberto Paternostro: To speak about the significance of Wagner’s music is pretty much superfluous. Yet, in Israel it has become a symbol for some people. A symbol for everything that is horrific and which can – rightly so or not – be associated with this symbol.

There were composers who were very active in Hitler’s Germany – Carl Orff, for example, or Lehar – and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Richard Strauss was a very specific case. He had a Jewish daughter-in-law – I knew her personally – and he distanced himself from Nazism.

I have attached a lot of importance to including works of a contemporary Israeli composer, as well as works by Mahler and Mendelssohn in the Bayreuth program. For us, it’s a great joy to do all that.

Ilona Oltuski: Is it, or should it be possible to separate Wagner, the musician, from Wagner, the anti-Semite?

Roberto Paternostro: Yes, because a piece like the very tender and gentle “Siegfried Idyll” which we will be playing – is that anti-Semitic?

Ilona Oltuski: From today’s point of view, what can be said about Wagner’s essay, “Judaism in Music”?

Roberto Paternostro: Terrible. I cannot understand that this man deemed it necessary, for whatever reason, to write such a thing. There’s nothing to be glossed over here.

Ilona Oltuski: Thank you for this conversation, Maestro Paternostro.

Roberto Paternostro (Photo)
Perhaps one can best fight the spirit of an anti-Semitic pamphlet like Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” by a strong Jewish presence in the music business. This is also a position shared by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni who will perform at the Bayreuth concert.

And perhaps one should hope for a time when artistic talent – in this case Wagner’s genius – can be granted a free and open space, to be judged and enjoyed independent of the artist him-/herself.

In the context of this long overdue discussion, the recent announcement that the Wagner archives will be released by Katharina Wagner und Eva Wagner-Pasquier is of particular significance.

Excerpts of this article have been published at Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung (in German) 7-21-11

Ilona Oltuski@getclassical

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pianist Matan Porat finds new perspectives in Berlin

Three times is a charm, but to be invited for a fourth time this summer to what Alex Ross calls “the classical world’s most coveted retreat,” the Marlboro Music Festival, requires some extraordinary talent.
And talent, the young native Israeli composer/pianist, Matan Porat, has in abundance. What had started for Porat as a 4 hands piano stunt with pianist Alain Planes three years ago at Marlboro continued, even while being busy alternating with Franck Krawczyk in the piano accompaniments for famed British director Peter Brook’s innovative, scaled down “Magic Flute” Lincoln Center debut production.
This production was first presented at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris last year, which the avant-garde inclined Brook had taken over in 1974 partially because of it its rubble appeal. Planes himself bailed out on last minute of the scaled down Paris production which suited Porat, who has a weakness for unusual projects, just fine.
I met Porat the first time this summer, as he improvised a piano accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s “The General” silent film, arranged at the downtown Parkside lounge. This idea was actually inspired by Richard Goode, when, at one of the Marlboro summers, Porat entertained with brilliant improvs on the piano during a screening of the movie “Metropolis.”

Porat at Marlboro 2009

Porat‘s career as pianist started out unusually, for he only began formal piano lessons when he was enrolled at the Tel- Aviv University. Here he began studying composition. Beforehand he had only focused on piano, with his first teacher Emanuel Krasovsky at age 18, whom he describes as a huge artistic influence. He also started to participate in workshops for Daniel Barenboim’s famed West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2002 in Spain, playing in chamber groups. After his Bachelor’s, he met Portuguese star pianist Maria João Pires at a master class in Paris, who invited Porat to follow her to her farm in Belgais, Portugal as her personal pupil. This was an intense period of artistic exchange, he said, playing for several hour lessons, listening to the world class performer play for him, and interacting with four hand playing sessions. The experience was of a very special nature.
“There was also a children’s choir, for which I composed. It was a unique collection of characters and quite an experience,” remembers Porat, and he goes onto explain how he, after that year, was ready for a completely different experience, namely his two years of studies for his Master’s degree at Juilliard, under Joseph Kalichstein. His New York summers were spent at Marlboro, which he remembers fondly, as well as other renowned festivals, such as Verbier and Ravinia. Equipped with references, he had an opportunity to perform for Murray Periaha, in New York – it was Schuman’s Davidsbündler Tänze, which convinced Perahia, who at the time was suffering severely from the consequences of a hand injury, to invite the talented Porat in 2006 to continue his studies with him in London. At the same time, Porat continued his composition studies with George Benjamin.

Matan Porat

His biggest struggle seems to be how to divide his time between both of his passions: composing and performing. He plays a lot of solo piano as well as chamber music and gets at least a good handful of commissions, as he says, without having to look too hard for any of it.
But one thing is clear: both performing as well as composing have become equally essential for Porat.
“I do not usually like to perform my own works,” says Porat, who likes to think about the recital experience in a creative manner, away from the traditionalist concert setting.
“The recital should be an experience, in which the performer can take his audience on a real journey. There is no need of stifling the performance through the expectations of the program. I value the excitement and spontaneity that becomes possible, when the audience is to trust and follow the performer, similar to the situation during a rock concert.
“The program should be building up through the momentum of its performance, not by the programmed schedule.
“For example: During my concert next season in Montreal, I will start with a Scarlatti Sonata, creating variations on it by playing similar pieces by other composers from Couperin to Boulez, which creates a spectrum of possibilities. This happens by relating Scarlatti and each of the proceeding pieces by motifs or characteristics, rather than by trying to create stylistic coherence. “

The always original Porat

Every couple of months Porat likes to return to visit his family and friends in Israel, often connecting his stay with performance- or composition opportunities. In 2007 he created an operatic project for Tel-Aviv University based on “Animal Farm” and he is thinking about another opera production he has in mind, but does not want to elaborate on at the moment.
For the 8th year, he will partake in the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, directed by Elena Bashkirova, second wife of Barenboim. Porat has had many occasions to work with Barenboim and describes him as perhaps the most inspiring musical figure in his rather broad spectrum of influences.
Bashkirova, a renowned pianist who performs internationally, just commissioned two pieces by Porat, “Night Horses” and “New Requiem”, for her recently founded Berlin Metropolis Ensemble.

Matan (sketched by Roman Rabinowich, friend and pianist)

Berlin has become the ideal environment for Porat, who enjoys the creative vitality of the Metropolis. He compares Berlin with the exciting, vibrant and artistic atmosphere of Paris during the 1920s or London in the 60s and yet Berlin has kept its quaint, not overbearing characteristics such as with New York or London. A bonus is that the city attracts a lot of artists with, as well as without, talent -- it’s still affordable

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reflecting on works in progress:

New Music Now at the River to River Festival

Known for its variety of innovative cultural events productions, this evening’s fascinating program for the River to River festival was realized by Beth Morrison. River to River promotes cultural life, particularly in downtown Manhattan, and the Beth Morrison Project put its creative initiative into this event’s planning. This evening’s program enveloped me with candle light and surrealistic backdrop video installations, as a sampler of the fantastic collaboration and exchange between the attending musicians.
Paola Prestini, one of the vibrant composers who shared the bill together with Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly (whose works were solemnly performed by the Trinity Choir conducted by Julian Wachner at the festival) took the time to bring me closer into the performance of her House of Solitude -A Poet’s Labyrinth. ” The work is still in progress” she explained, “and the completed version will premiere at the Krannert Center in 2013. The KBOW, which is Neil’s bow, was invented by the famed Keith McMillan, triggers sound files and effects but will eventually trigger lighting and film. We are working on that and expanding the piece now… Keith invented Zeta instruments and Neil is endorsing the KBOW.” With intoxicating motions, that seemed to make sound waves emerge beyond the bowing of his violin, the luminous Cornelius Dufallo (see also my article ) performed Prestini’s work in conjunction with a conceptually surrealist and amorphously mood-altering video, designed by Carmen Kordas, which was shown on a back dropped screen.
Mazzoli, on keyboard, performed with the expressive violist Nadia Sirota, to videos by Jennifer Stock as well as Alice Lovejoy. The interplay of this duo had been feelingly explored before. And Mazzoli too, reflects on progress as a constant in her life; making life itself a conscious work in progress.
“Never knowing what is going to happen tomorrow, the adventure of performing, composing, educating, producing…” are her ideas of having a great time with music.

“I am constantly developing and changing my own voice, it is always influenced by new genres, by new and old composers and by visual arts. Inevitably that’s going to change my writing. For example in the moment, I am fascinated with the visual impact of Sol Levitt or the music of John Luther Adams; I am struck by how one can create a piece out of these patterns and create those collages,” says Mazzoli. That does not exclude her fascination with Beethoven’s classicism.
The best thing that happened according to Mazzoli was having had the opportunity to spend time in Amsterdam at 21, on a Fulbright grant, where she studied with Louis Andriessen, who incidentally was named Musical America’s composer of 2010. She describes that period as a powerful life experience, performing in clubs, putting on shows, and traveling with her first band hills not skyscrapers. Upon her return and receiving her Master’s degree from Yale, she held several music related positions, ranging from personal assistant of Meredith Monk to an executive position running the Philip Glass founded MATA festival, where she started as one of the performers. Everything is connected and it is about exposure and cooperation with performers who become friends and a network that leads constantly to bigger and better things.

Recording producer Judd Greenstein, a good friend of Mazzoli, also recorded her first album Cathedral City that was released with her all- female performers band Victoire last September and was ranked one of the best classical CDs of 2010 by NPR, the New York Times, as well as by New Yorker’s own Alex Ross, naming Mazzoli as “a leader of New York’s young moderns.”
Even though she describes it as accidental,that all the performers at Victoire are female, she welcomes the opportunity, in a field still somewhat dominated by male composers as well as instrumentalists, to work with women. The quintet, performing Mazzoli’s electrically amplified works, was founded in 2008. Mazzoli does not typically perform her own works much; instead she is commissioned by artists around the world. The Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird and the American Composers Orchestra are among many of her regulars.

Before Mazzoli, who actually owned up to a bit of stage nerves, got ready for her performance that evening at Trinity Church, the festival’s venue, we talked about the medium of opera that seems to dominate musical exploration of the moment. While the news of Nico Muhly’s grand production Opera-debut in London just made the headlines, Mazzoli is similarly looking to expand the medium of an orchestra piece or a song cycle for one of her new projects. Inspired by a theme, based on the life of North- Africa explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, which she feels requires a larger staging, multiple voices and more time expansion, she plans on producing an opera that will be a scaled down version of what is usually known to be an opera production, with all the key ingredients intact.

“People will realize that the definition of opera is flexible. You don’t need millions of dollars for a full cast of divas and the MET. My opera will consist of a 5 people orchestra, 5 soloists, projections, video production and it will manage to tell the story with multiple voices, librettos and so on…and full staging. Supported by a Jerome Foundation grant that recently others have shared in, it will be a ca.70 minutes performance at The Kitchen, a black box theater with full set design.

Beth Morrison Project is currently planning an elaborate program with the same participants to celebrate Philip Glass’ seventy-fifth birthday.

For Paola Prestini:
For Nico Muhly:
For Missy Mazzoli:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

After -party at Rooftop bar on Rivington

The vodka was flowing for attending guests and guest of honor Valery Gergiev, as well as for the mini-wearing ballet dancers of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, who made it shortly before midnight to the rooftop bar at the Hotel on 107 Rivington. They had just arrived from the Lincoln Center Festival, where the Mariinsky is giving a week of Ballet performances, including two productions of Rodion Shchededrin’s orchestrations of the ballet Anna Karenina and The Little Humpbacked Horse with choreography by artist in residence of the American Ballet Theater, Alexei Ratmansky, who also happened to be the former director of the Bolshoi Ballet.

It was thanks to Gergiev’s initiative and perhaps, as generally rumored also his political connections, that the company and the orchestra were presented with a new, lavish concert hall in 2006. Artistic and General Director since 1988, the charismatic conductor not only restored in 1992 its glorious name from Czarist times from the Soviet Kirov to Mariinsky, but also stamped his approval of its association with the great tradition of the famed Russian ballets.
The legendary Bolshoi theatre had been transferred to the Mariinsky in the late 19th century,and Gergiev has managed to institutionalize, and carry over into the present, the stuff which legendary Russian music and dance culture is made of.
Celebrated composers like Khachaturian, Yakobson, Tishchenko, Shostakovich and Prokofiev are part of the patina of the Mariinsky productions; dancers as Nijinsky, Ulanova, Nureyev and Baryshnikov made it a household name in the artistic world. The Washington Post once acknowledged this with: “…perfection of style, its technical power and assurance, its unanimity of spirit, and ...the majestic scale of it all.”

Artiste extraordinaire and the DJ in charge of bringing even the after-party full circle was Gabriel Prokofiev, who, flown in from his native London and yes, he is indeed, as he assured me, the grandson of Sergej.
The young Prokofiev brings classical music into the sphere of turntables and finds himself at the crossroads of the difficulty of having to live with or up to – and perhaps just as difficult to live without – the famous name.
Prokofiev is being associated with the true eminence of its zeitgeist, its creativity transformed from one generation to the next. His “nonclassical” output has a nod of classical reverence, potentially bringing this music back onto the dance floor.
With such music and such dancers, as well as the booze – I only wondered why actually nobody was dancing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pianist Philip Edward Fisher – commuting between continents

Philip Edward Fisher (Photo)
Maybe not entirely appropriate to the American 4th of July spirit, I decided to spend part of that weekend’s celebration at Brooklyn’s Barge Music in the company of two great German friends of mine: Beethoven and Schubert. On this weekend, the little barge was filled to capacity, swaying slightly in the waters, facing an entirely close and yet seemingly distant sign of civilization, Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
The program was performed by two of the utmost competent pianists, Steven Beck and Philip Edward Fisher, who negotiated their respective parts at the commonly shared grand-piano with acrobatic finesse. Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue in B-flat major, turned out to be an especially adventurous endeavor, as the audience witnessed with great excitement what the composer must have had in mind when he gave the job of a full string ensemble to two pianists sharing one instrument. After ending the concert with an encore of the lighter and uplifting Schubert Military Marches Op.51, in D- major, Fisher explained consolingly:”We could not have let you go home on that emotionally draining note.” The July 4th spirit was resurrected and people left into the warmth of the evening’s breeze.
The pianists, who were both former Juilliard graduates, re-connected for this Barge performance. I had the opportunity to converse with Fisher, who divides his time between his native England and New York. We discussed the differences in English music education and business practices as compared to its American counterpart. There are certainly subtle differences, Philip conveyed to me over drinks right after the concert and the next day, before this versatile and personable artist had to make his way back to a concert performance in the United Kingdom.

Barge Music Performance
Fisher told how he had come to the piano at aged 9, a relatively late starter, but then fell for it head over heels, with his first public appearance only a year later and then again at age 12, when he performed the Shostakovich Second Concerto at his native Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.
The young Englishman started his musical education under the pianist and composer Philip Martin and then entered the Purcell School, thanks to being a recipient of the John Ogden Memorial Scholarship (1993) which enabled him to continue his studies at the private studio of the Head of Keyboard at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Professor Christopher Elton. In 2001 he was awarded the prestigious Julius Isserlis Scholarship fund, granted by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, which established Fisher, who was always interested in a wide approach of musical guidance, as a well deserving young artist who could continue to find inspirational pedagogues throughout his developing years. Fisher, always curious to explore further, aimed his studies beyond the pond, to New York’s Juilliard, where he earned his Master’s degree with Joseph Kalichstein and Jerome Lowenthal.
A certain international flair and appeal immediately comes across upon meeting Fisher, who has been bred well by two different hubs of music pedagogy. To me, the particular different cultural influences absorbed by Fisher’s personality have given him an artistic individuality which I would describe perhaps as representing the best of both worlds. He reveals that, unlike one would assume, it was at Juilliard that he felt much more disciplined ( in an old fashioned style) than during all his studies in the old world. And it was through his new found New York contacts in the music business in New York that he was able to launch his beginning recording career although making use of his old world links and experiences.
What every artist looks to develop in today’s market which is over abundant with talent and well trained musicians, Fisher sort of brought along in his commuter briefcase. And yet, while exuding confidence on stage as well as in conversation, there is nothing arrogant or haughty about him. In London you just would like to bring him home for teatime. Since I am in New York, I brought him home for brunch.
As he sat down in my living room to perform a beautifully rendered Chopin Etude (Op.25, no.1), as well as a dazzling snapshot sampler from his latest released disk The Mighty Handful for Chandos, it became clear to me: This is a really versatile pianistic voice, not only thanks to his ability to express a wide range of repertoire but through a sensitivity to explore and expand his own cultural and emotional horizon.
Part of that process may have developed out of his emotional experiences surrounding decisions about his career and personal relationships.
As we talked about some of his experiences of these last years, he elaborated on his first recording, on the Naxos label, of Handel’s Keyboard Suites, which as a first volume was released in March of 2010 to great critical acclaim and provided an especially exciting experience for Fisher. Naxos offered him the chance to take his master recording, once it was established, into their hands for further marketing, which led Fisher to the famed Abbey Road studios, the exciting venue the Beatles had used for their renowned recordings. Fisher managed to be resourceful in securing funds from the Birmingham City Council and engaged producer, engineer and editor Jonathan Allen from Abbey Road Studios in London, to record at Fisher’s hometown Birmingham Symphony Hall in August of 2008, the venue he already had had his orchestral performance debut. Hitting the US Classical Billboard Chart within its first week of release, the plan is for the second volume of Handel’s keyboard works, which already is recorded, to follow early next year in 2012. For more information about this recording see also an in-depth interview with Sean Hickey on the Naxos website:
I have the feeling here is an artist who really enjoys the process of the interview: Says Fisher: “It relieves me to share some of my thoughts about playing the piano, the same way I like to perform. It is a release of the confinement you often find yourself in, as a musician, practicing for hours in preparation of your concert programs.”
Fisher shows an extraordinary personal élan towards all endeavors, and this is also very clear in his latest recording The Mighty Handful. The recording on the Chandos label, released in June of 2011, of piano works by a group of Russian composers, whose interesting body of work and influence on the more renowned “heavyweights” of the Russian School is highlighted in the capable hands of Fisher. He achieves a most inspiring musical account that he befittingly accompanies with his written liner notes, explaining his emotional venture of exploring these works with a fresh and individual approach.
Deserving endorsements as Album of the Week by John Suchet’s Classic FM are coming in, but I suspect that it will be Fisher’s performances at internationally visible presentations, such as his recent presentation for the Chandos label (named Label of the Year) in April of 2011 at the International Classical Music Awards, that will bring him the exposure he deserves.
This outstanding Award Ceremony, held at the Tampere Hall, Finland, attended by 1600 people, including musicians and label representatives from all over the world, brought the young Fisher on stage with Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, with Hannu Lintu conducting. The illustrious company of prizewinners included Artist of the year Esa Pekka- Salonen, Menahem Pressler, as the lifetime achievement winner and young artist of the year David Kadoush.
As internationally renowned Stephen Hough and mentor of Fisher volunteered to comment: "Philip Edward Fisher is a pianist with all of the qualities of technique and musicianship which others have, but with the addition of an indefinable ingredient which attracts and captivates the listener. He has something unique to say, and the pianistic equipment to say it with intelligence and warmth."