The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – Happy 80th Birthday and Happy New Year!
It’s a season of celebration for an exceptional orchestra, in an extraordinary land full of music. Yes – against all odds, the soil that saved so many from the ashes of the Holocaust and inherited the soulful tradition of Russia’s virtuosi as they fled communist repression harvests its musical talent in an embrace of its own individual flavor with the best of what international music culture has to offer. Originating as The Palestine Orchestra under Huberman, Maestro Toscanini called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which has been intimately intertwined with the history of the State of Israel, “the most extraordinary orchestra in the most extraordinary place in the world” during its inauguration. (photo: memorial plaque at the Charles Bronfman auditorium)
Just returning from a visit during which I sampled some of the extraordinary concert season’s highlights held at the Philharmonic’s newly renovated concert hall, I am still in awe and eager to share my impressions.
In the midst of Hanukkah, the spiritual Jewish festival characterized by seemingly timeless buoyancy, everlasting in the face of oppression and persecution, each of the concerts on the holiday’s eight nights commenced with an inclusive candle-lighting ceremony. Sometimes lit by young artists and on one occasion Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President, the lighting of the candles sets the festive framework of the evening accompanied by the beautiful Hanukkah hymn “Ma’oz Tzur,” at times regally accompanied by Zubin Mehta, and the orchestra.
Mehta, the orchestra’s longtime companion and its international leading figure since 1961, when he began at the Orchestra in an advisory role that evolved into a lifelong championship of Israel and its musical talent, incidentally also celebrated his 80th birthday.
His announcement of his retirement for the 2019 season reminded audiences of their part in a historic, almost bygone era. (photo: Maestro Zubin Mehta)
The series’ 7th concert featuring star pianist Evgeny Kissin in Rachmaninov’s Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18 marked Kissin’s second performance this season, following his solo piano recital of German classics and Spanish Romantics some days before. Given the fact that his programs are conceived each year and performed around the globe, it seems absolutely mind-boggling how his revelatory Beethoven Appassionata, for example, that had already sent audiences at his Carnegie Hall rendition earlier this year into a trance, proved here to be equally sublime.
This is Kissin – the exceptional artist – convincing, time after time, with his straightforward, yet truly poignant touch. His Rachmaninov II that evening was nothing short of riveting. Some die-hard fans, who never fail to beleaguer the patient and generous artist backstage after his performances on a regular basis, are familiar with his 1989 recording of the inimitably romantic concerto with former performance comrade Valerie Gergiev on the Red Seal label. Kissin’s nuances have not changed all that much, except perhaps for his maturing full-fledged outlook, which does not seem to lose any of its fresh excitement over time.
When Kissin entered, performing within the context of the orchestra’s free-leaning kinship under Mehta, it became clear at once that two forces of nature met on stage, both maestros in their field. The number of collaborations between Mehta and Kissin, which arch back in time to Kissin’s first emergence as a prodigal pianistic talent, his reputation quickly surmounting the iron curtain, were palpable in their warm and supportive musical embrace. Mehta once had pointed out to me his personal appreciation for Kissin’s art, when saying: “[Kissin] has this almost unattainable musical gift; like almost no other artist alive he can play the notes in-between the bar-lines.” And Kissin, who, throughout his commanding career has performed with literally every renowned conductor alive, appreciates Mehta in return. As he mentioned once with warm admiration at a rehearsal with Mehta some years ago: “[Mehta] is such a joyful and wonderful accompanist; we click immediately.”
This performance was certainly one to remember – significant and elevating, its best moments exalting and exemplifying all that the classical genre has to offer. I had been wondering if Kissin, who identifies greatly with Israel and has taken on Israeli citizenship, feeling truly at home, would offer some of his own compositions as an encore; instead he kept it close to context with a Rachmaninov Prelude and a Tchaikovsky Waltz. Returning to composing recently, after only some initial, early compilations of his youth means Kissin has added yet another creative outlet in addition to his publicly acclaimed recitations of Yiddish poetry, and writing novels and poems of his own. But modestly smiling, he protests: “No Ilonushka, this has not even crossed my mind.” (photo: taken by Kissin’s mother)
A concert with a very different dynamic, yet equally wonderful when it comes to artistic energy of ingenious dimension and zeitgeist, was the prior evening’s performance by pianist Yuja Wang, who was just named Musical America Artist Of The Year, in collaboration with percussion virtuoso extraordinaire Martin Grubinger Jr. and his Percussive Planet Ensemble.
In rehearsal, Yuja, a powerhouse at the piano with an electric personality, transcended perceptive musicality in precise communication with Grubinger Jr., whom she later introduced as an internationally renowned “wizard of percussion” during a concert. A film crew of Germany’s Bayrische Rundfunk, led by Alexander Hellbrűgge, the TV station’s journalist for classical programs, follows Grubinger on tour, for their klick klack documentary series on artists’ perspectives.
Born in Salzburg, Grubinger’s strong Austrian accent is personable. His father is part of the ensemble, and every member, including Alexander Georgiev and Leonhard Schmidinger, works equally hard. The virtuoso brings informality to the stage while maintaining excellence, demanding different takes on various passages, which seem to work for the others. Yuja similarly is all business. “I can’t hear myself,” she complains to the sound engineer. She is focused on trying to follow the cues while blending with the percussion sounds immediately surrounding the piano in close proximity. Thanks to her fingers, which seem to be made from steel one moment and velvet the next, Grubinger in turn complains: “The piano is so loud, at times,” as they figure out how to adjust to each others’ soundscapes. But when it works, it’s all fireworks.
Addressing the audience unassumingly, Grubinger expresses thanks for the invitation to perform. He conveys the dilemma of a percussionist’s typically sidelined visibility within the classical orchestral setup, noting his experience studying at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz and at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and explaining his desire to create transcriptions that offer more vociferous displays of percussive instrumentation. With the transcription of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (for one piano and percussion here), Grubinger makes it clear how exciting it can play out when percussion plays an equally important role. In a brand new transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, originally conceived for piano and orchestra, both Grubingers, Jr. and Sr., displayed the full potential of orchestral dimension with such a novel blend. Not only did this performance showcase the incredible range of the percussive idiom to a much broader harmonic end, it also brought out the interest of the piano’s percussive character – a commanding feat in Yuja’s hands – to its full realization.
Yuja, who like the iconic Lang Lang graduated from the Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of their mutual mentor Gary Graffman, has built a remarkable international career, fusing dazzling mastery of the piano with a uniquely captivating stage presence. While her insistence on revealing, sexy stage attire has provoked some negative clichés associated with her by traditional critics, her pianistic dexterity has managed to convince even reluctant followers of her trending celebrity, which in itself proves to be an asset in bridging the gap between the generations in audiences of classical music.
At Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium, at least, audiences were ecstatic, clapping and stomping for more as Yuja changed outfits and Grubinger’s ensemble designed the stage to fit the mood and instrumentation for the following encores. Assorted groupings were arranged to incorporate different percussive modes, from pots and pans to marimbas, for varying genres ranging from Piazzola’s Libertango to jazz improvisations. It was an evening quite unlike any other, filled with a tremendous virtuosity and the high energy of a truly electric artistic exchange. Captivated, Zubin Mehta watched this one from the auditorium, next to the orchestra’s leading man, Avi Shoshani, Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: a seat the eminent maestro will take more often following his 2019 retirement. (photo: backstage right after the phenomenal performance, Yuja, Maestro Zubin Mehta and Avi Shoshani, who always got his artists’ back.)