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.