Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jerusalem and Italy

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra gave a concert in its home that I attended two weeks ago. As the state radio orchestra, its funding ostensibly comes from the Israel Broadcasting Authority, a government organization which believes, however, that the city of Jerusalem ought to subsidize them just as Tel Aviv does for the Israel Philharmonic. Jerusalem's bureaucrats, meanwhile, say that it's the national government that ought to be paying the bills, and so it goes. A crisis has ensued, particularly because private and corporate sponsorship, which were until recently at a respectable level, collapsed in the wake of the Bernard Madoff debacle. In order to keep afloat, the players have taken a 30% pay cut. It remains to be seen how long this situation can continue.

Clearly the musicians love their work. Some of them have been with the orchestra for over thirty years, while others are recent emigrés from Russia and Serbia. There were even a couple of New Yorkers among them for this special Jewish New Year program. Guest conductor Peter Breiner, a native of Slovakia turned Manhattanite, is much loved by the orchestra. He wrote two pieces for this event, a vigorous multi-movement work for clarinet, harp and orchestra, and a whimsical potpourri of Gershwin tunes beginning with “A Foggy Day” and winding up with “The Man I Love” as a hora. Both works were commissioned and performed by Giora Feidman, arguably the finest klezmer clarinetist in the world, and who filled the hall with the sound of four different instruments.

Entering from the audience, he played a Chassidic melody as he strolled up to the stage. Other clarinetists gnash their teeth hearing him, Breiner says, unable to duplicate his pure, soft tone. Feidman, who has a house in West Stockbridge, ought to be heard in our area. At 73, he plays over 200 concerts all over the world every year, and is a lively personality who in rehearsal wandered around the stage kibbitzing with the players he's has known for years (he was first clarinetist with the Israel Philharmonic for many years). In performance he had the audience clapping along with the folk melodies that made up much of the rest of the evening's repertoire, which included the premiere of my "Three Psalms for Orchestra," which I wrote at Peter's request. Excerpts of the concert on YouTube (sorry, link doesn't work, try it manually by searching for me on the site.)

Klezmer music and subsidies were also in the air in Pordenone, Italy, where I spent last week at the annual silent film festival, the world's largest. A score for string quartet and clarinet by Israeli composer Betty Olivero (originally written for Feidman, coincidentally), was remarkable for its whirling medieval textures and plaintive Hebraic chants to accompany “The Golem,” a German Expressionist classic. Packing the house on opening night at the 1000-seat Teatro Verdi was the 1925 Erich von Stroheim film "The Merry Widow", with a new score by the Dutch composer/pianist Maud Nelissen, who obtained special permission from the Franz Lehár estate to weave the familiar themes of the operetta into her orchestral adaptation, luxuriously performed by the Orchester Mitteleuropa, with Ms. Nelissen at the piano (a superb Fazioli, by the way, manufactured in the neighboring town of Sacile—attendees at Hotchkiss concerts have enjoyed the crystalline sound these instruments produce). Up until a week before, it was unclear whether there would be enough funds to have more than a few strings in the band, but at the last minute a local bank came up with additional funds to expand the ensemble, and the sound was gorgeous, Lehár's melodies often morphing into a postmodern haze that perfectly complemented the visuals.


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