Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

Talking about music, consciousness, silent film, Italian food, travel, good books, married life, kids, and more

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.

Romanian days

Oct. 10-Hi from Cluj, Romania. Thanks to Herr Bach, who wrote a little fugue 300 years ago that I heard being played by Ionut Vacar, a 21.5-year old music student here in June, I am now staying in his (Ionut's, not Johann's) family's apartment for a few days. HIs violin teacher dad took me to the Music Academy "Gheorge Dima" here this morning, where I met Adrian Pop, the director (himself a gifted composer a month older than I, who complains, as music administrators in the US do, of having no time to compose in the face of voluminous paper work). He generously offered to sandwich me between the renowned Transilvanian Quartet's Brahms program tonight and a piano recital by a Romanian virtuoso far more respectable than I on Wednesday. So on the eve of my 58th birthday I will be at the Steinway to present a silent film program to the public, and maybe throw in some Beatles songs in the styles of various composers, which Pop found an entertaining idea.

I'm in the kitchen now, with delicious smells coming from the stove where Lydia is fussing, and Johnny (Ionut) is working on a poster and spreading the news on Facebook; we'll see who shows up on short notice. Oddly enough, last week some local jazz guys did the Murnau film TABU that Jo and I had done in Staten Island two years ago, and it seems likely that we will be invited to perform here in May as part of the Transilvanian Film Festival, one of the biggest in this part of Europe, in conjunction with the Pordenone festival from which I have just [escaped, collapsed, insert your verb of choice]. More news as it happens. The Vacar family are fantastic, I feel so fortunate to have met them. The two kids stayed with us in July and we know this will be a longterm friendship. Thanks, Sebastian! You did it again!