The Ensemble Fragment
The Ensemble Fragment: The group represents a promise of quality fulfilled. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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Anyone wanting to watch the birth of a new chamber music ensemble, an event that does not happen every day, can come to the Jerusalem Music Centre at 5 P.M. today and listen to the newborn's first sounds: notes that are simultaneously chaotic and orderly, the music of Arnold Schoenberg's Wind Quintet, op. 26.

"Opening with Schoenberg is a declaration of intent," said the quintet's French horn player, Sharon Polyak. He then outlined the group's intentions: "to present a new repertoire for this [type of] group, to play everything that is interesting and exciting, to integrate guests from every sphere of the creative arts. The repertoire for the woodwind quintet is very rich: Stockhausen wrote works for such an ensemble, as did Kurtag and new young contemporary composers; on the other side are the classicists and their flagship works. We want to play them all."

The quintet, known as Ensemble Fragment, launched its premiere tour Saturday night at the Hateiva Studio in Jaffa, and its declaration of intent indeed reverberated. As for the repertoire, starting off with Schoenberg positioned it at the forefront of modernism: It is wondrous how this 86-year-old work remains hypnotic and disturbing.

Nevertheless, hearing it also evokes the feeling of uncovering an ancient archaeological find, due to its composition system: the 12-tone technique that Schoenberg created that same year, thereby dismantling the musical structure and logic that had existed until then. The quintet thus sounds like a cross between a mummified museum display and an alive, kicking group full of innovation and daring.

In addition to Sharon Polyak, who also plays with the Rishon Letzion Symphony Orchestra, the group's members are oboist Tamar Inbar, who is now working in Berlin; bassoonist Daniel Mazaki, who lives in Bordeaux; clarinetist Ishay Lantner, who lives in Hannover; and flutist Avner Geiger, who also lives in Israel, and plays with Israel's Camerata Orchestra.

"As musicians, nothing is final in our lives," said Polyak. "We move around, go from place to place, and it's hard to say where we'll be in another year."

The quintet's performance was also a declaration of intent - a promise of quality that was immediately upheld. It was a pleasure to listen to. Both together and separately, the players brought a high degree of professionalism, a beautiful sound, virtuosity and pleasantness.

Geiger presented the repertoire. Here, finally, was a musician who is modest, polished yet also spontaneous in his remarks, and above all, focused.

The Schoenberg quintet is a kind of experiment in chaos - sometimes mischievous and sprightly, sometimes deeply serious. It made a truly remarkable impression, telling the audience they were going to hear a memorable concert.

The education of classical musicians, as Polyak attests and as every music student knows, is very conservative. Sometimes, outstanding musicians only discover as adults that the world of music also includes works written for their instrument in the past 30 years, or alternatively, 400 years ago - that Brahms and Tchaikovsky are not the only composers around.

"I studied in Berlin and performed there, and then I came to Frankfurt and encountered the Ensemble Modern, one of the three biggest contemporary music ensembles, along with those from Vienna and Paris," Polyak recalled. "And there, for the first time, I heard and played a new repertoire."

Though he and his colleagues got together only after their musical horizons had been opened by studying and playing abroad, it was primarily because of their childhood: All are natives of Rehovot, born between 1980 and 1982, apart from Inbar, who comes from the neighboring city of Nes Tziona. Thus they grew up, studied and played together: first at local music schools, then at the Thelma Yellin school in Givatayim, in chamber ensembles for outstanding musicians and in Daniel Barenboim's Diwan East-West Orchestra. This friendship is apparent on stage. "When we began rehearsals, we felt it was the most natural thing imaginable," Polyak said.

After the intermission, the ensemble was joined by pianist Ran Dank for another quintet, this one from an earlier era: an early Beethoven work for piano and woodwinds. Hearing Schoenberg and Beethoven side by side revealed how few differences there are between them. Music, as the quintet's performance showed, transcends style and genre; it is a human, social event, a kind of stylized conversation that has logic and emotion. Whether this conversation is conducted via tonal, major-minor harmony or some other musical system is a mere detail.

Since the audience had already met the woodwind players, Dank's appearance attracted special attention. It was pleasing to discover a truly gifted pianist who somehow mysteriously also sounds like a wind player - who speaks through the instrument, laughs with it and somehow eliminates the great distance between fingers and keys, and from there to the strings, thereby creating an unusual intimacy with the piano and with its help. This wonderful quintet, a classical-romantic work that plays with Haydn's legacy and foreshadows the pathos of later works, was simply a joy to listen to.

The finale was another turning point in the history of modern music, this time even more innovative and completely current and relevant: Terry Riley's 1964 work "In C," whose aesthetics contradict Schoenberg's technique. The piece, which was among the first in its style, is not limited to specific instruments or a specific number of musicians, and gives musicians a lot of freedom regarding both in what order to play the notes and what structures to use.

The piece's style is minimalist-repetitive, and after 10 minutes, the woodwind and piano sextet had swept the audience into a kind of floating dream. There is much to look forward to in Ensemble Fragment's concert this evening, and in their next one, in June.