Blending by intuition
East truly meets West in the works created by classically trained soprano Claudia Nurit Henig and Turkish music expert Walter Feldman.
Singing was a necessity and inevitability for Claudia Nurit Henig. Born in Argentina, her mother tongue is Ladino, a language that seems to encompass infinite musical riches. Even the transition as a child from Buenos Aires to Arad, after losing her parents one after the next, did not dull Henig's passion for song or damage her natural singing ability.
"I sing with the voice I was born with," she says. Even though her Israeli guardian didn't approve, Henig insisted on studying music and arrived at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance without a penny to her name, without any knowledge of theory and without any support. She won scholarships for excellence in singing year after year, which is what enabled her to complete her studies at the academy. Memories of her teacher in Argentina, Juliet Madioni, nourished her singing as she underwent training for opera.
Henig's attraction to her cultural heritage, to the East, brought her to the Jerusalem Center for Middle Eastern Music and Dance where, a decade ago, she met Turkish music expert Walter Feldman. The result of that collaboration - between a classical singer and a master of the East - was heard yesterday at the Jerusalem International Oud Festival, in the program "Mozart in Turkey: A Late Encounter," which blended Ottoman Turkish music with Western opera.
"I studied with Walter for nine years at the center - Turkish makam, Sufism, and Eastern music theory," Henig says. "Afterward, I studied with him privately - Turkish singing and the tambor [snare drum], an instrument whose tones are divided in nine, rather than two as in Western music."
While studying with Eastern musicians Sameer Makhoul and Amir Shahsar, her playing and the way she expresses herself progressed. "The vocal ideal in this genre of music is the opposite of that in Western classical musical," she says. "But I managed to adopt it and still remain in both worlds. At a training course in Turkey, I was even complimented by locals who said I had touched the depths of this singing."
Walter Feldman, who runs the festival, was born in New York to an observant Jewish family, and studied in a yeshiva until the age of 10. He became close with Muslims and Turks, and as a child, when his parents thought he was out playing with friends, he was actually studying Turkish music. Decades of study in Turkey deepened his craft and led him to write a broad-ranging book on the foundations and history of its music.
For Henig, performing is a kind of calling. "I told Walter, you received your talent for music from the heavens, and I received mine in order to perform it - this is our calling," she says. "It must be heard like Schubert and Brahms, it is the world's heritage, not just Turkey's, and everyone must hear it. Furthermore, there is a connection between the two styles - their textures, voices, details. After all, didn't Western musicians play at the sultan's court? And it wasn't for nothing that Mozart and Beethoven wrote Turkish marches into their works - for example in the finales of a sonnet for piano and in the 9th Symphony."
During one of her visits to Israel, the well-known lieder singer Mitsuko Shirai from Japan met with Henig, studied with her and invited her to teach at the Frankfurt Academy of Music. Uncharacteristically, Henig did not manage to raise enough money to make it happen; in the past, it seemed, nothing could stop her.
"Perhaps it's better this way," she says. "What's the point of having yet another opera singer? There are so many already. In order to really contribute to the world, something different is needed - to play Eastern music. And the more you hear it, the more you like it and are swept away. In this way, too, it is like classical music, because you have to listen to Brahms again and again in order to be swept up into the music. It doesn't happen after just one hearing."
Henig spent the past year putting the concert together, mainly finding musicians - not an easy task in light of the pay, which in effect is just enough to cover expenses. You have to be especially devoted to this music to devote months of work (aside from what you do to earn a living ) to tiring practices, learning new variations, and traveling long distances. Henig was only able to find a rehearsal hall in Petah Tikvah, which was lent to them for free by a Sephardic old age home. Finally, she and Feldman, on authentic Turkish instruments, were joined by Ina Avakov on piano, Boaz Galili on an Eastern violin (or kamancha ), Asaf Or on cello, Eitan Baruch on oud and Yuval Harpaz on a Turkish dyra, for works composed by Hai Meirzada.
How is Henig able to blend East and West? "By intuition," she says, "Renditions of an aria for the concertina and one from Mozart's Magic Flute, Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and ancient songs - for an Eastern orchestra."
"I will never forget my heritage," she continues. "From the age of four, when I first heard opera singer Lily Pons and imitated her, developing my voice on my own, to my teenage years on a kibbutz, where I rode a bike into the fields to sing, I have tried to shape my own world in the midst of foreign surroundings."