Playing on the Edge

The Israeli Chamber Project isn't toning down its musical choices for a tour of the country's periphery.

Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben-Zeev

A white minivan was spotted in the Western Galilee last week, heading through the Tefen Industrial Park to the Zikit Cultural Center. The mountainous landscape was awash with color, but this was no scenic tour for members of the Israeli Chamber Project. Armed with their music stands and instruments, they were on their way to work and perform with local high-school students majoring in music.

The trip to Tefen is part of a much larger journey the musicians are taking from the center to the periphery. In contrast, though, two weeks before their arrival in the Galilee, the group completed a tour of the United States with a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall before a full house and a spillover crowd waiting outside.

The Israeli Chamber Project with high-school students in Tefen in the Galilee.Credit: David Bachar

From Carnegie Hall to high-school students in Tefen, and then later on to a performance in Carmiel. No New York stardust was sprinkled around Zikit that morning, where the Project members gave private lessons to high schoolers, and worked intensively with them in chamber groups. Nor was there any at the concluding concert. After a short break, everyone gathered in the crowded auditorium, waiting to hear just a single work, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major from 1906.

Even today, more than 60 years after his death and more than 100 years after his expressionist works were created, mention of Arnold Schoenberg's name still raises concerns in some concert audiences. "Before performing the work," said Chamber Project violinist Yonah Zur, "I ask the audience: do you know this chamber symphony? It's rare that anyone raises their hand. And then I ask who is afraid of what they're about to hear. And lots of hands are raised."

The fear is also clearly apparent in the young students, despite the preparations they had made prior to the concert. "What makes Schoenberg a composer who remains as scary as he was in his own time, even after so many years?" wonders Zur. "What caused this uprising against him when, after all, according to him he was continuing the romantic tradition of Brahms and Wagner?"

In order to explain and assuage the audience's fears, and delve into the piece beyond its outward image and beneath its stormy and dissonant surface, the ensemble, guided by Zur, begins to break down the music into its motifs, melodies, structures and harmonies. And gradually it is revealed that the music, in essence, is tonal. The relationship between the instruments; their range; motif development techniques; relationship between range and dynamic; and the sense of focus prior to the climax - all these are indeed a continuation of Wagner and Brahms.

There are no electronics at play here, and Schoenberg is not searching for unheard-of effects from a cello or breaking down the piano into its component parts. Even gestures that seek to express emotion can be found here, just like in the peak musical moments of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, it is hard to say that acquaintance with the work's inner meaning and its traditional elements persuade the young listeners. Especially given that the dominant aspect of this work - its reservoir of notes - is clearly not romantic and overpowers everything else. "After engaging in this music for a long time, do you start to listen to it as if were regular music?" asks one of the young listeners at the end of the concert. They are expressing what everyone felt - that this is not "regular" music, meaning the kind it is possible to listen to. Far from it.

The return of the roaming musicians

For over five years, since the establishment of the Israeli Chamber Project in New York, its members - all of them musicians in their 30s - have been traveling all over Israel. Twice a year then, and three times a year now. Between concerts in the Israel Conservatory's (Stricker ) chamber music series in Tel Aviv and concerts in Jerusalem, they come to teach, work and play in places such as Ma'alot-Tarshiha, Shfaram, Carmiel and Tefen.

Their current trip to eight different venues, which ended yesterday in Jerusalem with a performance of Schoenberg's chamber symphony and works by Brahms, Gideon Klein and Mozart, attests to the intensity. "Over these past few years, we have already returned to places where we taught previously, and a connection has been established with everyone, teachers and students alike," says clarinetist Tibi Cziger, the group's founder. "Sometimes they call us between trips to consult and get an opinion."

Like the rest of their colleagues, Cziger and his partner, cellist Michal Korman (also a member of the project ), went abroad to study. Most went to the United States - to institutions such as the Juilliard School and Yale - but some also went to Berlin and Paris. Nearly all the other regular members still live abroad: Pianist Assaff Weisman is a Juilliard graduate making a career for himself in the United States; pianist Yael Kareth is a student of Daniel Barenboim in Berlin; and violist Guy Ben-Ziony teaches in Leipzig. Rising star violinist Itamar Zorman, harpist Sivan Magen and violinist Daniel Bard also live overseas. Korman and Cziger, however, returned to Israel about a year ago.

"I set up the ensemble because I knew we'd come back one day; it was a long-term idea," says Cziger, who based the ensemble in New York, where he also fund-raises for it. "We set up the American side in order to establish an economic base, and at first we operated without a profit, and even at a loss. These trips cost a lot of money and that's why music ensembles don't get to the periphery."

Last year the project received the Ministry of Culture Award, for NIS 50,000, and together with rudimentary support from the ministry, the musicians increased the frequency of their trips to three times a year.

"The group is very close-knit and everyone is infused with this devotion to the trips," says Cziger. "Everyone knows what the project is about, and anyone who didn't deem it important did not ask to join in the first place. Our concerts far from the center have a unique character. The fact we bring the exact same program performed for audiences in the center - which supposedly understands more and is more sophisticated - is very important.

"The international success of our musicians, who have performed worldwide and earned prizes, is another important factor," Cziger adds. "When the high-school students read in the program notes that we returned from a concert tour on the West Coast of America, and that two weeks before meeting with them we played Carnegie Hall - this realization that we didn't put together a concert specifically for them, but are bringing them what we bring to the world, contributes to a much greater level of involvement and attentiveness."

The ensemble members talk to the audience at eye level, joke around, explain things in an accessible fashion and dress like everyone else. "This way the barriers are broken down," says Cziger. "It shows the audience the human side of being musicians. Most people see musicians in concert attire and remain quiet, and this ice needs to be broken."

This June, cellist Peter Wiley - of the legendary Guarneri String Quartet - will join the concert tours. At the same time, the group's debut album will be released. In the meantime, Cziger and Korman are staying put in Israel. "Ten Israelis, neighbors of ours from New York, have already returned over the past year," says Cziger. "Maybe it's the economic situation there, or other reasons. But in any case, for us it just seemed like the timing was right to return."

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