If anyone had told pianist and conductor David Greilsammer three years ago that one day there would be a classical chamber orchestra in which one member could suddenly pick up and start playing a Baroque instrument, a double bassist from the jazz world would start improvising with him and finally the entire ensemble would be jamming to the applause of a sold-out audience of conservative concertgoers, he would have dismissed the idea as nothing more than a sweet utopian dream.
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Greilsammer and his Geneva Camerata are performing at this year’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival, which runs from February 4-7. Their program, which reflects their innovative approach to playing music from various periods, features works by the French Baroque composer Marin Marais, “Ramifications” by the Hungarian contemporary classical composer György Ligeti, a Haydn cello concerto (with Steven Isserlis as the soloist) and an early Mozart symphony.
For them, that’s a conservative program. The orchestra has a Crazy Concert series, the polar opposite of the concert in Eilat, with Balkan musicians, keyboards and harpsichord. The program of its Music from the Heart series is built around the bass or music for dance, together with the participation of a ballet company. There are also Baroque-themed evenings from the palace of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and Viennese-style programs.
“Everywhere on earth, conservative or progressive, the audience thirsts for innovation, daring adventures, crazy programs and soloists with a radical and different statement,” says Greilsammer, who has been prominent in the global music landscape for roughly a decade as a classical pianist and conductor with a new approach toward the concert hall and the world of recording.
“The audience does not always know what the possibilities are, but it is open to them, and is just waiting, ready for anything.
“The question is where we — the artists, the orchestra, the cultural institutions, all the agents of music — are willing to go,” he says.
“The conventional approach is that since the financial situation is difficult, the goal is to sell tickets, so we need to have renowned soloists and cut down on contemporary and Baroque music because the audience supposedly prefers Romantic music. But the audience does not judge the music the way concert organizers imagine. It does not want entertainment, only to enjoy itself and forget its troubles in a flood of strong feelings. Rather, it mainly seeks a challenge for the human mind, to be faced with a provocation, to step out of the day-to-day, and that is the power of music. Even a conservative audience is willing to go on an adventure because art does not provide human beings only with thrills, but also with thoughts about life’s difficult questions, the ones we avoid asking ourselves.
“That’s why I believe in the power of contemporary music — for example, Ligeti’s gorgeous ‘Ramifications’ that we will play in Eilat. It helps us understand the processes taking place in our lives now, not 200 years ago.”
How do you know what the audience wants, what it’s ready for?
“From the growing number of responses from listeners, who tells us what such concerts, which mix Baroque with techno or classical music or with the works of young unknown composers, do to them. How it changes their approach to music. The numbers also speak: We have just begun our second season, and subscriptions have soared, triple the number of the first season. Every concert in our auditoriums sells out. For example, for Thursday [today] we’re already sold out for a hall with 1,000 seats. There are century-old symphony orchestras that can’t fill a 500-seat auditorium.
“In addition, there are our tours. Last season we played three concerts in Paris, London and Berlin. This season we have been invited to play 16 concerts abroad, including Israel. The speed at which the orchestra’s reputation is growing is incredible: Eilat, Rome, Istanbul — festival organizers recognize how special innovativeness is.”
The Crazy Concert series parallels the Camerata’s regular season.
“We simply created another season, with theater, dance improvisation, blues, electronic music, medieval music with period instruments, klezmer — a 60-minute concert, with no intermission, that flies among those worlds. There is always a common theme, a musical bridge connecting the works, and we write texts that explain it. We never would have believed that such radical programs would be such a draw, but people come — and from varied backgrounds.”
It would be difficult to use the Geneva Camerata as a model for ordinary orchestras. “What makes the orchestra unique is the musicians,” Greilsammer says. “They were chosen one by one, not by regular auditions where they play excerpts from orchestral works and part of a concerto. No — each of our 30 members was chosen for a specific reason, whether for being an excellent Baroque musician, or a genius at improvisation, or they used to be in a rock or punk band. That’s what creates such a special core: Everyone brings something different from their artistic home — and 15 countries are represented in the orchestra, so rehearsals are always in five or six languages. That chaos is what characterizes us.”
Businesspeople and big companies have joined in, opening their wallets. “It’s always said that donors are conservative,” Greilsammer says. “But it’s actually the businesspeople who are daring and looking for new models. We have at least five world premieres of works every season and we look for unknown repertory and for composers who aren’t played in the big concert halls, and we invite the audience to an adventure.”