A Natural Combination

Liat Cohen objects to the traditional isolation of the guitar and does not want to settle for festivals devoted to that instrument exclusively. Tonight and tomorrow she performs with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

Concerts for a solo instrument and symphony orchestra are a regular feature on stages but when the solo instrument is a guitar, eyebrows are raised to a certain extent. Music for the guitar, including works written for guitar and orchestra, can be heard at many festivals devoted to guitar music and people like to refer to guitarists as "guitar artists" although no one would refer to violinists as "violin artists."

Despite the guitar's long history and centrality in Western music, it still seems to be fighting for its place in contemporary concert music. Guitarist Liat Cohen would like to change that and in her concerts with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (today and tomorrow at 20:30 at the Jerusalem Theater) she hopes to demonstrate how natural the combination is. "I'm always happy to play for an audience of guitar fans at the special festivals," says Cohen, "but the guitar is an instrument like any other and has to meet the requirements of any other instrument. Therefore its traditional isolation should not be nurtured. After all, there aren't any violin associations and violin festivals and why is it even referred to as `classical guitar'? There isn't any `classical violin.' And for the piano - if there is anything - it is only `piano jazz.'"

And there isn't any justified reason for this isolation?

"The history of the instrument can perhaps explain a little of it, primarily the travails it endured for hundreds of year due to poor quality technology. They didn't manage to produce instruments with a strong enough tone. Until the 18th century, you couldn't even hear a guitar in a large concert hall. Apparently that's what generated the parlor room image that stuck to it and further distanced the guitar from the concert halls, on top of its inherent intimate ambience. So in the 19th century, which is the source of most of the repertoire, the leading composers did not write works for guitar, and only in the 20th century did its major outbreak occur."

The man widely seen as responsible for the contemporary guitar revival is the legendary Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia. According to Liat Cohen, he also contributed considerably to its isolation: "Of course, he was a virtuoso musician although guitarists now attempt to play the music following the notes as they were written and not just something resembling them. All of the liberty that Segovia allowed himself in playing Bach, for example, all of the effects that he played, it's nice, but Bach didn't write that. And it raises a question about the other musicians of his generation: the great pianists or violinists did not permit themselves such freedom from the notes." Cohen, born and raised in Israel, as a child started playing a guitar that belonged to her father. No one pushed her or encouraged her to practice, but her rapid progress led to recitals at age of 14.

For the last few years, she has been in the world's center for guitar - Paris, studying at the Paris Conservatoire and the prestigious Ecole Normale, where she completed her degrees with highest distinction, including winning first prize at the Nadia and Lili Boulanger music competition, the Conservatoire's competition and another one in Rome.

"What is there in this city which has been attracting guitarists for over 300 years? Apparently the Latin feel that is so intertwined with the Western aspects," says Cohen of Paris, "it's one of the reasons why I went there." Nonetheless, she is never in one place for more than four months in a row: recordings and concerts around the world take her out of Paris and have now brought her to visit her hometown.

The concert this evening and tomorrow with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra started with a joint disc, "The Jewish Soul." Cohen is the first guitarist to record with the orchestra.

The centerpiece of the disc is "Fantasia Lyrica" by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun, with whom Cohen has developed a friendship. He wrote two pieces for her, "Fantasia" and a piece for solo guitar.

The disc also features Israeli songs arranged by Rafi Kadishson, and these too will be performed this evening under his baton, as well as "Hebrew songs" by the poet Rachel, arranged for guitar and orchestra, and a concerto by Italian Jewish composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. "I wanted not only the traditional repertoire, but also something from my culture," says Cohen of the disc.

And how do you feel about the newest, contemporary repertoire?

"Pierre Boulez included a guitar in his works, and so did Maurice Ohana and that is completely avant-garde music, and it's fascinating. But the guitar doesn't provide the harsher edge that contemporary music is seeking; it only provides the timbre, the finer distinctions of the tone and its varying depths. It doesn't have a shock value, rather it's like a brush - that's why I love it so much."