Israeli Ensemble Finds the (Piano) Keys to Success

Pianist Tomer Lev created the MultiPiano ensemble to find alternative opportunities for his talented students. Now they’re on their way to conquering South America.

Haggai Hitron
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Haggai Hitron

Once every three years, during the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, dozens of dizzying piano recitals flood the streets of Tel Aviv. In the years between these competitions, however, the solo recital scene struggles to stay alive. There is no shortage of great pianists, but public demand is dwindling.

“It is part a worldwide process where classical performances with only one musician or singer are becoming less popular,” says Tomer Lev, an experienced pianist and former head of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University of the demise of the solo performance. “A centuries-old tradition is being abandoned. A glorious repertoire that includes works by Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt, as well as Bach, Mozart and Haydn is not finding a stage.”

Lev remembers a more prosperous time. Until 15 years ago, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art held regular recital series. Today even the Israel Philharmonic struggles to sell tickets for such events, he says, even by renowned artists.

“It’s a grim reality,” Lev says. “But merely expressing my grief isn’t enough. Part of my professional duty is to look for practical responses to this reality, which is why I directed my energy to training the next generation of pianists, to give them as many opportunities as possible to perform. If regular recitals aren’t in demand, we need to present alternatives.”

So Lev initiated MultiPiano, a collective comprised of Lev himself and three of his students. The collective performs multiplayer compositions, ranging from those requiring four hands to those requiring eight (and sometimes more).

This week the group is travelling to South America for 25 days with stops in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Peru at many large venues. There will be five concerts in Buenos Aires alone.

“They didn’t let us leave the stage.”

“I developed a wonderful piano class,” Lev recalls. “Some of the students are now musicians in their own right. With such artists, MultiPiano proved to be a logical option that combines my three passions: Playing, teaching and discovering special works. Our ensemble is quite unique – there are hardly any piano ensembles in the world that take the multiple piano repertoire seriously.” It soon became clear that there was demand for these performances.

“In October 2011 we received an invitation to play in the Far East, in China and Taiwan, and to give master classes,” Lev says. “I decided that we would play together, in different combinations, so it wouldn’t seem like a student concert.” Lev has experience playing piano duets: he performed for years with his first teacher, Naomi Lev, his mother.

With MultiPiano, he performs alongside his pupils Berenika Glixman and Daniel Borovitzky, students in their early 20s who have performed with the Israel Philharmonic, and 19 year-old Yuval Gilad, who has performed in Carnegie Hall. Their performances in Asia received excellent reviews.

“They didn’t let us leave the stage,” Lev says. “After we returned to Israel we received invitations to bring the ensemble to North and South America.”

“You lose color and gain transparency”

After 30 years on stage, playing the entire spectrum of the piano repertoire, Lev calls a piano ensemble the most difficult format.

“First you need the ensemble to reach an excellent group standard, like a string quartet,” he says. “To produce a clean chord requires different players to tap many different fingers down at the same fraction of a second. Also, playing in a piano ensemble is contrary to a pianist’s mentality. We are taught to be a soloist, not a member of an orchestra.”

When asked what is gained and lost when playing orchestral work on multiple pianos, Lev compares the experience to an x-ray: “You lose color and gain transparency,” he says.

The common repertoire for multiple pianos is intended for 20 fingers but many of the best work turns out to be written for more than four hands. These include works by Smetana, Rachmaninov, Schnittke and Ravel.

Before setting out for South America, MultiPiano will perform this Thursday at 19:30 at the Clairmont Hall at Tel Aviv University with their South American program: Bach’s Ricercar from The Musical Offering; Rossini’s Fantasia on an aria from the Barber of Seville; Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos as well as works by Ravel, Rachmaninov, Smetana and Arie Levanon, who also happens to be Lev’s father-in-law.

Levanon’s contribution, a new version of a piece called “Mosaic,” illustrates the multiculturalism of Israel. “It is based on the traditional melodies of different ethnic groups,” says Lev. “It has a Yemenite melody, an Arab-Bedouin one, a Yiddish one and a Ladino one.”

Is entertainment a sin?

The question arises as to whether the non-traditional multi-piano concert isn’t merely a gimmick to pull audiences, simply programming to entertain. Lev dismisses such ideas and points first to Smetana.

“Smetana’s sonata, is a serious and complex piece,” he says. “This program combines serious pieces with more fun ones, and there is nothing wrong with the fun part.”

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite fits into the fun category and even Poulenc’s concerto, for its ingenuity, has a popular element as well. “Poulenc has undergone a sort of rehabilitation in our time,” Lev says. “Today Poulenc is considered one of the first post-modernists. He stands as an original voice of his time with echoes of Stravinsky and Mozart, an early minimalist message and also elements of the street music of his day.”

A multiplayer concert, Lev points out, cannot replace the traditional single piano recital. This format is merely an alternative – an attractive one that has provided his students with otherwise elusive opportunities.

“If we didn’t package the performance like this,” Lev says, “these excellent young pianists would not have received invitations like these for years, or perhaps, unfortunately, ever.”

After 30 years on stage, playing the entire spectrum of the piano repertoire, Lev calls a piano ensemble the most difficult format.Credit: Bloomberg
Multipiano consists of Lev and three of his students.