Sunday, March 18, 2018

An Impressive Israeli Harpist

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented a concert given by the Israeli Chamber Project (ICP). Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this group brings together a rather distinctive collection of resources. There is a string quartet consisting of violinists Daniel Bard and Carmit Zori, violist Dmitri Murrath, and cellist Michal Korman. They are joined by two wind players, Guy Eshed on flute and Tibi Cziger on clarinet, as well as pianist Assaff Weisman; but what really distinguishes the group is the presence of harpist Sivan Magen.

Magen was, by far, the most impressive member of the group. He performed in five of the six offerings on the program. His role in the group encompassed solo work, accompaniment, and ensemble performance, all of which he managed with an impressive combination of both technical discipline and rhetorical expressiveness.

The most interesting offering of the evening involved almost the entire group. Only violinist Zori was absent. The work was an arrangement by Yuval Shapiro of four selections from Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Petrushka.” Stravinsky planned a key role for the piano in this score, and he later prepared arrangements for solo piano of three excerpts from the full score. Shapiro drew upon Stravinsky’s excerpts but added a chamber realization of the opening scene.

This was no mean feat. Michel Fokine’s scenario is set in the celebration of the Shrovetide Fair (the Russian version of Mardi Gras) in Saint Petersburg. He choreographed a plethora of independent activities, each happening in different areas of the stage and sometimes bumping into each other. Stravinsky’s musical setting of this “organized chaos” was nothing short of pure genius; and, as might be guessed, he worked his orchestral resources to the max.

Nevertheless, Shapiro managed to distill all that chaos down to the capabilities of only six instruments. The fact that he used both piano and harp gave him more leverage than can be found in most chamber groups. Nevertheless, his use of individual instrumental voices was strikingly imaginative without ever going against Stravinsky’s grain.

There was even a brief moment when Shapiro’s arrangement succeeded where most conductors of a large ensemble never quite manage Stravinsky’s overwhelming demands. This took place in the concluding excerpt, when the action of the ballet returns to the fairgrounds. In the midst of this final round of chaos, Stravinsky wove his very opening theme into his thick instrumental fabric, assigning it to only two flutes and two piccolos. The rest of the orchestra is roaring out the theme for the “Dance of the Nursemaids;” and very few conductors seem to care very much whether or not those flutes and piccolos can be heard within the din. Playing with his ICP colleagues, on the other hand, Eshed had no problems with the audibility of his part!

As an accompanist, Magen joined Cziger for the opening selection of the evening. This was Robert Schumann’s Opus 94, a set of three romances, which were originally scored for oboe and piano. (This was Schumann’s only composition for oboe.) The program did not credit an arranger, and Cziger could easily have been playing directly from the oboe part. It would not surprise me to learn that Magen was similarly reading off of the piano part; and the result was impressively convincing.

During the second half of the program, Magen returned to the piano literature. This time he played his own arrangements of piano music by both Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The Schumann selection was the “Intermezzo” movement from Faschingsschwank aus Wien (shifting the pre-Lenten carnival from Saint Petersburg to Vienna). More challenging was the second of the three Opus 117 intermezzo compositions by Johannes Brahms.

Both of these were impressive undertakings, and Magen gave a skillful account of his arrangement efforts. Nevertheless, while this included sensitive awareness of basic thematic content, it was still clear that a harp could not replace a piano where these two composers were involved. Both of them showed as much attention to the melodic lines of inner voices as they did to the primary themes. However, while inner voices can be brought out by proper finger control on a piano keyboard, both physics and physiology work against achieving the same results on a harp. Thus, while Magen’s arrangements provided an excellent platform for his technical skills, that platform could not really support the full musicianship behind the music he chose to arrange.

Sadly, the most evident weakness of ICP resided in its string players. Neither Bard nor Korman were able to bring the necessary assertiveness to Shapiro’s Stravinsky arrangement, and things went downhill in the remaining selections. The full quartet never really balanced with the flute, clarinet, and harp in the performance of Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro movements. However, this was but an omen of a painfully uncomfortable account of Schumann’s Opus 44 quintet for piano and string in E-flat major, which concluded the evening. Whether it involved intonation, balance, or phrasing, none of the string players knew how to engage with either each other or Weisman’s piano work. Such an approach to a relatively familiar selection made it hard to believe that these musicians have been working as a group for ten years.

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