Taking time out from his concert schedule abroad, Russian-born, Israeli-based countertenor Slava Kagan Paley sings his new Smile program tonight at Tel Aviv Museum. Accompanied by string ensemble and piano, he'll cover 300 years of vocal music, starting from Purcell and ending with Gershwin.
The countertenor voice - that of an adult male who sings in an alto or soprano range - dates from the early Middle Ages. After the Baroque era, countertenors remained only in sacred music until the 1960s, when the desire for authentic performances of the early material brought a revival of the countertenor. Nowadays, countertenors fill parts written especially for them in modern operas, along with parts written for castratos in Baroque operas. Indeed, the countertenor repertoire even includes jazz - witness classically trained Israeli countertenor David D'or.
Slava Kagan Paley, 42, who was born in Gomel, Belorussia, and played violin from the age of six, recollects that he started singing before he started talking, "as my mother told me. Later, I could sing any melody from my mother's LP collection, and wondered what was all this thing about [Italian prodigy child] Robertino Loretti; I knew I could sing better. But I never said that aloud; I was very modest."
During his violin studies he never stopped singing, and after graduating from the Conservatoire, he was invited to work with the Byelorussian Academic Choir, where he made his debut in Schumann's "Requiem" with the Leningrad Philharmonic.
"There were always people protecting me, without anyone asking," Paley recollects. "Almost as if they were sent to me."
In Moscow, he met Dr. Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, an important cultural and music center.
"This was just the first step in a chain of miracles," smiles Slava. "Antonova invited me to perform there, and introduced me to many important personalities."
That was quite a boon, as 20 years ago, even in Europe, countertenors were relatively new. A televised concert resulted in many engagements at prestigious locales in Russia and abroad, and a few months later Kagan Paley performed in Vienna.
Kagan Paley had started his professional singing career at 23, without studying. Asked on TV about his teachers, he named a few major 20th century performers such as Christa Ludvig, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Kathleen Ferrier; he had learned from their recordings.
Nobody in Moscow really knew how to teach him. Then Kagan Paley become the first Russian recipient of the Oppenheimer Charitable Trust scholarship, giving him the opportunity to choose any music school in the West. By chance, his recording arrived at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and he was accepted without entry exams in 1989.
"All the teachers came to see me, partly because I was the first student from Russia, and also because they didn't know how to classify me because the range of my voice was so broad and the sound was so unusual.
"When I came to Guildhall I couldn't understand English, but I knew what the teacher wanted from me because I had studied violin for 16 years. Before Guildhall, I sang like a bird, and there I received a whole package of vocal education."
His first album, Ave Maria, was made "slightly differently - I not only sang, but also played synthesizers."
It was a huge success, and led to a career in Japan.
Kagan Paley, who by now has recorded 17 albums and DVDs, lays claim to a diverse repertoire: "In London, I was fortunate to meet Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky, with whom I have performed pieces of the Romantic period, songs by Brahms and Schubert and finally those of Russian composers, which are quite difficult." Kagan Paley also performs in operas, both Baroque and modern.
In 2000, after 12 years in London, Kagan Paley moved to Israel. "My mother died and it was hard - I couldn't sing for a long time. America was out of question, but here in Israel I felt comfortable and cozy. I recharged my batteries under the sun."
The concert takes place tonight at 10 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Sderot Shaul Halmelch 27, (03) 607-7000.