Ronen Shapira has got a bee in his bonnet. It’s been buzzing loudly for some time now, and it is one of the prime and primal driving forces behind his creative pursuit.The 51-year-old pianist-composer is one of the acts lined up for this year’s Pianos Festival, which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater from December 20 to 23.Shapira, who will perform as part of the “Piano Bar” slot on December 21 (11 p.m.), has been at the cutting edge of contemporary musical creativity for some years now, and also helps to nurture new generations of forward-looking artists, in his capacity as a college professor. In fact, to place him merely in the instrumentalist-writer category would be to damn with faint praise. He is more accurately described as a multidisciplinary artist who spreads his gifts across a diverse range of creative fields, while feeding off all kinds of cultural baggage and mind-sets.
Neither does the neat “left field” epithet do his oeuvre justice. Shapira is an artist in the fullest and truest sense of the term. Sitting in his company, one immediately gets the impression that the man is driven – driven to constantly explore new frontiers of thought and emotion which, naturally, lead him to ever more creative expression.Take, for example, his hot-off-the-presses record The Sad Album, which came out a couple of weeks ago on Shapira’s newly established Wild Prayer record label. If you are looking to get yourself a jolly collection of numbers, which you can intermittently hum to while you go about your business, this is definitely not for you. If, on the other hand, you want to have your heartstrings right royally tugged, and your gray matter nudged, you’d be on a winner with this one.The Sad Album opens with “Where Do I Go,” with Shapira singing in English and Hebrew and playing piano. Shapira is no opera singer, and he doesn’t even appear to have a good handle on the keys. But all that is premeditated, part of his plan to convey his deepest emotions, which clearly tend toward the unhappy end of the emotional spectrum. For starters, the piano sounds like it could do with some urgent tuning, and the acoustics give the impression that the recording was made in some decidedly down-and-dirty place. You can’t miss the angst in his voice, nor in his seemingly indifferent ivory tickling.The record is evidently not a spick-and-span product, lovingly caught at some of the glittering venues where Shapira has performed over the years, such as Carnegie Hall in New York, the superbly equipped Bela Bartok National Concert Hall in Budapest, and our very own Opera House in Tel Aviv. But that is not what Shapira is about. He wears his heart on his sleeve and, like his music, our conversation was a moving experience in which Shapira expressed his thoughts and feelings in the frankest and most honest of ways. The man is a straight shooter, whether at the piano, or playing the oud, or expressing himself through his unguarded vocals or with the pen. He comes across as a deep thinker determined to vent his emotional spleen, come what may.He is also a true son of the Middle East. Ashkenazi origins notwithstanding, he embraces Arab music and established a Jewish-Arab youth choir along with leading oud player-violinist and educator Prof. Taiseer Elias. He also drank from venerable educational fonts himself, thirstily imbibing the musical and philosophical gems afforded to him by Hungarian-born, Israel Prize-winning composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu and iconic fellow Israel Prize laureate, venerated pianist and educator Pnina Salzman.The aforementioned titans not only imbued Shapira with ways to go about getting the most out of the piano, they also nurtured his natural bent for unbridled exploration. Over the years, that laissez-faire ethos has led Shapira to work with a wide-ranging spread of artists, including Hajdu himself, ethnically inclined rockers Berry Sakharof and Micha Shitrit, experimental composer and musician Amnon Wolman, and pop-rock music stalwart Shlomo Gronich.Over the years, Shapira has roamed to overseas pastures, including studying spells in the United States, where he took a master’s degree at Michigan University and later studied for a PhD at Chicago’s prestigious Northwestern University.When it comes to musical expression, he gives and takes no quarter, and constantly digs into new modes of aesthetics and sensibilities, which feed off Western, Eastern and Middle Eastern beliefs and approaches.And it all seems to flow through him naturally. You don’t get the sense, from his work, that he is seeking to achieve a neat equal-and-opposite equilibrium.It is more a matter of a meandering and undulating continuum that follows a natural course and ends up exactly where it should. Add to that a visual take on music, fueled by his gifts in the painting department, and you have yourself one well-rounded artistic credo.Shapira is always looking to keep himself on his toes and, as a result, keep his audience guessing and engaged.“I have a work which I wrote for the [Israel] Chamber Orchestra. I have been writing it for 20 years. It is called ‘Ehad’ [One],” he says. “The first half is a piano concerto, with parts that include quarter tones.” The latter is a basic element of Arab music. “I played the first half a couple of months ago. The audience went crazy. Gronich came onto the stage and said it was fantastic. It was a great experience for me.”Many performers would have been delighted with such a response. But Shapira is not the rest-on-your-laurels type. While he likes having his efforts appreciated, he doesn’t want to get too comfy, nor does he want his listeners to slip into cozy mode.“The first half of ‘Ehad’ is played on a good [well-tuned] piano. It’s sort of postromantic music – semi-Arab, semi-trippy, semi-classical, semi–Chopin, I don’t know what – sort of ambient; there’s everything in there. At the end of the day, I’m a romantic.”There’s more. “The second half [of ‘Ehad’] is destruction. It’s all about communication and our ability to communicate with each other.”The less mellifluous section of the work dips into every pos - sible sentiment, artistic form and emotional domain, feeding off energies that Shapira describes as something along the lines of post-punk, Beethovenesque and much more, “to dis - play the alienation, and all the evil.” That acerbic line of artis - tic and personal attack, coupled with Shapira’s self-confessed romantic view of life, makes for a potent and restless bottom line.Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Pianos Festival roster, you can find George Gershwin specialist pianist Andy Feldbau, who will be joined by vocalists Yael Khuna and Shai Teri in “The American Piano – Gershwin Salutes Bernstein” slot, as well as traditional local fare in the “Kabbalat Shabbat – The Sun in the Treetops Has Disappeared” concert overseen by festival artistic director Michael Wolpe.The four-dayer opens on December 20 (8 p.m.) with “From Mozart to Beethoven,” with conductor and pianist David Greil - sammer and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, with Greil - sammer also on hand as the festival bows out on December 23 (9 p.m.), with the “Double Beethoven” closer, with pianist Einav Yarden, the Jerusalem Trio and, once again, the JSO.For tickets and more information: (02) 560-5757 and www.jerusalem-theatre.co.il/piano2.aspx