Amihai Grosz may be a longtime offshore resident, but he should feel perfectly at home when he comes to Jerusalem on December 17 to perform with French pianist Eric Le Sage at the Jerusalem Music Centre's "Chamber Music at the Y". The Frenchman and the Berlin-based Israeli violist will play a wide-ranging program that takes in two Brahms sonatas and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, with Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, by 20th-century German violist, violinist and conductor Paul Hindemith, bringing the repertoire closer to the here and now.
Grosz and Le Sage have been musical partners for some time now.
“I couldn’t imagine coming to Jerusalem to play with someone I didn’t know,” declares 35-year-old Grosz, adding that it’s not just about familiarity. “Eric is a wonderful pianist and soloist. We actually got to know each other at Eric’s festival at Salon-de-Provence, which is a chamber music festival [in France]. We started to play together, with other people too. We have known each other for over five years now, so playing together is very natural for us.”
Playing as a duo rather than in a larger ensemble demands a degree of courage.
There is nowhere to hide when you are front and center, and even in a relatively compact setting of a quartet or quintet, there are other energies to feed off, and possibly comfort in numbers. Grosz says he is up for the challenge – any musical challenge.
“Yes, you need courage, but that is not necessarily the first or most important criterion,” says the viola player. “It is important for me to do this [play in a duo format or even solo]. It is important for me to fully realize my abilities. I played in a quartet for quite a few years. That also demands courage, and particularly when you are a soloist with an orchestra.”
Now a first principal viola player of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Jerusalem-born Grosz is a seasoned campaigner. He began his viola studies at the age of 11, initially with David Chen at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, later continuing with Tabea Zimmermann in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule and with Haim Taub at the Keshet Eilon Music Center in the Galilee. Grosz also became a founding member of the Jerusalem String Quartet.
“When you have to play five bars as the soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, that is no simple matter, believe me,” he states. “But I think that kind of courage is sort of built in with me, and I believe it is very important to play solo because it helps you to discover all sorts of things. It is a very individual thing, and you learn things about yourself as a musician. You lay out all your cards and present yourself to the audiences as is.”
It’s a two-way street.
“You take risks, but if you don’t you can’t grow. It also offers you more freedom,” adds Grosz. “You get more out of the situation. You put yourself out there and have a lot of fun. When, for example, I play Brahms’s sonata [for viola and piano], I have an opportunity to express my own emotions, totally my own feelings – more so than, for example, in a piano quintet. That’s the beauty of playing solo or in a duet.”
Grosz says he connects easily, not only with his friend Le Sage but also with the piano in general.
“When I play with a pianist, there is something similar [to the viola] in terms of the timing,” he says.
Then again, joining forces with other string players naturally produces a different sonic approach.
“There is a certain degree of flexibility when you have a viola playing with a violin or a cello. When you have a chord played on a piano, you have to play with, and within, the chord. In that sense, the percussive aspect of the piano is more obvious. On the other hand, my role as a violist playing alongside a pianist is to fuse the harmonies that the piano offers. It is my job to knit the melodies together,” he explains.
Grosz started out his musical road on violin at the age of four. So he had plenty of time to explore the possibilities of the smaller instrument before moving on to the viola. It was, he says, a natural transition, and one that had been beckoning for some time.
“I was always drawn to the lower tones, less jumpy melodies and less virtuosic. I was looking for something more personal and deeper. I think the viola was really waiting for me,” he says.
Even so, it was not an entirely seamless instrumental progression.
“You need a different right-hand technique for the viola, in contrast with the violin,” explains Grosz. “Not every good violinist can play the viola well, and vice versa. They say that the bad violinist plays the viola. I don’t go along with that. A poor violinist will also be a poor violist.”
In fact, for about four years Grosz divided his time between violin and viola.
It was not until he was 15 that he threw in his lot exclusively with the viola. Grosz’s time on violin is not going to waste.
“I feel I have the aroma of the violin, and the viola sort of bridges the gap between the violin and the cello. Maybe if I’d started on viola from the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have that advantage of sensing the violin so well,” he says.