As usual, the Israel Festival program offers a generous dosage of classical and classically oriented musical fare. But the performance of The Planets, by British early 20th century composer Gustav Holst promises to be a particularly eye-catching – and possibly jaw-dropping – experience for the patrons who go to the Jerusalem Theater on June 2 (9 p.m.).
First, there is the base material. Holst’s work was unveiled in London in 1918, which makes the forthcoming performance something of a centennial slot. It is the most dramatic and compelling of scores, with lots going for it in terms of dynamics, darting runs with more gentle interludes, and memorable melodies aplenty.
Anyone who has listened to a recorded rendition, or attended an actual concert, of The Planets knows that it offers quite a ride. But imagine, if you will, the sumptuously textured orchestral work performed, not by a full ensemble with all its various sections, rather by four pianists and four percussionists.
However, the mere quantitative description of the onstage action and dual instrumental spread does the actual sonic and visual end product no justice at all. Tomer Lev believes the sum adds up to far more than the input of each individual member of the keyboard collective.
“The whole philosophy of this group is to explore all the possible piano permutations that involve more than a single piano, or single pianist,” says Lev, who serves both as a hands-on component and the guiding spirit of the foursome. “We are a modular group that, in our concerts, creates a kind of kaleidoscope of possibilities that a number of pianists and pianos are able to offer.”
That, says the veteran pianist, is entirely in keeping with the vibrant, breathing, creative flow.
“Music is a living medium formed between people at a given moment, in a unique form. It comes into being at a particular time and in a spontaneous manner.”
Lev wants us, the culture consumers, to grab the fruits of the artists’ endeavor at the point of departure.
“In the era of recording, some of that was lost,” he notes. That regrettable state of affairs is both exacerbated and mitigated by the advent of instant access to music via the Internet. On the one hand, thousands upon thousands of musical offerings are available for our listening pleasure via such virtual platforms as You Tube and Spotify. Then again, due to that easy-come-easy-go facility, many artists have to get out there, on stage, and produce their goods, live, in order to make ends meet. Which is good news for those of us who enjoy the dynamic of the immediacy and, often, intimacy one gets from seeing, and hearing, creative intent unfurl before our very eyes.”
LEV SAYS he and his fellow ivory ticklers are delighted to have the opportunity to present Holst’s masterpiece to their Jerusalem audience for several reasons.
“This is around 100 years since the premiere of the work, The Planets, which is possibly one of the most important works in history, but necessarily in the sphere of concert halls.”
Lev feels that the British composer paved the way for an entire new genre of musical creation.
“It is a milestone in the sense of writing music for movies. The Planets is the mother and father of all the soundtracks [subsequently] written for Hollywood.”
Really? Considering the movie industry was a much smaller and low-key sector than today’s multibillion dollar industry, relating to The Planets in such terms comes as a surprise.
“All the Star Wars series, and all the fantasy movies, all the soundtracks for these movies feed off this work by Gustav Holst,” Lev observes. “It set an entirely new standard for writing for an orchestra. From that point of view, The Planets is iconic.”
As the years went by, the composition hung around in the popularity stakes and proved to have enduring appeal as times changed and tastes ebbed and flowed. It has even provided quite a few pop and rock acts with inspiration. In 1973 British pop group Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band, for example, had a hit with “Joybringer,” which lifted the base tune straight out of “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” one of the original seven sections, and “Mars” has provide a fertile bedrock for numerous musical offerings across all kinds of genres and styles. That spread takes in quotes by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, in live improvised versions of “Dazed and Confused,” while celebrated American composer John Williams used the melodies and instrumentation of the same part of the Holst work as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the Star Wars films. The same planetary section informs German film score composer Hans Zimmer’s work on the soundtrack for the movie Gladiator. Clearly, Mr. Holst was onto something.
“‘Mars’ appears in countless combinations and transcriptions,” Lev states, adding that the 1918 work has achieved wider acclaim that may be immediately evident. “When people ask me what The Planets sounds like I tell them: You know it.”
The Jerusalem concert is actually the second runout for the piano-percussion venture. The previous presentation took place in New York in December. Lev says he is looking forward to the Israeli premiere.
“This is a very ambitious project,” he says, adding that there will lots of musical and textural dovetailing in the Holst reading.
“This combination makes everything and anything possible. That is the magic of the fusion of pianos with percussion instruments. Pianos can turn into percussion instruments, and enhance the percussion instruments with more color and power. But they can also provide tonal contrasts. The combinations that can be created between pianos and percussion instruments is an infinite world. I have been on stages for over 30 years and I thought I’d encountered and heard everything. But when we began working with Tremelo, we found incredible sonorous possibilities.”
TOMER YARIV, from the aforesaid percussive foursome, also welcomes and embraces the added firepower provided by the cross-instrumental synergy.
“Part of the core of the Tremelo concept is that each of the players excels on a very wide range of percussion instruments,” he notes. “That includes all sorts of melodic instruments, such as enormous marimbas. And there are xylophones and glockenspiel.”
Yariv explains that there is much more to his kind of sonic venture than one might think.
“I believe that percussion instrument players have three roles. They have to play harmony, and melody and, of course, rhythm.
But, there is also what I call the pure fun – all the effects. There are all sorts of sounds and special effects.”
That often depends on the physical means employed in the production of the musical sound.
“You can use a hand, a stick, a bow, sometimes you use a stick on another stick, and sometimes there is the human voice. There are numerous possibilities.”
All of which means that the percussionists have their work cut out for them, as they maintain a constant choreographed continuum, darting between their various instrumental ports of call. That also makes for a gripping visual and aural spectator event.
“There is so much energy and power, for instance, in the “Mars” section, with bombastic instruments,” says Yariv, recalling the response of an older member of an audience several years back.
“This man came up to me afterwards and told me that our concert begins long before we take the stage. He said that he goes to lots of concerts and, before the players come on, he sees stands with sheet music, seats and instruments. But, with our concert, he sees gongs hanging there, and all sorts of cymbals and drums he’d never seen before. Then he started wondering how such a small ensemble plays such a large array of instruments. He started trying to imagine how they all sound and how they are played. That, he said, for him meant that the concert had already begun. Seeing all those instruments waiting there on the stage.”
That, says Yariv, was a moving moment for him, and an aspect that tends to enhance the spectator enjoyment factor.
“That helps to fire the imagination, which is the most marvelous thing in music – the imagination.”
Sounds like a veritable multisensorial time is on the cards for one and all.
For tickets and more information: *2168 and www.israel-Festival.org