Bridging the keys

Twelve classical pianists from Israel and China, aged eight to 21, find a common language in music.

piano girl 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
piano girl 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It is generally quite difficult to find much common ground between a country of over 1.3 billion people and another of around just 8 million, but last week a bunch of youngsters from China and Israel met for five days of intensive musical synergy. The event was supported by the Guilford and Diane Glazer Foundation, and was initiated and facilitated by Barry Swersky.
The Bridge of Keys program brought together a dozen highly gifted classical pianists from the two countries, aged between eight and 21, under the aegis of the Jerusalem Music Center. The young artists attended master classes by some of the classical musical world’s most feted figures, including the center’s president, conductor and pianist Murray Perahia, celebrated Israeli pianist and conductor Arie Vardi, American pianist Stephen Kovacevich and Dan Zhaoyi, one of China’s foremost classical music educators.
On the first day of the program, Vardi took two pianists from each country through their paces in works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and Haydn while, on the fourth day, Perahia advised three Chinese pianists, including eight-year-old Serena Wang, on how to approach J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor and Schubert’s Sonata in A minor.
In addition to the clinics, the students paired up for some duet work under the supervision of Michal Tal and Yaron Rosenthal, and an introductory session to the art of conducting with Israeliresident Chinese teacher Xu Yi-An guiding the youngsters through the principles of overseeing a piano concerto performance.
The Bridge of Keys program was, of course, designed to provide the youngsters with invaluable educational added value, but it wasn’t only the students who came out with some new knowledge.
“I knew nothing about classical music in Israel before I came here,” says Dan, adding that he knew very little about this part of the world. “All we see is war, war, war, but I see so many interesting and unique things here.”
The Chinese teacher says he was suitably impressed with the quality of musicianship he encountered in Jerusalem. In addition to his educational work at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and the Shenzhen Music School, Dan serves as executive artistic director of the Shenzhen International Piano Concerto Competition.
“I have seen some very talented young Israeli pianists here over the last few days,” he said, “and I will invite some of them to take part in the competition in China.”
As Dan spent only a few days with each Israeli student he says he was not in a position to make an informed judgment about the differences between the technical and cultural baggage each nationality brought to their keyboard work. However, he said he felt the Chinese and their Israeli counterparts found a common language during the fourhanded slots and master classes.
“They definitely became closer through the music they played,” he observed. “This evening there will be a gala concert, following the master classes, and you will see children from two different countries and cultures playing a similar style of music.”
However, that did not mean that the youngsters were about to toe the same line.
“It is an example of how people can agree to disagree,” continued Dan, likening musical confluences with a more general sense of harmony. “If we can do that in life, too, things will be much better all round.”
The way that Dan sees it, musical disagreement is fine too. “There is beauty in disagreement in music too,” he observes and, anyway, he believes that any discrepancies that may exist between artists from different cultures can be channeled for the greater good.
“Technique is important, and the students from Israel and from China may have different techniques, but it is all there to serve the music. That’s what it is really about.”
Vardi is keenly aware of the contrasting perspectives of musicians from different parts of the world, and this came to the fore in the master class he gave with 21-year-old Israeli pianist Daniel Borovitzki. The clinic partly focused on a work by Maurice Ravel called Oiseaux Tristes (“Sad Birds”).
“Some years ago I gave a master class in Switzerland, and we looked at Oiseaux Tristes,” says Vardi. “I asked the student why the birds were sad, and he said because they were cold. The Swiss student, in the winter, sees the birds in the cold weather.”
The student was right to note the meteorological conditions, but he got the temperature setting completely wrong.
“It turned out that Ravel was referring to the fact that the poor birds were suffering from the terrible heat of the Spanish summer. Of course, everyone can bring their cultural baggage to their music, but the question is whether there is a cardinal discrepancy between the sentiment of freezing birds, or that of birds which are faint from the heat.”
Vardi notes that Ravel lived around the time of the Impressionist art movement and that, at that time, the various artistic disciplines began to find common denominators.
“Music, painting and even architecture began to share the same verbiage, and talked of colors, and textures, smells and warmth – anything we can recognize with our senses,” continues the Israeli pianistconductor.
That was something he imparted to Borovitzki at the Bridge of Keys master class.
But do young people bring their individual cultural background to their art in the same way as adults? Surely, even if only in terms of chronology, musicians who are just starting out have experienced less of their culture, if only by dint of the relatively small number of years they have lived until that point.
Vardi feels there is no cut-and-dried answer to that one.
“There are children who are more developed, musically, culturally, emotionally and in other ways, and there are other children who need to be stimulated to bring these things out. It varies.”
Although he says it is too early to say, definitively, whether the students from both countries left a lasting impression on each other, Vardi believes that they found something close to a common language over the five days in Jerusalem.
“The instructors of the four-handed sections of the program said that sometimes it takes a year for students to achieve the degree of unity the children achieved. I think it was the cultural differences between them that drew them closer.”