Pianos Festival in Jerusalem: Music in the key of life

This year’s Pianos Festival goes by the subheading of “The Romantic Piano.”

Conductor-pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar presides over a slew of romantic works by Franz Liszt. (photo credit: DAIBES ABBOUD ASHKAR)
Conductor-pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar presides over a slew of romantic works by Franz Liszt.
(photo credit: DAIBES ABBOUD ASHKAR)
Ask most top musicians, especially those with a free-roaming spirit and a penchant for improvisation, about how to define what they do and they will most likely declare that “music is just music.” While that may seem a little on the inane side, that is meant as a riposte to the industry pigeon-holers who like to attach clear-cut, easily marketable, genre tags to this or that sonic project.
Anyone who has ever caught a production overseen by Michael Wolpe will know that the 58-year-old composer-conductor-pianist-educator is, at the risk of erring on the side of understatement, no snob when it comes to his profession. That all-embracing ethos is evident right across the spectrum of offerings in the forthcoming Pianos Festival, for which Wolpe serves as perennial artistic director, the sixth annual edition of which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater October 24 to 27.
This year’s festival goes by the subheading of “The Romantic Piano,” and takes in a wide range of material from Brahms to Mizrahi vocalist Avner Gadasi, with Schumann; Mozart; 20th century Israeli composer Marc Lavri; 68-year-old Polish-born former Israeli and now-US-based composer Jan Radzynski; and a world premiere of a piano sonata by Romanian-born, 94-year-old Sergio Natra also in the mix. Add a tribute to veteran Israeli pop songwriter Yaakov (Yankeleh) Rottblit; a jazz spot with local jazz community pioneer pianist Danny Gottfried and his celebrated pianist-conductor son Yaron; and pop songs by Argentinean singer-songwriter Pablo Rosenberg, and you have yourself one diverse festival of music.
Nimrod David Pfeffer has absolutely no problem with the romantic theme that will run through everything on show at the Jerusalem Theater next week. The 33-year-old pianist-conductor has been making a name for himself across the globe since relocating to New York. His various tenures include serving as assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and music director of the Lyric Opera Company of Guatemala. He has overseen and starred on piano in concerts around the globe, drawing kudos from audiences and critics alike.
Pfeffer plays a major role in two slots at the festival. He will be behind the ivories at Friday’s “A Love Like This – All in the Family” concert (12:30 p.m.), alongside fellow pianists Michal Tal and Yaron Colberg, and the Israel Camerata Jerusalem Orchestra, with Keren Kagarlitsky conducting works by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Mozart. Pfeffer will wield his baton for the closing concert of the whole festival shebang (October 27 at 8:30 p.m.), when he will be joined by pianists Almog Segal, Nizar Elkhater and Revital Hachamoff, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, to perform the “Overture” and “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Piano Concerti Nos. 1 and 2 by Mendelssohn, as well as Lavri’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
The latter is particularly poignant for the conductor, as Lavri dedicated it to late legendary pianist and educator Pnina Salzman, one of Pfeffer’s mentors.
“The closing concert is a special event for me, because Lavri’s concerto was premiered by my beloved teacher, Pnina Salzman,” Pfeffer explains. “It was written for her over 70 years ago and I had the great honor of hearing her play it live shortly before she died [in 2006]. Noam Sheriff conducted the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. That performance left a deep impression on me.”
Besides wowing audiences across the globe with his conducting and instrumental skills, Pfeffer also appears to be steeped in industry folklore. He proffers a colorful tidbit addendum to the Lavri-Salzmann synergy, pertaining to the latter stages of the British Mandate in pre-state Palestine.
“Shortly before the premiere of the work with what was to become the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the concerto wasn’t yet complete and Pnina had to get hold of the score,” Pfeffer relates. There were some serious logistics to be negotiated if she were to get her capable hands on the requisite charts in time.
“She went out in the evening during the hours of the British-imposed curfew to get the sheet music.”
The street-level representatives of the powers-that-be at the time were not too pleased with having the then-20-something pianist stroll through the streets of Tel Aviv, and she was duly accosted by British soldiers. “Pnina told them why she was out on the street, and where she was going – I think the concert was the next day,” Pfeffer continues. Salzmann must have been pretty convincing as the soldiers not only acceded to her request, they escorted her to Lavri’s house.
When the composer opened the door to the pianist, he was pleased and surprised to see her, but he was pretty shocked, too.
“Pnina didn’t know it, but Lavri had a slik (illegal stash of arms) in his apartment. He quickly recovered his composure and gave her the sheet music, and she and the soldiers left.”
They do say that artists have to suffer for their art, but that was on the verge of taking the cliché to an undesirable extreme.
There’s more mileage to the concerto tale, although in a very different, musical, vein.
“Pnina’s mother was very involved in her daughter’s musical development. There’s a crescendo in the first movement of the concerto, and Pnina’s mother thought it wasn’t long enough for Pnina to be able to express herself properly. She told Lavri her daughter needed a few more bars to the crescendo.” The composer duly obliged.
Pfeffer, who last week conducted the opening concert of the Ra’anana Symphonette’s 2018-19 season, has made a habit of getting Israeli works out there to the public. His 2008 solo debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra featured the world premiere of the Second Piano Concerto by Canadian-born Israeli composer Aharon Harlap. Pfeffer must have done a good job with it, as in 2015, the composer dedicated his Symphonic Dances for Piano and Orchestra to him.
The forthcoming festival will not be the first time Pfeffer’s path has crossed Wolpe’s trajectory.
“I attended IASA [Israeli Arts and Sciences Academy High School in Jerusalem], and Michael was one of my teachers there,” he notes. Besides clearly being gifted, Pfeffer enjoyed a stellar roll call of mentors during his formative years. “I also studied with Andre Hajdu,” he says, referencing the late Hungarian-born Israel Prize laureate composer and ethnomusicologist.
Asked whether he has ever considered trying his own hand at composing, Pfeffer says that he wrote a few works as a youngster, but nowadays, he doesn’t have too much time to devote to that side of his art form.
“At some stage my piano playing and conducting work became very serious and I am more focused on performance now.” Mind you, he hasn’t entirely given up on carving his own niche on the compositional side of the tracks. “I am working on a project right now, but it is a matter of squeezing in time for that in between the other stuff.”
Pfeffer seems to be adept at finding himself heavyweight mentors at every stage of his professional continuum.
“I’ve been in conducting for far less time than the piano,” he notes. “I began in conducting around six years ago, when I was studying at Mannes School of Music in New York. In the second year I joined the young artists’ program of the Metropolitan Opera, where I studied with James Levine.” Levine was the lauded music director of the opera for four decades. “He was very tough with me to begin with, but when he saw I was serious, he asked me to conduct the Met orchestra.” That was quite a feather in the youngster’s conducting cap.
Although Pfeffer’s musical interests cover broad swathes of the classical repertoire, he says he’s not ready to consider any significant deviations from the original scores, just yet.
“I really enjoy improvising and even did a couple of concerts with improvisation, but I haven’t yet brought myself to improvise when I’m performing classical works. I think it will probably happen at some stage, probably when I’m playing a cadenza of a concerto. Actually, I did that once. It was great fun.”
Outside the Jerusalem Theater auditoriums, visitors looking for something a little more left field will be able to enjoy the Piano Bar lineup, which takes in a bunch of piano-led acts from here and abroad, including jazz, world music, Hebrew song and avant-garde material.
For tickets and more information about the Pianos Festival: (02) 560-5755 and www.jerusalem-theatre.co.il