Israeli pianist talks about his love of Mozart

David Greilsammer will conduct the curtain-raiser of the Israel Symphony Orchestra's performance that will contain an overture from Mozart.

Swiss-based Israeli conductor David Greilsammer will be on the podium for this week’s concerts by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. (photo credit: JULIEN MIGNOT)
Swiss-based Israeli conductor David Greilsammer will be on the podium for this week’s concerts by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion.
(photo credit: JULIEN MIGNOT)

I once knew someone who was fond of saying “I love all classical music, as long as it is written by a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” While David Greilsammer is not quite as single-track-minded, he certainly appreciates that sentiment.

The fortysomething Swiss-based Israeli conductor, pianist will be on the podium at the Hechal Hatarbut auditorium in Rishon Lezion on October 7 and 9, and at the Shlomo Lahat Opera House in Tel Aviv on October 10, when he conducts the curtain raiser of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion (ISO)'s 33rd season.

The program features the overture from Mozart’s ever-popular Cosi fan tutte opera buffa, followed by his Piano Concerto No. 17 which, too, gets pretty frequent airings around the world. The evening closes with another crowd-pleaser, Dvorak’s stirring Symphony No. 9 in E minor, aka “From the New World.” All powerful and emotive stuff.

Greilsammer is not about to make any apologies for his Mozart “fetish.”

“His music is the love of my life,” he chuckles. It has been a lifelong love affair. “I remember hearing Mozart’s music for the first time, when I was four or five years old. It was in Jerusalem, and my mother put on an old record – I thought it was an antique – of Mozart’s piano music. I think it was [now 74-year-old American pianist-conductor Murray] Perahia playing. I remember feeling a wow moment. It was so beautiful. It was a very naive reaction. I had chills and a new feeling. It began so early for me.”

Still, Greilsammer’s path through life and music took on some sharp bends and unforeseen offshoots, and that childhood formative experience dropped a little by the wayside. “I got into other things, and I would say that Mozart was forgotten for a while.”

 Swiss-based Israeli conductor David Greilsammer will be on the podium for this week’s concerts by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. (credit: JULIEN MIGNOT) Swiss-based Israeli conductor David Greilsammer will be on the podium for this week’s concerts by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. (credit: JULIEN MIGNOT)

It was as a student at The Juilliard School performing arts conservatory in New York that he rediscovered his first love.

“There I got back into Mozart really powerfully,” he recalls. “I just felt that his music was a mother tongue for me. It was as simple as that. I love Chopin, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, but with Mozart, I feel it is my language. I just love him.”

That ardor soon found its way out of the classroom and onto the global classical music circuit. “I started performing in public, and really quickly that became one of the important things I did.” Word got around. “People and orchestras began to identify me as someone who was very close to Mozart’s music.”

The next stage was getting some of that dexterity and intimacy with Mozart’s scores down for posterity. Greilsammer went for broke. “I recorded CDs of Mozart’s music and I played all his sonatas in a single day.” Considering there are a full 18 piano sonatas in Mozart’s oeuvre, that was quite a feat.

There was simply no stopping the man. “A little later I played nine concerts when I performed all 27 Mozart [piano] concertos, three per evening. That was a time when Mozart coursed through my veins.”

Naturally, as the youngster grew and matured, both as a person as well as a musician, the scores began to take on new layers of meaning. “I started to appreciate the simplicity and the beauty. There is something so intimate about Mozart’s music compared with, for instance, the music of Beethoven, which is always so grandiose and powerful. It grabs you. With Mozart, I began to feel the intimacy, as if he came and took my hand and said to me ‘Let’s take a walk together.’ I don’t have that feeling with, for example, Brahms, even though I get a lot of pleasure out of playing his music. With Mozart, there is something very personal, for me. You could call it karma. I would like to think that, in another world, I knew him. Who knows?”

Then again, the object of Greilsammer’s admiration has been six feet under for the past 230 years, while the Israeli pianist recently turned 44 and is very much a product of the 21st century. Those here-and-now vibes come through in his readings of classical material of all ilks, including Mozart.

“I adopt a very modern approach to everything I do,” says the current music and artistic director of the Geneva Camerata (GECA). “I consider Mozart from the point of view of today.”

For Greilsammer it is never just about reading and playing the notes. “It is very important for me to research and to understand the context of the music, the types of instruments he played, the style and the genre. It is always important to look at it all from a contemporary standpoint, not to try to aim for Mozart’s music of the 18th century. I am interested in bringing Mozart’s music into 2021.”

That has been a constant feature of Greilsammer’s work over the years, as he has performed an eclectic range of concerts in London, New York, Paris, Hamburg, Venice and elsewhere, and brought his adventurous spirit and uncompromising intensity to, besides Mozart, recordings of a diverse slew of works by the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Scriabin, 20th-century innovator György Ligeti, French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and now 91-year-old American avant-garde composer George Crumb.

All of that wide-ranging illustrious company can be found on Greilsammer’s suitably named latest release, Labyrinth.

The Israeli also maintains his tireless pursuit of envelope-pushing offerings through the Suedama (Amadeus in reverse) Ensemble chamber orchestra he founded in New York in 2005, while GECA typically collaborates with artists from a broad sweep of genres and mindsets.

The upcoming GECA season features the likes of explosive jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, Swiss singer-songwriter and keyboardist Gaspard Sommer, and Franco-German brutal pop artist Karoline Rose Sun, while a date in March 2022 will see Greilsammer link up with French jazz saxophonist Emile Parisien, feted Israeli jazz drummer Ziv Ravitz and genre-hopping Israeli flutist Roy Amotz.

Greilsammer is just as keenly looking forward to conducting the Dvorak work for the first time in this country.

“It is, of course, good for a composition to be beautiful,” he notes. “But what makes a composition really great is how original it is. The ‘New World’ goes beyond beauty. It takes you into new territory. That, for me, is the definition of genius.”

Further on down the line, the ISO will perform works by Ben-Haim, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Kodaly, Schubert and 20th-century Austrian classical-jazz pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda.

A multifarious ISO rollout is clearly in the offing between now and July. Tickets and more information here