Bringing Israeli piano expertise to the heart of the desert

The Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes return to Sde Boker

 ISRAELI-BORN American-based pianist and educator Alon Goldstein.  (photo credit: Christian Steiner)
ISRAELI-BORN American-based pianist and educator Alon Goldstein.
(photo credit: Christian Steiner)

They say peace of mind can help to fuel the creative spirit. Then again, Alon Goldstein suggests, you don’t want things to be too chilled.

Goldstein is a celebrated Israeli-born American-based pianist and educator who, when he is not in the classroom, spends much of his time on the road displaying his polished keyboard skills around the globe. He will be winging his way back over here from Kansas City, where he teaches at the University of Missouri, to reprise his teaching post at the Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes event, which takes place at Sde Boker in the Negev July 30-August 17.

The agenda is overseen by Prof. Emanuel Krasovsky, with an international faculty lined up and 78 students from 17 countries involved in the program of workshops, master classes, one-on-one lessons and concerts.

Goldstein is a “repeat offender” with, he reckons, “10 or 11 stints at Tel Hai as a teacher.” He says he is always more than delighted to grab any opportunity to spend some time in his country of birth, and particularly in Sde Boker. “It is a special place,” he remarks. Then again there may be an incongruity side to it all. “You know, people talk about sources of inspiration for composers. I don’t think the desert has ever been mentioned as a source of inspiration,” he laughs.

Stands to reason, if you consider that Mozart, for example, a composer whose oeuvre is very close to Goldstein’s heart – he is in the process of recording all the Austrian’s piano concerti for the Naxos label – lived in Austria for most of his short life. There aren’t a lot of hot arid expanses over in northern Europe.

Negev shows will require a new energy

He might be happy to be returning to Israel, but Goldstein knows he’ll have his work cut out for him down in the Negev. “I’ll be there eight days, teaching 3-4 hours every morning, then a public master class in the afternoon. And I’ll be playing music, and there are always some students who ask for private lessons.” That sounds like a shift and a half, but that has been part and parcel of the Tel Hai program ever since it sprang into earnest educational life 32 years ago.

It is not just about the work all parties concerned put in. Goldstein feels the very fact that they all spend time together – at their musical instruments, on stage, in classrooms, and socializing in their limited free time – offers rewards for everyone. “There is this wonderful encounter between people from most parts of the world – teachers and students. It is very intensive.”

He could say that again. “Each student gets a private lesson at least every two days, sometimes every day and even more than once a day. And there is chamber music, and singers. And there is a concert every evening.”

The latter is an indispensable element of the steep learning curve all aspiring artists have to navigate, if they are going to make it from the classroom to the concert hall. At the age of 53, Goldstein has plenty of requisite experience in that area, as well as on the tutoring side of the sector and, no less important, some accrued street-level acumen.

“At the end of the day, when you take the stage, technique is the least important thing,” he observes. “Technique is there to serve the music.”

He had some illuminating insight to offer on the matter of producing mellifluous and arresting sonics. “Music is not really about the notes, but [about] what happens between the notes.”

That may sound a little on the ephemeral side, particularly in a discipline that is expressed and conveyed to the consumer in clearly audible form. Goldstein brings the seemingly extraneous offstage baggage into the broader artistic picture. “What you have between the notes is the life you have experienced, the books you have read, the friends you have, your successes and your failures.” That suits the art-life reciprocally nourishing relationship.

Goldstein says all the above comes into play in the performance arena, which is where it really matters. “I perform a lot of concerts, and, ultimately, the best lesson you can get is the lesson you get on the stage. Music is a mysterious world which only exists when we play.”

There’s another aspect of which non-musicians are probably not aware. “There is also the dimension of time,” Goldstein continues. “You could be sitting in a lecture that you are enjoying, and then you look at your watch and you can’t believe two hours have gone by. Or you may be bored and the time just seems to drag by. The dimension of time can be a very subjective thing. It isn’t always about the content. There is charisma and all sorts of factors.” Basically, on the stage, that translates into how you present something rather than what it is you are rendering for the audience’s appreciation.

That is something that cannot be taught in words of one syllable. The students have to walk that rocky pathway themselves. Goldstein says he takes a leaf out of the book of one of his teachers, late composer Ben-Zion Orgad. “He said: ‘It is the teacher’s job to impart to the student the means to enable them to conduct an internal dialogue vis-à-vis phenomena [with music].’ I really like that. It is about helping the student to become his own teacher.”

Goldstein not only brings the wealth of his coaching, recording, and concert hall experience to the Tel Hai Master Class plate, he also offers the invaluable boon of the lessons he learned himself as a disciple of some great yesteryear masters. That includes the fabled American pianist and educator Leon Fleischer, who died in 2020 at the age of 92. “He used to say: ‘Be your own teacher.’ I heard that again and again, from the teachers who were important to me.”

And now he and his colleagues on the Tel Hai faculty are passing that on to the next generation or two, who, no doubt, will soon be gracing stages here and across the world. Eventually, they, too, will convey that pearl of wisdom to their own protégés. And so the beat goes on.

The closing gala concert will take place at the TA Museum of Art at 8:30 p.m. on August 17.