Classical: Yemenite strains for strings

Naama Perel’s ‘Atari’ is on the Tel Aviv Soloist Ensemble’s program

Na'ama Perel (photo credit: OREL PEREL)
Na'ama Perel
(photo credit: OREL PEREL)
Over the years, the Tel Aviv Soloist Ensemble has tackled a wide spread of works under the aegis of its long-serving conductor Barak Tal. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise to see the name of Naama Perel in the lineup of the orchestra’s upcoming Viennese Rhapsody program, which will be performed at the Rappaport Auditorium in Haifa on February 11 and at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv on February 12 (both 8:30 p.m.).
The rest of the performance repertoire takes in works by Schubert, Mendelssohn and Fritz Kreisler, with the latter’s composition providing the moniker for the two concerts. Meanwhile, Perel’s Atari for string orchestra will get its first ever airing.
While computer users over the age of 45 may recall the primeval Atari computer module, which was launched in 1979, anyone into Israeli folk dancing, particularly of Yemenite, will probably more readily associate the name with a popular hop-based dance format.
Perel, a young mother of three, hails from a Yemenite family, so she naturally gravitated towards her primary musical influences when scripting the new work.
“My earliest musical memories are of sitting at the Shabbat dinner table in the afternoon around mincha time, with my grandfather singing diwan [religious and festive] songs,” she says. “He’d sing together with some of his friends and, after each song, they’d raise a glass and drink something.”
The beverage was of the alcoholic variety which, Perel suggests, added to the developing ambience.
“The singing probably improved the more they drank,” she laughs.
After a while, Perel turned from appreciative, wide-eyed junior onlooker to full-blown contributor.
“As we got older, we children joined in the singing too,” she notes. “It runs in my veins.”
As she grew up, Perel developed an interest in all manner of musical expression, including branching out into contrary areas of the art form, although the initial lilting Yemenite motifs remained firmly embedded in her maturing psyche.
“I think you can hear that influence in everything I do, even if I went in different directions. That’s true when I was into jazz or flamenco or when I studied [Western] classical music. It was always there,” she adds.
However, that does necessarily mean that Perel’s own output is of a predominantly staccato nature.
“There are all sorts of songs in the Yemenite tradition,” she explains. “You can divide Yemenite song into sacred songs, women’s songs and men’s songs.”
There are subdivisions, too.
“There are also songs that are sort of an invitation to sing, which are very slow to begin with and gradually get faster. It’s a bit like the mawwal in Eastern music,” she says.
The latter refers to a genre of Arabic vocal music, which is a sort of drawn-out overture to the principal work.
“Yemenite songs are not always staccato,” says Perel, adding, however, that it is an important element of her composition. “In this particular work, the staccato element is very prominent, at the start and at the end. And it appears at all sorts of junctures in the piece in various guises and adopts all kinds of colors.”
Granddad’s Shabbat musical gettogethers notwithstanding, Perel soon began to check out her own musical perimeters and started to learn guitar, followed by the recorder and accordion. Later, while doing her National Service, she added the saxophone to her evolving instrumental arsenal. She also began to develop an interest in Western classical music when she was stationed in the north of the country.
“I was in Ma’alot and I’d go to rehearsals of the local orchestra and listen to the wind instruments,” she recalls. “I’d sit there and have a great time listening to them.”
It was a formative experience.
“I felt I just had to do something with this music,” Perel continues. “I looked for the music, and I got to the Rimon School[of Jazz and Contemporary Music]. I went there as a guitarist, as I mainly studied classical and jazz guitar, and then I studied composition.”
The youngster soon got a helping hand from a couple of illustrious senior members of the music writing fraternity.
“[Composer] Oded Zehavi heard about me, and he pushed me along in the right direction,” says Perel. “I also did a degree at Levinsky College in music education – you have to make a living too, you know – and [composer] Hagar Kadima, who was a teacher of mine, also did a lot for me.”
The fire was well lit under Perel’s compositional burners, and she quickly accumulated as much experience as she could.
“I entered every composing competition going,” she laughs. “I was very curious about composing, and I was strongly drawn to writing choral music. I also wrote for chamber ensembles.”
The two, she feels, are basically equal and opposite.
“I relate to an orchestra as a collection of human voices [expressed through instruments]. I look at a choir as a group that is similar to an orchestra and vice versa. I am fascinated by these combinations [of vocal and instrumental music]. I very much like to try out new things,” she says.
With her jazzy background, Perel also embraces improvisational endeavor which, she says, is inherent to Yemenite music.
“There is a great deal of freedom in folk music, such as Yemenite music. In Yemenite music there is no obligation to adhere to harmony or rules or tradition. I think folk music is freer. It doesn’t operate according to formulae. You can find formulae in Yemenite music, but it is fundamentally formula-free,” she says.
In addition to following all kinds of musical pathways, Perel is also one capable multi-tasking woman.
“The new work was written very recently,” says the mother of a three-month-old child. “I wrote it while I was pregnant and after the birth, with the baby in one hand and the other hand on the piano,” she laughs. “There were times when one hand was on the piano keyboard, the other wrote the notes down, and I had a foot rocking the crib.”
Besides the obvious logistics involved in juggling motherhood with musical creativity, Perel feels she brings her life experience to her compositional work.
“If I’d written this piece, say, six years ago, before I became a mother, it would definitely have come out differently. I express who I am as a person. This work is a return to my roots, but it also feeds off the road I have traveled until now,” she says.
The concerts take place on February 11 at 8:30 p.m. at Rappaport Auditorium in Haifa; and February 12 at 8:30 p.m. at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv. For information and tickets: (04) 836-3804 (Haifa); 054-693-4439 (Tel Aviv)