Friends for life, and music

The Berlin-based Nimrod Ensemble connects with Jerusalem

THE NIMROD ENSEMBLE, the Berlin-based quartet, is making its first appearance in the country tonight at the YMCA in Jerusalem. (photo credit: ANDREJ GRILC)
THE NIMROD ENSEMBLE, the Berlin-based quartet, is making its first appearance in the country tonight at the YMCA in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: ANDREJ GRILC)
Embracing wide-ranging cultural strains is hardly a new notion when it comes to the performance of music, even Western classical music. That certainly applies to the Nimrod Ensemble. The Berlin-based quartet will make its first appearance in this country Sunday evening at the YMCA in Jerusalem at 8 p.m.
The troupe’s stratified ethos comes across, on the most basic level, simply by virtue of the members’ nationalities. The foursome comprises Swiss violinist Christophe Horak, Italian violist Francesca Zappa, Belgian pianist Yannick Van de Velde, and “our very own” clarinetist Nur Ben Shalom, who was born and grew up in Tel Aviv. Ben Shalom has called Berlin home for the past decade and in the interim, has furthered his promising career with synergies all across the globe, including stints with the German Opera House Orchestra in Berlin, the Berliner Philharmoniker and a fun gig with classical composer John Williams. Now 27, highly personable Ben Shalom is delighted to come here with his pals in a professional capacity.
As befitting their variegated personal baggage, they have cooked up quite an eclectic program for the Jerusalem concert, which goes by the perfectly name of “From Berlin to Jerusalem.” The repertoire takes in Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, and Two Songs for Voice Viola and Piano, and the Violin Sonata No. 2 – both by Brahms, with the vocal role of the former transposed to clarinet. Things get more contemporary with Bartok’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, written in 1938, and the musical and cultural zeitgeist will come bang up to date with the world premiere of Nizar Elkhater’s Samai Nimrod, for violin, viola, clarinet and piano.
Elkhater and Ben Shalom go back a long way.
“I’ve known Nizar since the age of 12,” says the clarinetist. He and 32-year-old Lod-born Muslim pianist-composer Elkhater were members of the multidenominational youth ensemble Arab Jewish Orchestra, and Ben Shalom has performed with the orchestra, which Elkhater now conducts. The orchestra’s operational theme embraces the inclusion of Western and Eastern instruments and readings of cross-cultural material, so it is only natural that Elkhater’s specially commissioned work, which will be given its first public airing later today, feeds off western classical and Arabic sensibilities and sounds.
For Ben Shalom, classical music has been something of a life saver.
“I started out on recorder, like most kids,” he notes. “There was a wonderful music teacher there, called Hanan Shomroni. I went to the Open Democratic School in Jaffa, which I didn’t like very much. I basically survived the school because of Hanan,” Ben Shalom chuckles.
Besides bringing his young charges humus from the nearby feted Abu Hassan eatery, Shomroni also instilled Ben Shalom and quite a few other kids at the school, who subsequently went on to take their music very seriously – and even made a profession out of it – with an enduring love for musical creation.
“Hanan was a sort of mentor,” the Berliner recalls. “At recess we’d go to his room and, even if we only had a five-minute break, he’d say ‘let’s play some music together.’ We’d talk about all sorts of things, too. He really was a guiding light.”
Shomroni left his inspirational imprint on other Open Democratic School students who later become professional musicians, such as New York-based jazz flutist Itai Kriss, blues-pop musician Itai Pearl and internationally renowned Indian-oriented Israeli wind instrument player and producer Shye Ben Tzur.
Ben Shalom’s musical epiphany actually took place outside the school.
“Hanan ran weekly concerts at Bet Tami, on Sheinkin Street. I was just six or seven years old. One day, the program included the Mozart Clarinet Quintet for clarinet and a string quartet,” he recalls. The boy’s enthusiastic response to the music did not go unnoticed. “To this day, Hanan relates how I sat there transfixed by the clarinet. After that I started on clarinet.”
IT HASN’T all been plain sailing for Ben Shalom.
“That concert on Sheinkin initiated my love-hate relationship with Mozart,” he laughs. “Mozart’s works are some of the most challenging around for musicians.” The 18th century Austrian composer’s charts do not, at first look or listen, seem to be overly complex. But appearances can be deceptive.
“There aren’t too many notes or technical aspects in there, but the minimalism and the simplicity of the sound and the instrument and who you are, are expressed in a very basic way. That’s very difficult to achieve.”
While he remains rooted in his Western classical training, Ben Shalom says he takes a keen interest in works that feed off of different cultural lines of thought and creation.
“I am not a jazz player, I am a classical musician. But I have connections with electronic music, and I have always been intrigued by interfaces between old and new music, to see what exists between the old cultural world that produced Mozart’s work for clarinet, and the specific sounds the clarinet can produce, and compare that with the modern or postmodern world. It is that paradox that interests me.”
Unless you’re playing solo, you have to be empathetic – not to say sympathetic – toward your partners in musical arms. That, says Ben Shalom, is a basic tenet of the quartet’s philosophy, and is an element that is reflected in the group’s work and, in fact, even in its name. In the Bible, Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, was a hunter. It also happens to be the name of the ninth of the 15 Variations written by British composer Edward Elgar, which, in turn, was named for German-born British music producer Augustus J. Jaeger. Jaeger was a close friend of Elgar’s, and his surname means “hunter” in German. Hence the connection with the Berlin-based quartet.
“Besides playing music together, we are all really good friends,” says Ben Shalom. There is more subtextual intent in the quartet’s moniker. “It also references Nimrud, which was destroyed by ISIS,” says the clarinetist, referring to the ancient historical site in Iraq.
More than anything, Ben Shalom wants us all to take a deep breath and, to paraphrase and borrow from 1960’s countercultural climes, “turn on and tune in.” That goes for him and his quartet cohorts, too.
“There is that magical moment when we listen to each other. It doesn’t matter where you come from, personally or culturally. There is the moment the connects us all, as long as you are listening and receptive.” That avenue of thought pointed Ben Shalom in the direction of smaller groups, rather than full-scale orchestras. “That’s why I prefer chamber music. With chamber music you have to know how to listen, and to be open.”
Ben Shalom says his old pal’s work is a prime example of that.
“Nizar’s composition, which we will play for the first time ever, is exactly that – listening. We [musicians] all come from our background, with our own specialist field.”
It is the extraneous which, paradoxically, draws everyone in.
“Suddenly, we have to cope with music from a very different cultural place, like Samai Nimrod, with its Eastern elements, we have to be receptive. That generates a special moment. That’s also why we chose to play it at the YMCA, and what the place represents – an interface between cultures. That’s exciting.”
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