‘If I were music’

Sitting a spell with composer Stella Lerner, ahead of the concert she put together featuring verses by iconic Israeli poetesses.

Michal Bat - Adam and Hagai Yodan perform  (photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)
Michal Bat - Adam and Hagai Yodan perform
(photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)
A very special concert is set to take place in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night (February 6). Leading Israeli filmmaker, actress and singer Michal Bat-Adam, together with young and sensitive pianist and singer Haggai Yodan, will present a moving and unusual “If I were music” show.
The program, which will be performed at 7:30 p.m. in the Clairmont Hall of Tel Aviv University’s Buchman- Mehta Music School, features verses by iconic Israeli poetesses Zelda, Lea Goldberg, Ester Raab and Dahlia Ravikovitch, put to music by composer Stella Lerner. Make no mistake; these are not pop songs, but rather lieder, art songs. Analyzing her music output, leading Israeli musicologist Uri Golomb wrote that Lerner’s music is deeply rooted in European cultural tradition.
“If I were music” is a line from one of Zelda’s poems, but also the motto for Lerner in her artistic dialogue with the poetesses and with poetry, for that matter.
“There always is music in true poetry and as a composer, I tried to extract it from the poems and to say what words are unable to express,” says the composer. “I am not interested in just writing music on verses, but I aspire to create a new essence, which will be larger than the sum of its two elements, the word and the music.”
This is not the first time Lerner has approached classical Hebrew poetry.
Trained as philologist and musicologist, she immigrated to Israel in the early 1990s from the former Soviet Union. Lerner was born and raised in Kaliningrad, former Konigsberg – the gloomy former capital city of Eastern Prussia, conquered by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. In Israel, she was overwhelmed by intensity of the Mediterranean sun, light and colors.
She delved into the local life and learned the new language rather fast.
“At first, Leah Goldberg’s poetry did not speak to me,” recalls Lerner, “it seemed too simple. But it changed later, and I started composing music for her poems. My identification with her poetry was so profound that I had a weird feeling that Leah Goldberg had written her poems for me. I could also see how her poetry was connected to that of Russian early 19th-century poets.”
The first program of art songs by Lerner was presented by soprano Sharon Rostrof-Zamir, accompanied on the piano by Yodan, and was welcomed by critics and audiences alike. It was later performed in the “Feast of Israeli Music” festival framework.
In 2016 Lerner released the Woman’s Song album, which in addition to Leah Goldberg songs features also those by Yaakov Barzilai, Meir Goldberg and Hilla Sagan.
And now Lerner is back with a new program.
“These four poetesses differ one from another,” Lerner emphasizes.
“Leah Goldberg is credited for creating the language which suits the expression of dramatic and emotional experience; Zelda was deeply religious, yet her entire environment was purely secular; Raab was the first Sabra [native Israeli] poetess; while Ravikovitch is regarded one of most important Hebrew poetesses ever.”
Michal Bat-Adam, who immediately recognized the potential of the project and the musical gifts of the composer, took an active role in the program. She has created short fragments, based on letters and memoirs, which she recites to music in an emotionally charged yet reserved manner, amalgamating separate songs into a seamless whole.
Says Yodan, a long-time musical partner of Lerner’s: “Stella’s music is a free and flexible infrastructure for expressing the subtext of the lyrics, and the real-time ‘making’ of this musical-poetic material creates a synergy between Michal Bat-Adam and myself, which changes every time we revisit the show. For me, the text is a basis of my personal musical message. I am accompanying Michal’s voice as if it were a classical vocalist singing, and finding a specific sound for my own singing – fusing together classical technique and pop.”
Lerner describes the program “as an effort to create portraits of true poetesses, to pay homage to the exquisite Hebrew poetry and maybe to embrace and to soothe these tortured women. Neither Goldberg nor Zelda were born into Hebrew, yet they managed to create a poetic language which has become a national treasure and a beautiful tool for expressing the most subtle shades of emotion – and as such, has been taught in Israeli schools.”
She adds: “And here we approach a theme which interests me immensely: newcomers, who delve into a new and strange culture, occasionally contributing to it a lot. My explanation is that equipped with a rich original cultural background, they have an ability to see the culture of their new homeland with a wider perspective and by this contribute to it. These are cases of Goldberg and Zelda in Israel, of Serge Gainsbourg in France, George Gershwin in the US.”
Time will put everything in proportion, but Stella Lerner positively suits this line of creators.