Musicians with a mission

Omri Epstein says that the vast majority of classical musicians currently have to muddle through in far less nurturing conditions.

(photo credit: KAUPO KIKKAS)
Omri Epstein wants us to know more about what he does. Actually, not just what he does, but what goes into the performance of any classical musician the world over.
Thirty-three-year-old Epstein is an Israeli-born pianist who currently resides in Amsterdam. He earns a crust primarily as a member of the Busch Trio, along with his cellist younger brother Ori and 31-year-old Dutch violinist Mathieu van Bellen.
The threesome are coming over here next week to perform two concerts at this year’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival, which takes place down south January 22-25. The trio’s Eilat repertoire takes in works by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
Before we shell out our hard-earned cash on tickets to a classical concert, most of us presumably consider the proffered repertoire and musician lineup. We sit in our comfy auditorium seats and train our eyes and ears on the onstage action and, hopefully, are transported to higher emotional and cerebral climes, awash with the deft and sensitive rendition of the instrumentalists and/or vocalists.
But do we ever stop to consider how the musicians achieve the requisite level of technical expertise and emotional expression? It’s odds-on that, for the majority of us, the unequivocal answer to that one is no.
Before long, should we happen to be in the Netherlands in the vicinity of Amsterdam, we will be able to get a far wider and more down-to-earth picture of the machinations of the classical music scene.
Epstein says that the members of the close-knit group are willing to put it all out there to improve their lot and make life easier for their fellow professionals. “Our entire lives, at least currently, are focused on the trio. We are friends, we take vacations together, we spend all day together in rehearsal, or traveling to concerts. We want, to some extent, to leave our mark, to change, wherever possible, the lives or the conditions in which the others [musicians] work.”
That goes way beyond the regular concert circuit, and Epstein discloses something of the nitty-gritty and grind behind the glittering onstage performances. “Over the years, we studied at universities and conservatories. You rehearse in those awful training rooms which are not soundproofed, are too hot or too cold, the pianos are terrible with awful acoustics. Then you ask yourself what future music has if the musicians themselves are not in a position where they can say what I do has potential, I hear, I see, the focus of development is on me – without all the obstacles which prevent us from progressing.”
The Epsteins and van Bellen have had some good behind-the-scenes times, too, and they are looking to enjoy and provide that on a long-term basis.
“We studied at a wonderful, prestigious institution in Brussels, which offered fantastic conditions for us to work. We really noticed how much that gave us, and allowed us to focus on the music and creation.
“But we thought, in a year or two we’ll be leaving this place, and what will happen then? Then, we thought, we’ll have to work in someone’s house with an upright piano, or go to conservatory, and then, every hour or two, someone will pop in, and then we’ll have to look for another room.”
It just wasn’t on.
BUSCH TRIO at the 2018 Eilat festival (Credit: Maxim Reider)BUSCH TRIO at the 2018 Eilat festival (Credit: Maxim Reider)
“Musical work must not be limited,” the pianist declares. “It has to be free. The creative soul has to have the whole world open to it, to go left or right, or go back. It is only in that way that you can discover all the nuances of the creative soul.”
Rather than spending their time bemoaning their lot, the threesome decided to do something about it, for the good of musicians one and all. They began looking for a place where they could channel their energies and frustration, and realize their dream of creating an accommodating facility where they and their counterparts could simply, and wholly, concentrate on their art.
“I said let’s look for a center that take care of exactly that,” Epstein continues. “In our world there is such a strong focus on the finished product. The audience knows us as musicians who are always on the stage, in the spotlight, in our suits. They applaud us. We always have to play the music perfectly. We always have to be at our best.”
Epstein feels there is added value to be had, both for performers and music consumers, if the latter gain a handle on the process behind the artists delivering the goods. “We musicians are not actually judged – among ourselves – by the end product which is called a performance, or a CD. It is a process of development in which you process your physical flexibility and reflexivity of the brain. It is a process whereby you are constantly discovering new things. You work with yourself and the music.”
That line of thought eventually led to Muzikhaven, a music center with a difference.
“We, the musicians, gain confidence from the actual process,” Epstein explains. “So, we thought, let’s establish a center which tells the world and the musicians: OK, so you gave another successful concert, you slept well, you were hungry, you were sick, you felt well. The concert is just a moment in time. But how about if we share all of that with everyone?”
That, the members of the trio hope, will become possible at the aforementioned facility, which is currently undergoing renovation work at a place called Zaandam. The facility in the making incorporates a disused church which is being converted into a rehearsal and performance space.
“Because it is a large area that allows the musician to practice in acoustics conditions that are similar to the concert hall,” Epstein notes, “that is much better than rehearsing in a tiny room somewhere.”
When complete, Muzikhaven will incorporate the said large space as well as a three-story rectory, which will provide accommodation for up to 10 musicians at a time.
“They will be able to stay for a week or two, as sort of artists in residence,” says Epstein.
To date, the members of the trio have raised around 80% of the funds for the renovations, instruments and other equipment, and hope to have Muzikhaven up and fruitfully running within a year.
“We want musicians to come and record there, to spend a week or two, working at their own pace. They will be able to work 24 hours a day if they want. There’s a large garden there, food, places to sleep, whatever they need.”
It all seems perfectly natural, although, amazingly, thus far, as Epstein says, the vast majority of classical musicians currently have to muddle through in far less nurturing conditions.
“We hope this will help people take on board the fact that there is a place, and a philosophy, whereby the statement and work of the musicians takes on a different meaning. And we want the audience to come and, instead of listening to a concert, they can quietly come into the hall to listen to a rehearsal and watch musicians in their pajamas working for four hours to grasp the full meaning of a single musical phrase. That could help people understand more about the music.”
Epstein says there is great profit to be gained from thinking big. “In the normal practice rooms we try, in an abstract way, to communicate what we do to an abstract audience, before we get on the stage for an hour or two. So, if you develop your [musical] statement in the conditions in which it should exist, that is very different.”
Sounds like a definitive win-win situation.
For tickets and more information about the Eilat Chamber Music Festival: