Beethoven: 250 years and counting

The Pianos Festival will be performed at the event’s regular berth of the Jerusalem Theater, November 11 to 14.

NIZAR EL-KHATER will team up with the Jerusalem Street Orchestra in a wide-ranging sonata-based program. (photo credit: SAMER KHESHAIBUON)
NIZAR EL-KHATER will team up with the Jerusalem Street Orchestra in a wide-ranging sonata-based program.
(photo credit: SAMER KHESHAIBUON)
Once upon a time, long before the Internet was envisaged, knowledge was less compartmentalized. A doctorate, for example, might encompass such seemingly diverse areas as philosophy, art history, German studies and philology. But, these days, a PhD student will typically submit a thesis on some narrowly defined subfield that investigates the minutiae of some obscure area of information stashed away in the nether strata of consciousness.
Fast forward several decades from those bygone more inclusive days, and you find marketing professionals tagging the work of musicians as pertaining to some neatly categorized genre or subgenre. That, they believe, helps the consumer to arrow in on the particular product they are pushing and boost sales which, after all, is the point of the commercial exercise.
However, ask any musician worth his or her salt where cultural divides run and they will, no doubt, respond with something along the lines of “music is just music.” That line of thinking is central to the forthcoming Pianos Festival, the eighth annual edition of which will be performed at, and made virtually accessible from, the event’s regular berth of the Jerusalem Theater, November 11 to 14.
This year’s four-dayer focuses on the preeminent and richly varied oeuvre of Ludwig van Beethoven, marking the 250th anniversary of the classical composer’s birth. It is, of course, a matter of conjecture to consider whether Beethoven would have been open to the eclectic range of approaches to his music fused by perennial festival artistic director Michael Wolpe.
But we are, after all, here in the Middle East and, no matter how many concerts – in normal times, that is – are proffered here to the faithful audiences across the calendar featuring much-loved works by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin et al, the base culture in this part of the world does not feed directly off European sentiments.

TRUE TO his own all-encompassing artistic approach, composer, conductor, arranger and educator Wolpe has clearly taken that into account in putting together a program that covers numerous musical and ethnic bases in seamless fashion. Consider the “Jerusalem Orchestra East & West plays Beethoven” concert on November 12 (8 p.m.). Over the past decade or so the ensemble has put out all manner of works and interpretations under its innovative founder artistic director and conductor Tom Cohen. This time round, Cohen and the gang will play one of Beethoven’s best-known works, the Fifth Symphony in C minor with its instantly recognizable opening bars, a stirring piece that has been performed, recorded and woven into commercials for over two centuries.
The orchestra’s online slot augments the musical centerpiece with a variety of works from the Arab world, with Iraqi music-leaning rocker Dudu Tassa and pianist Omri Mor joining the East & West fray. Initially starting out as a classicist, Mor soon branched out into more improvisational areas, delving deeply into jazz and subsequently mining the rich sonorous seams of Andalusian music to create his potently seasoned Andalujazz style. It promises to be an enjoyable and enriching experience for viewer-listeners of the more open-eared and open-minded persuasion, taking in works by Algerian singer Dahmane El Harrachi, Egyptian composer and instrumentalist Mohammed el-Qasabgi, and by Jewish Iraqi siblings Saleh and Daud Al-Kuwaiti. The latter was Tassa’s grandfather.
You can also count on getting a multifarious offering earlier on the second day, at 5 p.m., when dynamic pianist Guy Mintus and his trio, with bassist Alon Nir and drummer Jonathan Rosen, sink their capable molars into their Beethoven Project. The online audience will, no doubt, be surprised by stylistic liberties Mintus & co. take with the great master’s scores as the pianist’s arrangements take in jazz, groove, flamenco and oriental music. These days, Mintus increasingly tends to overlay his scintillating keyboard technique with some vocal toppings, so that may very well come into the equation too.
When it comes to local pianists with lofty international profiles, few can compete with Nizar El-Khater. The 35-year-old global frontrunner has been ever-present since the festival started out and has been wowing music lovers from all four corners of planet Earth for some years now. This time round, El-Khater joins forces with the Jerusalem Street Orchestra and conductor Ido Shpitalnik who, together, have been presenting Western classical music at – literally – street level for the past seven years. In that time they have also mixed it with artists of more pop-rock persuasions, and clearly fit the Wolpe across-the-board embracing musical bill.
Today, and for eons now, the works of Beethoven and his similarly revered professional counterparts have been largely performed in grand auditoria, with conductor, instrumentalists and, indeed, patrons generally bedecked in their finest accoutrement. Attending a classical concert is an event of almost sacred proportions with strict decorum the order of the day.
But, back in the day, it was a very different matter. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what is now generically termed classical music was just the contemporary sounds that reflected the evolving zeitgeist. In the literary world, long before Beethoven came into view, for example, it is said that people of all social standing used to saunter in from the street to catch a Shakespearean play being performed at the Globe Theater in London. While the Bard is - quite rightly – today considered one of humanity’s greatest men of letters, during his time there was little in the way of kowtowing or hushed reverence in his presence or when one of his works was being staged.
That also applies, very much, to the musical sphere, and El-Khater feels the Jerusalem Street Orchestra embodies and conveys that very same unpretentious ethos by bringing the music to “the common man.”
“That gets rid of the situation in which you all sit quietly in the hall, holding your coughing in until the few moments between the movements,” he laughs. “Back when Beethoven and the other great composers were alive and presenting their music, people would mill around in the hall, and even shout out for their favorite work to be played.” The pianist also notes the artistic interface between the lauded English playwright and German composer, despite the wide temporal gap between their lifetimes.
“Beethoven firmly believed in the simple approach. He did have very strong ties with royalty and dukes, but he was definitely a person of the street.”
There is also a purported connection between composer and playwright with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17, which at some stage, took on the “Tempest” moniker, referencing the last work known to have been written solo by Shakespeare.
While the “Tempest” sonata is not in the El-Khater Jerusalem Street Orchestra lineup, there will be plenty of fireworks and lyrical gems on offer. The November 12 (10 p.m.) repertoire includes the Sonata for Strings in F major based on Beethoven’s arrangement for Sonata No. 9 in E major, with El-Khater taking the stage to play the ever-popular “Moonlight” sonata and an intriguing fusion of the composer’s Pathétique – aka Sonata no. 8 in C minor – based on El-Khater’s arrangement for piano and strings.
THE PROGRAM will also include a few words of enlightenment about the composer and, particularly, his less well-documented earlier years, courtesy of the pianist.
“I won’t be giving a lecture,” El-Khater explains. “I will just say a few words about Beethoven and his life, and about a few important points relating to the special arrangement of the “Pathétique.” Both sonatas were written earlier in Beethoven’s life, and I think people don’t know so much about that time.” Like everyone else, El-Khater would rather play to an auditorium packed with actual human beings, but he feels there are some benefits to be gained from the imposed physical distancing.
“I think that this coronavirus period allows people more time to really listen – to classical music too. They key is to listen without being judgmental. I believe that, right now, people have longer attention spans and can really listen to the music.”
Sounds good.
Other noteworthy slots on the bejeweled Pianos Festival agenda – they are plentiful – include Ilan Volkov and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO)’s readings of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” Overture in E major, and Piano Concerto No. 4, featuring Bishara Harouni as soloist, with the JSO also front and center for the festival closer on November 14 (8:30 p.m.). This time, however, the orchestra will have some hefty vocal support, in the shape of the Capellatte-Oratorio Jerusalem Choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir and the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, under conductor Ziv Cojocaru. The sumptuous finale takes in the Egmont Overture in F minor, Piano Concerto No. 5, in E-flat major, “The Emperor” with Tomer Lev filling the soloist berth, and the Choral Fantasy, with pianist Dorel Golan.
Elsewhere, pianist Orit Wolf plays and discusses works composed by Beethoven for Duke Rudolf of Austria, Beethoven’s most faithful of patrons. The lecture-concert will feature, inter alia, episodes from Beethoven’s Trio for piano, violin, and cello in B-flat major (“The Archduke”), Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major (“Les Adieux”) and Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major (“Hammerklavier”).
Meanwhile, the more left-field side of the festival program includes the “Shabbat Songs from Beethoven to Shemer,” with the now-traditional Kabbalat Shabbat concert led by pianist and arranger David Sebba, with the vocal firepower provided by sopranos Goni Cnaani and Hadar Atari. The threesome will perform Israeli songs that dialogue with Beethoven’s “Lieder,” while pianist Andy Feldbau will push the Beethovenesque boat a little further with a lineup of rock and pop songs, and numbers from musicals, based on his solo piano arrangements for hits by Queen, Whitney Houston, and Lady Gaga, songs from Cats, the Eurovision contest and movie music.
Happy 250th, Ludwig.