Israel Contemporary Players: Music for the age

Hungarian-born composer Dan Yuhas established the ensemble 25 years ago.

The Israel Contemporary Players in action (photo credit: YAEL YUHAS)
The Israel Contemporary Players in action
(photo credit: YAEL YUHAS)
Art, by definition, must keep up with the times. Yet people all over the world still thrill to the stirring sound of, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – written almost two centuries ago.
While Dan Yuhas has no problem with people packing concert halls to the rafters to listen to works that were created long before they were born, he would also like us to keep up with the times.
Hungarian-born composer Yuhas is doing his bit to keep contemporary classical music at the forefront of our cultural agendas. His principal line of endeavor in the forward-looking sector of the music industry sprang into life a quarter of a century ago when he established the Israel Contemporary Players ensemble, which is dedicated to the performance, and commissioning, of works from the 20th and 21st centuries.
The milestone silver anniversary will be marked by a series of attractive concerts that Yuhas has lined up for the ensemble’s forthcoming season. It kicks off with a typically eclectic program featuring Pierrot on the Stage of Desire by British composer Roger Redgate, also known for his forays into jazz and other improvised fare, György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, which premiered in 1970, and Stravinsky’s entertaining Ragtime and Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II with Israeli composer Eitan Steinberg.
The first slot will be performed at the Tel Aviv Museum on October 31 and at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem on November 1, under Hungarian conductor Zsolt Nagy. The season’s stylistic and genre spread becomes even more expansive on November 14, with a performance of Israeli pianist and composer Osnat Netzer’s two-act opera The Wondrous Woman Within at the Cameri Theater.
While delighted with the ensemble’s continuing success, Yuhas says he invests plenty of sweat and elbow grease to keep his frontier-pushing musical craft on course. “It is not easy. There is a lot of work involved in this.” There are also rewards to be had, and Yuhas says he is proud of the ensemble’s trailblazing activities over the last 25 years. “The Israel Contemporary Players play a cardinal role in the development of contemporary music in Israel. Before us there you couldn’t find much of it here.”
Yuhas became aware of the local market need after spending time in a very different cultural milieu. “I came back to Israel from Paris. I saw that the [contemporary music] scene there had developed so well, and that the French ensembles and musicians performed new works in an appropriate manner.”
The latter, says Yuhas, is pivotal to the chances of disseminating the genre as far and as wide as possible, and is an element that is unique to more modern and less well-known works. “If people go to a concert of a popular classical piece, say by Beethoven, it is less important if the rendition is a bit substandard because they are aware of how the work is supposed to sound and they can gauge the quality of the performance,” he explains. “But with us, execution is all-important. If you don’t perform a contemporary work correctly, the audience only hears the way you play it. The audience does not have the means to know how the work should be rendered.
So it is important to perform a contemporary work correctly and accurately.”
As anyone who has dabbled in the world of business will tell you, you’ve got to cultivate a market for your wares.
It is no good having the best product around if you haven’t got a consumer hinterland to which to proffer your “gift to humankind.” Yuhas and his colleagues have been doing their utmost to let people know they are around, and that they have something new and exciting to offer. “We have given lectures and held discussions prior to concerts,” says Yuhas. And the fruits are being harvested. “We have a pretty sizable subscriber list for our concerts at the Tel Aviv Museum, and we give concerts in Jerusalem that are broadcast live on the radio. We laid the foundations for the other ensembles of various sizes that followed us in performing contemporary works.”
Yuhas says he has always gone for quality. “We have brought over the best conductors in Europe to perform works, and we have the best players available in ensemble. Our ensemble is well-known worldwide; we are invited to festivals and we get wonderful responses to our excellent programs.”
That should be the case with the forthcoming season of concerts. Yuhas has not only gone for intriguing quality fare, he will also introduce us to works by creators from a wide range of cultures.
The repertoire features offerings by composers such Madrid-based Argentinean Fabian Panisello, who will be on hand to conduct his own instrumental suite from The Misunderstanding, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura, who resides in London, and Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders.
Twentieth-century works are also in the new season mix, including Neapolitan Songs by Hans Werner Henze and Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Russian composer Edison Denisov. Yuhas is equally keen to ensure that Israeli composers get an opportunity to strut their stuff on home ground, and the domestic lineup includes Yuhas’s own Tenuot for cello and ensemble, a new work by Nizan Leibovich and Drowned In C by Naama Zisser.
Yuhas says there are benefits from accessing potential fans of contemporary music who are complete novices in the classical music sector. “It is much harder for someone who has grown up on Beethoven to make the transition to contemporary, while it is much easier for people who grew up without classical music to listen to modern works.” According to the Israel Contemporary Players founder, it does not necessarily follow that the younger the person the more likely they are to be more amenable to the ensemble’s programs. “We have people who have been on our subscriber list for 21 years, so they are no longer so young,” he laughs.
Yuhas is aware of what he is up against.
“Almost all of the orchestras in Israel are conservative in their selection of repertoire, and we know we have to keep up the good fight. But we are optimistic.”
A quarter of a century after he started his groundbreaking troupe, Yuhas has every reason to be hopeful.
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