Music: Taking it all on, at 90

Tzvi Avni’s drive to constantly explore new artistic territory led him beyond the strict confines of classical music.

Artistic director Boaz Ben-Moshe (photo credit: PR)
Artistic director Boaz Ben-Moshe
(photo credit: PR)
Tzvi Avni is a musician. Considering his track record, that might be considered an almost ludicrously simplistic summation of his professional standing. In fact, it is a fairly comprehensive accolade which reflects something of the astonishing breadth of the man’s creative output.
Avni has a work – Programme Music – in the lineup of the forthcoming Israeli Music Festival, which will take place in Haifa, Zichron Ya’acov, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem September 24-28. The free concerts will be held, in geographical and chronological order, at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art (September 24), Elma Center (September 25), Smolarz Auditorium of Tel Aviv University (September 26), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (September 27) and Jerusalem Theater (September 28).
Programme Music will be performed at the Smolarz Auditorium, along with works by Shimon Cohen, Oedoen Partos and Yehezkel Braun, with the latter based on an arrangement by Ilan Mochiach.
So why the parsimonious epithet for Avni’s endeavor? Simply because there seem to be no genre or stylistic boundaries to his oeuvre. A glance at his expansive bio reveals grand symphonic works, choral creations that feed off Jewish traditions, sonatas and electronic music. Add to that a deft little, wider appreciation-oriented, piece called “Sa’eini Imcha Bemahol,” which placed first in the 1961 Israel Song Festival contest, and works for a wide swath of solo instruments, taking in harp, clarinet, piano, flute, violin and cello, and even an intriguing confluence between percussion instruments and a tape recorder. One thing, at the very least, you can say about Avni is that the man is adventurous.
The official pretext for featuring Programme Music in this year’s Israeli Music Festival is Avni’s 90th birthday, which took place a couple of weeks ago. To call him sprightly would be to damn with faint praise. Avni appears to have imbibed the Peter Pan elixir of eternal youth. He maintains a busy writing schedule, and his works are regularly performed abroad. In fact, I was fortunate to catch him in the country, betwixt a family trip to Britain and yet another professional foray to Germany, his country of birth.
“I am going to Saarbrücken,” he says. “I have written a new version of a work of mine. Everyone wants premieres,” he adds with a chuckle. From there, it’s on to Berlin, where there will be a concert devoted to Avni’s works, as well as pieces by some of the composer’s guiding lights, including Paul Ben-Haim and Mordecai Seter.
Avni comes over as a gentle character, and his eyes bear a constant look of almost childlike curiosity. The man clearly has no plans to slow down. But he does have plans, in abundance, for future creative pursuits.
Eclectic undertakings notwithstanding, Avni defines himself mostly as a writer of classical music.
“I call it artistic music,” he notes. “To my mind, artistic music is the most fascinating intellectual challenge in the field of music. When you hear jazz – I’m not an expert in jazz – you see that it talks to people, you hear that there, too, there are structures and developments across some spatial expanse. But if you take something like a Beethoven symphony, the hierarchies there are so logical, so communicative in different spheres, and also incorporate philosophical standpoints. That talks; it is intelligent. For me, that is the pinnacle of music. You know, Nietzsche said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’ That says it all.”
At the age of eight, Avni made aliya with his parents. They set up their humble home in Haifa and tried to get by financially, socially and culturally. The youngster, whose early education included a stint at a French-language-based Alliance school, encountered new sights, smells and sounds.
“We lived in Wadi Nisnas [in Haifa],” he recalls. “We had Arab neighbors. I took all of that in, naturally.”
Over the years, Avni has taken on board all sorts of influences, although he didn’t get started until what he terms as “pretty late.” The latter observation was made in response to a question about why he has never tried his hand at conducting.
“I didn’t learn to read music until I was 16,” he explains. For the nonmusicians, that may not seem overly sluggish, but it seems professionals need to get up and running ASAP.
Perhaps it is down to the multicultural educational landscape of Avni’s earliest years, in Germany, or the stirring sights, sounds and colors that assailed his infant senses when he relocated to the Middle East, from Saarbrücken, in southwest Germany, but Avni has maintained a keen sense of inquisitiveness throughout his life.
Initially self-taught, he moved up several knowledge-enhancing gears, studying with some of the country’s seminal composers, including Ben-Haim and Seter, both recipients of the Israel Prize for music.
Avni followed in their glittering kudos path when he received the country’s highest cultural award, in 2001, from now disgraced former president Moshe Katsav. Avni’s list of awards makes for impressive reading, and takes in the Prime Minister’s Prize (1998), ACUM Prize (1986) and Emet Prize (2015).
Following a 2016 recital at the Saarbrücken music conservatory, the school’s authorities sprung a surprise on Avni. They led him to the conservatory auditorium and unveiled a plaque which revealed that the hall had been named after him. It was an emotive experience for the composer.
“I had no idea they were going to do that,” he laughs. “Considering we had to flee Germany in order to survive, that was moving for me.”
Avni’s drive to constantly explore new artistic territory led him beyond the strict confines of classical music. The early 1960s found him exploring new ground in the United States. It was around that time that he came across the groundbreaking works of French-born early 20th-century composer Edgar Varèse, who is known as “the father of electronic music.” That’s quite a leap, to make the move from, say, Beethoven’s Ninth to the material of someone who perceived sonic tracts as “sound masses” and talked about concepts such as “organized sound” and “crystallization.”
But for someone like Avni who always looks at the broader picture, it was simply the next instinctive step to take. “Let’s say it was a natural process in the Sixties. I was a young man, and it was a developing medium which, in fact, started back in the 1940s.” Lady Luck also came into the equation. “I came to New York and someone arranged a meeting for me with Varèse,” he says. In fact, that was quite a feather in the then-young composer’s cap. Not every Tom, Dick or Tzvi got to meet one of the iconic composers of the 20th century.
“Years later, when I was on a sabbatical in the United States, and people heard I’d met Varèse, they all wanted to touch me. ‘You met Varèse! You spoke to him!’ they exclaimed,” Avni notes with a smile.
The great man was duly impressed with Avni’s work up to that point, and gave him a helpful push in the right direction.
“‘What can I do for you?’ he said to me,” Avni recalls. “I told him I’d like to study with him a bit, but he told me ‘You don’t need it. You want me to teach you my tricks? You find your own tricks.’ He asked Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia University to take me in to the electronic music department.”
Avni’s variegated mind-set also takes in painting and poetry, and he has written works that feed off the inspirational genius of such artists as Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso and Dali. Avni is also a dab hand at canvas work himself.
“I’d like to get back to painting soon,” he says. “The problem is finding the time.”
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