Taking a smooth bow

When Sivan started playing with Tiefenbrunn, a brave new world opened up for her.

Shlomit Sivan likes to keep things running smoothly. For a mother of three, that is something of a prerequisite of daily life, but it is also central to her musical output.
In addition to attending to her regular pressing domestic demands, Sivan earns a crust as first violinist and general manager – a.k.a. chief cook and bottle washer – of the Barrocade ensemble.
Our paths crossed a week or so ago, at a rehearsal at St. John’s Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, and again a couple of days later, when the troupe performed at the House of the Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia. Both events were part of the MustonenFest festival, founded and administered by Estonian conductor-violinist Andres Mustonen. The festival takes in performances in Estonia and Russia every January, and for the past four years has incorporated an Israeli leg in February.
This year’s Tallinn-Tel Aviv program will run from February 13 to March 1, with concerts lined up at various locations around the country, including the Tel Aviv Museum, the Performing Arts Center next door, the Jerusalem Theater, Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv, the Music Center in Ashdod, the Weill Auditorium in Kfar Shmaryahu and Abu Gosh. The fortnight-plus lineup includes a slew of top performers and ensembles from Israel and Estonia, taking in some of Mustonen’s homeland’s leading instrumentalists and choristers.
Mustonen is not only a dynamic performer who has gained great popularity with audiences up and down the country over the years, he also has a natural bent for cooking up surprising fusions of artistic directions.
Barrocade’s “I Am Bach” slot, which will be performed several times during the festival – at Kfar Shmaryahu on February 21, Tel Aviv Museum on the following two days and at Kiryat Ye’arim Church, Abu Ghosh, on February 25 – takes in a multitude of artistic sensibilities. It is the sum of several stellar parts, including solo vocalists soprano Yeela Avital and alto Alon Harari, the fabulous Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir of Estonia, which was founded in 2010 by its conductor Endrik Üksvärav, and veteran actor-comedian Shlomo Bar-Abba.
Sivan has been very much in the Barrocade mix from the outset.
“I founded the ensemble together with [viola da gamba player] Amit [Tiefenbrunn],” says the violinist. “We are the founding fathers,” she adds with a laugh. “The idea for Barrocade came from Amit, who is the artistic director of the group and also builds all our instruments. That was around 10 years ago. He decided it was time to put together an orchestra with a subscriber series.”
Musicians are generally blessed with an innate sense of timing, and Tiefenbrunn’s proved to be spot on. “Back then, 10 musicians came back to Israel after studies in Europe, and who learned to play this style of ancient music,” Sivan explains.
The returnees were duly recruited to the new Baroque musical venture, and were driven by a new frontier spirit, and that is still the case.
“We all performed on a sort of volunteer basis for the first two years. In fact, we all contributed to cover the costs of hiring halls, transport, etc. Everyone who was involved then, and the ones who are with us today, [performed and] perform with a burning desire to play the music, because they feel it is important. They are committed musicians, and they feel there is a need for the music.”
The proof of that idealistic pudding is very much in the eating and the subsequent consumer response. “It is no accident that early music is enjoying such popularity all over Europe,” Sivan observes. “When we started out, there was very little of that music being played here.”
The troupe kept its collective nose to its musical grindstone, and eventually also began to get by with a little help from an official friend. “We started receiving a very small allowance from the Culture Administration [of the Culture Ministry],” Sivan explains.
But it soon turned out that the modest support provided by the state had been outstripped by the people who really mattered – members of the music-loving general public.
“Over the years, we acquired an enormous following,” Sivan continues. “We sell over 10,000 tickets per season, and we have close to 1,000 subscribers, which means that we cover 80% of our outgoings through our own revenue. There is not a single orchestral body in Israel that can claim such a financial coverage balance.”
The Barrocade project had, it appeared, hit the entertainment nail on the head. “We discovered that we were offering people what they wanted. We cooked the stew just the way people wanted. Our audience comprises people from the age of 60, and people responded so enthusiastically to our concerts. I remember the applause we received following one of our first concerts, and to me it felt like we had just played to a rock concert audience. The applause was amazing.”
That was, of course, a much-needed fillip for the relatively new undertaking, and it was a sign of good things to come. “We felt wonderful with the audience’s reaction, and we didn’t need to bring any big guns over from abroad to get people to come to our concerts,” Sivan notes. “They came to hear us.”
Sivan’s path to musical excellence began on piano, to which she quickly added recorder, and it was only after pestering her musician parents for quite a while that she was eventually allowed to add the violin to her abundant instrumental hinterland. That was at the tender age of eight.
“I saw someone playing the violin, and I was drawn to the way he made the sounds,” she recalls. “I really wanted to play that instrument.”
The youngster made good progress and was recognized as an Outstanding Musician by the IDF, and so was able to maintain her artistic progression through her military stint. A subsequent berth with the prestigious Israel Chamber Orchestra came to a premature end, and Sivan found herself, at the age of 30, wondering where to go next. Fortuitously, her path soon crossed Tiefenbrunn’s, and the seed for Barrocade was well and truly sown.
“Amit had been performing ancient music for some time, and he showed me how to play a Baroque violin and how to relate to the music,” says Sivan.
It proved to be a professional and personal epiphany. “When you are a classical violinist or violist, you are taught to make the grandest sound you can. It has to be absolutely uniform, too, in terms of the force,” she continues. And then there’s the matter of vibrato. “If you want to express something, that is all done through vibrato with the left hand.”
When Sivan started playing with Tiefenbrunn, a brave new world opened up for her. “The whole dynamic of playing early chamber music was different from everything I had been taught over the years. The emphasis was on the interior dynamic, within the bar, within the single sound which is not uniform in terms of its dynamics. And it was so wonderful to play legato [non-staccato].”
There will plenty of dynamics on offer at the “I Am Bach” concerts, with Bar-Abba playing interim vignettes portraying an elderly J.S. Bach who has to make a momentous decision concerning his composer son C.P.E. Bach.
With the silky skills of Sivan, Tiefenbrunn and the rest of the Barrocade gang, the soloists and yet another wonderful choir from Estonia, “I Am Bach,” like the rest of the MustonenFest Tallinn-Tel Aviv lineup, promises value for your money, and then some.
For tickets and more information: tallinntlv.co.il, (09) 956-9430 (Kfar Shmaryahu), (03) 607-7020 (Tel Aviv) and *6226 and (09) 885-1521 (Abu Ghosh).