Two of Israel’s musical talents to watch, currently collaborating on a series of concerts around Europe, are returning home for the festive season and offering a treat at the Jerusalem Music Centre.
Pianist Eran Sulkin and clarinetist Jonathan Leibovitz have been invited as part of the Youth at the Center concert series, performing Debussy and Brahms among their pieces at their December 30 lunchtime concert.
The Jerusalem Music Centre is the leading Israeli institute advancing young gifted musicians from all over the country and serves as an international music center in Jerusalem. It was founded in 1973 by legendary violinist Isaac Stern and Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
“It’s lovely to come home,” said Sulkin. “There is great enthusiasm for classical music in Israel, particularly around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As well as our performance, I am looking forward to seeing my family and performing in a smaller arena for them at our private Hanukkah event,” adds Sulkin. The 25-year-old has performed concerts in Israel and abroad, such as Lübeck, Germany, at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival masterclasses, and the 2018 Aspen Music Festival in the US. Since joining the internationally renowned Guildhall School of Music in London, he has appeared at its summer Chamber Festival. He is a first-prize winner of Tel Aviv’s Israel Music Conservatory.
His relationship with internationally renowned clarinetist Jonathan Leibovitz stems from their childhood – both growing up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and attending the same schools, orchestras and even army unit as musical prodigies. Leibovitz – currently a student of the Music Academy in Basel, Switzerland – has won glittering accolades such as the Arthur Waser Prize, for which he was awarded 25,000 Swiss francs.
In Jerusalem sat down with Sulkin to learn more about the talented man at the piano.
How did you get this opportunity to perform at the Jerusalem Music Centre?
Both Jonathan and I had been a part of the center’s chamber music program for young students – when we were 15 to 18. We would sometimes travel to Jerusalem for performances at the Jerusalem Music Centre, but our coaching was usually in Tel Aviv because that’s where we were based.
We established connections when growing up with some of the main people in the center, such as Uri Dror, who is a violinist and a music educator. He also runs the whole program of concerts taking place in the center. When Jonathan and I started working together last May, we thought it would be a good idea to contact the center, and Uri made us the offer to perform. This concert is a dual recital with clarinet and piano. We are playing Debussy, Brahms and Schumann among our six pieces. We are also playing Bartok, Romanian folk dances, which I think will be particularly fun.
How did your collaboration with Jonathan come about?
Jonathan and I have crossed paths many times. We are both from Givatayim. We studied together at the Thelma Yellin High School of Arts and have remained friends since then. We also studied at The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University. We were also in the same base in the army during our military service.
When I decided to move to the UK to study at the Guildhall School of Music in 2018, Jonathan was based in Basel so we only came across each other again last May when Jonathan was a finalist in an elite competition. He asked me to play with him in the competition, which went very well as Jonathan won! This means he will be supported in the next stage of his career.
Are there enough opportunities to perform classical music in Israel?
Firstly, the audiences here are very warm and quite large in numbers. For example, the big orchestras have a series of performances which are fully booked throughout the year. It gets more tricky when musicians are performing in smaller groups or want to perform solo piano recitals. There are lovely venues around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I think the skill is trying to connect those performers with the right venues in order to get the larger crowds.
What is your career highlight?
I think my recent performance with Jonathan in Edinburgh and performing at London’s Wigmore Hall. The performance in Edinburgh was well received by a very warm Scottish audience of 150 people. Most of them came to congratulate us on the stage after, which was wonderful. And, of course, performing at the Wigmore Hall at a world-leading venue was an incredible feeling.
Where did you receive your musical training?
I started playing the piano quite late – age 13. I was still very much on the road to being a professional footballer at Maccabi Tel Aviv, going to practice almost every day. My grandfather, who is the only true music enthusiast in our family but not a musician, heard about a renowned piano teacher, Natalia Blumenfeld. She realized I had talent but I was unfamiliar with basic elements of the piano. So she decided to invest her time – two or three lessons a week – to make me reach the true age group standard. She would even make me a snack in the middle of our sessions so I would have the energy to continue.
She helped me to develop musical taste and how to find my own voice in my playing. During that time, I had the opportunity to move to one of the main high schools for arts – Thelma Yellin – just outside Tel Aviv. Starting late is seen as a disadvantage because other people in your age group are already entering competitions. However, I think there is room for later developers, as I have proven. I also had the chance to pursue other loves – like football – until 13, which was important to me as well.
What is your favorite piece of music?
One of the pieces we are going to play in the concert is a piece by Johannes Brahms. It’s the Second Clarinet and Piano Sonata in E flat major, Opus 120, No. 2. Every time Jonathan and I breathe together and play the first note, I feel at home. At the moment, it is the piece that I want to play again and again and am really looking forward to performing it in Jerusalem.
How did you adapt as a musician during COVID-19?
COVID-19 was an interesting time for my development as a pianist. During the second UK lockdown (November 2020-March 2021), the music school remained open, and most of the students were online. It was quite terrible because the sound quality on Zoom for musicians is very, very low. But one of the positive aspects of being one of the few students who decided to stay in London was that the main hall had a piano available for most of the day, so I could practice freely.
So, I took that time to really work on my skill for myself, naturally. I think it has really paid off. Of course, not being able to perform was really awful for a lot of my friends, colleagues and for me personally. ❖
Tickets for the performance on Friday, December 30, at 12 noon are on the Jerusalem Music Centre website: jmc.org.il