A Mid-Winter Gift from Israel

Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg/Webern, Zohar Sharon, Brahms: Israeli Chamber Project, Town Hall, New York City. 9.2.2014 (BH)

Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie for Harp and Violin, Op. 124 (1907)
Schoenberg/Webern: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906/1923)
Zohar Sharon: The Ice Palace for clarinet, piano, harp, and string trio (2013)
Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (1891)

Israeli Chamber Project
Tibi Cziger, Clarinet
Michal Korman, Cello
Sivan Magen, Harp
Assaff Weisman, Piano
Itamar Zorman, Violin
Yonah Zur, Violin/Viola

The invaluable Peoples’ Symphony Concerts—its prices low enough to silence all complaints about “concerts being too expensive”—once again hit a home run with this sold-out afternoon at Town Hall by the Israeli Chamber Project (based in Israel and New York). Sivan Magen and Itamar Zorman included Saint-Saëns’s Fantaisie for Harp and Violin on the group’s first recording (called Opus 1). In this live version, emphasizing intimacy and clarity, they worked wonders with the composer’s delicate webs. Acute sensitivity to the roseate harmonies, melded with luxurious phrasing and immaculate intonation.

A taut reading of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony followed, in Webern’s spare arrangement, but in the ICP hands, one could easily forget that the original requires fifteen musicians. Despite Yohah Zur’s overly cautious Schoenberg introduction (though warm and well-meant) the quintet made the disparate moods hang together with a natural grace and zest that the composer surely would have admired. Michal Korman’s cello sizzle was particularly arresting, and made a fine contrast to the easy, effortless lyricism of Assaff Weisman’s piano.

In 1963 Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas wrote The Ice Palace, a novel about two girls on the verge of adolescence that became hugely popular at the time. Inspired by the book, Zohar Sharon created his piece for a sextet, and for two of the players, Sharon adds several Tibetan bowls, either struck like a bell or (as in the opening bars) rubbed to produce an austere, almost electronic timbre. His language is primarily tonal, with eerie sequences that suggest the book’s emotional turmoil, and the players’ sweeping assurance—coupled with, again, impressively accurate tuning—brought the score to life.

It always surprises me to find listeners who don’t care for Brahms, especially when presented with rapt performances like this one of his late Clarinet Trio. (I’ve expressed a similar sentiment elsewhere.) Tibi Cziger’s clarinet tone fused so naturally with Korman and Weisman’s cello and piano—all three in mellifluous balance—that it’s hard to believe this group was founded a little over five years ago. I can’t wait to see what they do in the next five years.

Bruce Hodges