By Rick Schultz
When members of the Israeli Chamber Project take the stage at the Jan Popper Theater in UCLA’s Schoenberg Music Building on Feb. 26, their interactions may provide a timely, if unintentional, example for U.S. residents and elected officials to follow amid today’s divisive political culture.
The ensemble’s leaderless music-making process — in the words of one of its pianists, Assaff Weisman — is comparable to the flexibility that successful politics demands.
“The ever-changing role of who leads a piece requires consensus and great respect for each other,” Weisman said. “When we’re on stage, we share in the duties of leadership to make a cohesive whole. Everybody contributes.”
Founded in 2008, the Project consists of distinguished 30-something musicians who get together throughout the year for chamber concerts and educational and outreach programs in Israel, the U.S. and other countries. It currently has 11 members, plus guest artists, who are deployed in different numbers and configurations depending on the program.
At UCLA, three Project members — Weisman, Carmit Zori on violin and Sivan Magen on harp — will take turns performing duets by J. S. Bach, Sebastian Currier, Carlos Salzedo, Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók.
Weisman, who offstage leads the group as its executive director, said “project” is the important word in its name. “We see our mission as ongoing, not finite,” he said. “We’re all about bringing music to as wide a public as possible.”
The UCLA concert, which will begin with Bach’s early 18th-century Sonata for Harpsichord and Violin in B Minor (BMV 1014), arranged for harp by Magen, follows the ensemble’s usual innovative programming of old and new music, except that this time it is traveling light.
“We’re doing a series of duos, which is unusual for us,” Weisman said. “We usually travel with a bigger group.”
Currier’s “Night Time” Suite for harp and violin from 2000, which follows Bach’s sonata, has a special place in the ensemble’s repertory — they performed it for their debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2012.
“The suite’s five short movements traverse different stages of the night,” Weisman said. “They are restless, quietly introspective pieces full of mystery.”
Weisman said he is especially excited about Salzedo’s 1922 Sonata for Harp and Piano. Indeed, the program at UCLA should be a feast for lovers of that ethereal instrument. Salzedo, a French harpist, pianist, composer and conductor from a Sephardic family, who died in 1961, also founded the harp program at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, which became The Juilliard School.
“There are not many works for harp and piano, and this is one of the best,” Weisman said. “It hardly ever gets performed. We try to take risks, and whether we’re performing old or new music, we push the envelope when we can.”
The idea for the Project came from its founder, Tibi Cziger, an Israeli clarinetist who is now its artistic director. Cziger, like Weisman, began his music studies in Israel and continued them at Juilliard.
“There was little to no support for the arts in Israel, so Tibi saw another way for us to develop our careers and address the musical brain-drain at home,” Weisman said. “Our mission became to give back to the places where we started — Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Haifa area — and to address a situation where musicians are compelled to find a career path elsewhere.”
Weisman recalled the group’s first tour of Israel, during which the musicians found themselves performing a folk piece by Bartók in a small jazz club in the middle of the Negev Desert.
“Children came with their parents and grandparents, and they sat on the floor,” Weisman said. “There was an upright piano that didn’t function well, but I made do. We played Bartók’s ‘Contrasts,’ a trio for clarinet, violin and piano. They were engaged. We saw that as proof that even a challenging piece can go over well in the strangest places.”
As cultural ambassadors, the ensemble has worked with a diverse cross-section of Israeli society, including the Orthodox, Israeli Arabs and Russian immigrants. Its impact and excellence was recognized in 2011 when it was named the winner of the Israeli Ministry of Culture Outstanding Ensemble Award.
In addition to their performances, the Project’s members also give master classes throughout Israel, as well as in the U.S. and Canada. In 2016, the group made its debut in China.
Another part of the group’s mission is supporting the next generation of composers by commissioning new works. In June, it will perform the premiere of a clarinet quintet by Menachem Wiesenberg, and in 2018 it will debut a new work for harp, strings and clarinet by Gilad Cohen.
After its performance at UCLA, the ensemble is scheduled to travel to Israel for a series of concerts from March 21-25, to New York for concerts in April, then back to Israel for a tour in June.
Weisman said the focus of the ensemble’s work and discussions in Israel is usually centered on music, not politics.
“Our interactions with all segments of Israel’s diverse society have always been filled with mutual respect and understanding,” Weisman said. “I find people are happy to leave politics at the door. But by focusing on music, we can, at least momentarily, break down some of the barriers of cultural identity, language and religion.”
The Israeli Chamber Project performs Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. as part of the free Chamber Music at the Clark series at the Jan Popper Theater in the Schoenberg Music Building at UCLA, 445 Charles E. Young Drive, East. Tickets are awarded by lottery. For information on how to enter the lottery, go to 1718.ucla.edu/lottery-info.