Israeli Cellist Maya Beiser Makes Her Ojai Music Festival Debut

The Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser doesn’t give conventional recitals, and that’s an attractive calling card at the Ojai Music Festival, which prides itself on innovation and diversity. In its 69th year, the five-day festival starts June 10, with Beiser making three appearances in her Ojai debut.

On June 12, Beiser joins music director and percussionist Steven Schick — both are founding members of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars — for a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s touching “Mariel,” for cello and marimba. The concert also includes Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” a 25-minute score showcasing the virtuoso cellist’s range and employing “just intonation,” an ancient tuning system.

Things go more off trail on June 13, when Beiser, joined by bassist Gyan Riley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, uses her classical training in reimagining music by rockers Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Janis Joplin and Howlin’ Wolf. On June 14, the cellist brings Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s new “Kol Nidrei” to the festival, with Beiser singing the text in Aramaic while conjuring the score’s ancient cantorial styles. The concert also includes works by Chinary Ung, Bright Sheng and others.

“I grew up in a melting pot,” said Beiser, who was raised on a kibbutz in Galilee, in the northern region of Israel. “I heard Argentinian tango, Jacques Brel, and I was surrounded by Arabic music,” she said in a phone interview from her home in New York.

Beiser’s father, whom she called “a  Jewish gaucho,” grew up in a Jewish enclave on the South American pampas, became a Zionist and moved to Israel. He encouraged her love for the cello by playing old Pablo Casals recordings. Beiser’s French-Jewish mother brought Brel into the mix.

A turning point came in Beiser’s early life, when a teacher was needed, “but there was no cello teacher on the kibbutz,” she said. 

“I remember my father taking me through a barricaded area for cello lessons. There was such a sense of freedom, and I realized the cello was my ticket to the world. It would take me far away from the kibbutz.”

She was discovered by the great violinist Isaac Stern, and with his mentoring, Beiser’s international career took off. The cellist also pointed to her father’s high expectations as a driving force: “It was either Wimbledon or Carnegie Hall,” she said, referring to her other early talent, on the tennis court. “It was that Jewish blood thing, especially in the 1970s when I grew up. The sense that you have to accomplish something, and music resonated with me.”

Schick, the first percussionist to become music director in the Ojai Festival’s history, and who is also godfather to Beiser’s two children, revels in the cultural mix that she, and musicians such as Wu Man, a Chinese pipa player (a pipa is a four-string lute-like instrument), bring to the festival. 

“As percussionists, we presume this cultural intermingling,” Schick said. “We take it as part of our birthright, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Thomas W. Morris, artistic director of the festival, agreed. “The boundaries between genres is collapsing,” he said. “There are more possibilities than in the past, and Ojai needs this diversity of styles.”

Fairouz, a new composer to the festival, said Beiser is like a sister to him. “We are both creatures of the desert,” he said. “Essential storytellers. In my ‘Kol Nidrei,’ Maya captures the inherent theatricality of this ancient Aramaic prayer.”

Fairouz’s new cello concerto, composed for Beiser, will be given its premiere by the cellist in January 2016, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“I was immediately drawn to Momo,” Beiser said, using an affectionate name for Fairouz. “Our mutual history is compelling. He’s an incredible composer who happens to be a Muslim, Arabic Palestinian.”

Beiser attributes her multicultural and crossover musical inclinations to an early love of progressive rock, and especially of vocalist Janis Joplin. “I was a classical-music geek, but when I was about 15 or 16, I discovered Joplin,” Beiser said. “Her raw immediacy was such a revelation. I wanted to do that with the cello. There was this fearlessness of putting yourself out there.”

One way Beiser expands the range of her instrument is by switching back and forth from acoustic to electric. “I’ve always loved electronic music,” she said, citing the eclectic English musician Mike Oldfield and the electronic/experimental music superstar Laurie Anderson as role models. “Usually, when I play an electric cello, I process the sound, using the same pedals guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page used. I can make the cello sound like an electric guitar.” 

For Beiser, there is no single way to play music, whether it’s classical, rock or progressive. “When I began working with composers, I realized how relative all these things are,” she said. “Who says there can’t be 10 different ways something can be interpreted?”

The cellist realizes that straying far from the conventional may risk alienating both her classical and crossover audiences. 

“You have to trust your artistic impulses,” she said. “I want to make concert music a relevant art form for my generation. I think about taking a risk every day. If a path is too padded, you go into automatic pilot. I’ll always take a left turn at some point.”

For cellist Raphael Wallfisch, music is a family matter

For renowned British cellist Raphael Wallfisch, music always has been a family affair. He’s the son of cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who helped to found the English Chamber Orchestra. A survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she made her way to London, where she married pianist Peter Wallfisch. Raphael made his New York recital debut in 1990 with his father at the piano.

In another generational turn, Raphael’s composer-conductor son, Benjamin Wallfisch, leads the West Los Angeles Symphony at Royce Hall on April 12 in a program of works by Rossini, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Weber and Johann Strauss II. The son conducts his father in the original version (there’s an extra variation and different ordering of the variations) of Tchaikovsky’s cello and orchestra classic, “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” and in Dvořák’s lovely “Rondo in G minor” and “Silent Woods.”

One of the finest cellists of his generation, Raphael Wallfisch, 61, is celebrated for his sumptuous, big-hearted tone. His latest albums for Nimbus Records, “Schumann: Works for Cello” and “Bloch: Schelomo/Voice in the Wilderness,” also display his knack for color and characterization, secrets he learned from his years studying in Los Angeles with the great cellist Gregor Piatagorsky.

“It was slow-cooking teaching,” Wallfisch said by phone from his home in London. “Things you understood more as you get on. He had empathy for different types of people and approached everybody’s needs differently. His house was full of wide culture, and you soaked up this older style of being.”

The upcoming concert at Royce Hall celebrates the 23rd anniversary of the West Los Angeles Symphony, as in past years marked by a free concert for the public. Artistic director Leah Bergman said the orchestra used to offer three or four concerts each year, but in order to maintain a high level of quality (previous guest conductors include Jorge Mester and Ángel Romero), she decided to put all the group’s resources into this one event. Bergman said it was Benjamin Wallfisch, now in his fourth year leading the orchestra, who suggested his dad as guest soloist.

Indeed, the professional relationship between father and son already was on solid footing. When Raphael was thinking of a conductor for his Ernst Bloch CD of Jewish music, he requested his son. “I know what he can do,” Raphael said. “He’s an excellent accompanist, so he listens. These were intricate pieces for any conductor, and he was incredibly meticulous about the ensemble.”

The CD is especially meaningful to the cellist, who grew up playing Bloch’s beautiful “Schelomo.” “I’ve known it since I was 10 years old,” Raphael said. “My parents had old 78s of Emanuel Feuermann playing it with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.”

The cellist dedicated the recording to relatives murdered in the Holocaust, including his grandfather and grandmother. Son Benjamin conducts his father and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in richly atmospheric and idiomatic accounts of Bloch’s “Voice in the Wilderness” (1936) and “Schelomo — Hebrew Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” (1915), the final work in Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle.” The disc also includes two rarely performed scores — André Caplet’s “Epiphanie” and an otherworldly account of Maurice Ravel’s “Hebrew Melody, Kaddish.”

“I knew that Bloch’s ‘Schelomo’ was a very important piece for my dad — one he felt incredibly close to,” Benjamin said. “I wanted to be sure to give him the launching pad to project all his ideas in a really visceral way. When we were recording the devastating climax, I felt immensely grateful and honored for the opportunity to share something like that with my father.”

Raphael Wallfisch said his parents didn’t talk about the past much while he and his sister were growing up. “My sister and I were brought up without much knowledge of the Holocaust,” he said. “We knew the bare bones, but our parents were so proactive about getting on with the future, knowledge came later. My father’s memories of separation from his family were too painful, but my mother was persuaded to write a memoir.”

Lasker-Wallfisch’s memoir, “Inherit the Truth,” published in 1996, explains how her skill as a cellist saved her life when she avoided the gas chamber by being selected as a member of the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz. “She will be 90 this year,” Raphael said, “and smokes at least 10 cigarettes a day. She still drives and travels and lectures widely about prejudice and tolerance.”

In keeping with family tradition, mother and son marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht by giving a concert at the Konzerthaus in Vienna in November 2014. 

After his date with the West Los Angeles Symphony, Raphael travels to Beijing to perform Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. The concerto is widely considered the greatest for cello by a British composer, but Raphael thinks Gerald Finzi’s 1955 Cello Concerto is even more emotionally complex. The cellist recently made a short film about Finzi, still an unjustly neglected composer in the U.S., though Raphael’s unforgettable 1992 Chandos recording inspired other cellists to champion it. He performs parts of the concerto in the film, which will be available online in May.

Tone is a musician’s most personal signature, and Wallfisch said he’s delighted when anyone can distinguish his sound from another cellist’s. “The teaching of sound production has almost disappeared,” he said. “There are technical ways to improve sound, with color, vibrato, distribution of body weight. It’s an organic thing. You try to match the ideal in your head.”

West Los Angeles Symphony, featuring cellist Raphael Wallfisch, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Sunday, April 12, 7 p.m. Free admission. For more information, call (310) 873-7777

Cellist Steven Isserlis celebrates simplicity, honesty and humor

Among world-class cellists, Steven Isserlis may be the only one ever to interview his instrument. On a website for young cellists, he asked his 260-year-old cello to list one of the best things about traveling. His cello responds, “Getting an extra seat so that Mr. Isserlis can sit in the airplane and not in the hold.”

Isserlis, appointed a commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998, can be unexpectedly mischievous. When asked by phone during an interview from his home in London whether he is a practicing Jew, Isserlis said, “I practice my cello, and I’m Jewish, so I’m a practicing Jew.” Then he added, “I was always very pleased the Marx Brothers were Jewish, because I love them.”

When the cellist visits Los Angeles in October, he hopes to reunite with Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, an old friend. Isserlis fans, however, can sit in on his master class at the Colburn School’s Mayman Hall on Oct. 6, and hear him when he joins conductor Douglas Boyd and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Alex Theater in Glendale on Oct. 18, and again at UCLA’s Royce Hall the following evening, performing Haydn’s joyful Cello Concerto No. 2 in D. 

“The Haydn concerto is almost childlike,” Isserlis, 55, said. “It’s simple and innocent, and full of humor and elegance, too.” 

Simplicity, natural expressivity and honesty are distinguishing characteristics of Isserlis’ playing on two new Hyperion recordings. The first is a major life-affirming traversal of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, with Robert Levin on fortepiano. In the two early works, Isserlis and Levin capture Beethoven’s rustic, good-humored, earthy quality, and, in the three later masterpieces, his more mercurial and soulful moods. 

The second release, pianist Sam Haywood’s charming tribute to the cellist’s grandfather, “Julius Isserlis: Piano Music,” represents a unique document of music from a bygone era, and it’s also a family affair. Isserlis’ older sister, Annette Isserlis, a professional violist, produced the recording, and his other sister, Rachel Isserlis, a professional violinist, wrote the booklet notes. He performs his grandfather’s Ballade in A minor for cello and piano with Haywood, a family friend. 

“My grandfather was a pianist and composer who was famous in his day,” said Isserlis, who was 9 when Julius died. “He studied composition with Sergei Taneyev, who taught Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and he wrote some beautiful romantic, gentle music. It’s not innovative; it’s very Russian.”

Music, Isserlis said, saved his family. A Russian Jew, his grandfather was among a group of musicians and their families allowed by Vladimir Lenin to tour abroad, displaying the Soviet Union’s cultural prowess. But none of them returned. Julius Isserlis ended up in Vienna. While performing in England in 1938, however, the Anschluss took place, and the Isserlis family remained there. 

The cellist, who is distantly related to Mendelssohn, said he once thought of becoming a rabbi. But being part of a family who performed chamber music together at home — his father was an amateur violinist; his mother, a pianist — encouraged a career in music.

Steven Isserlis went on to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, making his first record at age 25. But his concert engagement calendar didn’t begin to fill up until he was in his 30s.

“One breakthrough came when I met violinist Joshua Bell,” he said. “Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen also recommended me. And then there was ‘The Protecting Veil.’ That recording also helped.”

“The Protecting Veil,” for cello and strings, an other-worldly score written for Isserlis in 1989 by British composer John Tavener, a friend who died last November, became an international best seller in the early 1990s.

Many justly acclaimed recordings followed, including Isserlis’ radiant and touching readings of Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto, Strauss’ “Don Quixote” and Schumann’s Cello Concerto. All of them showcased an intimate vocal quality in the cellist’s playing, rich in character, empathy and wit.

Recent discs have also been celebrated, especially Isserlis’ recording of Bach’s six glorious cello suites, a Mount Everest of the instrument’s repertoire. Isserlis said he played on the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann’s 1730 Stradavarius for five of the suites and, as he put it, “my old Guadagnini” for Suite No. 5. 

After two years of being prodded to play the Bach suites in public, Isserlis reluctantly agreed. “I get so nervous. It’s the most perfect music in the world, and I find it very scary. I love it too much, this music.”

The cellist attributes much of his lifelong success to great teachers, including Jane Cowan, who studied with Feuermann. 

“She was holistic,” Isserlis said. “Music was part of life. She made me feel as a little boy that I was friends with the great composers. She also made me love playing the cello — made me feel relaxed. She always told me it was easy, and I believed her.”

Cowan’s influence can be felt in the two children’s books about composers Isserlis wrote — “Why Beethoven Threw the Stew” (2001) and “Why Handel Waggled His Wig” (2006). “I wanted my son to know something about them,” he said, “and pass on what my teacher gave me, this love of great composers.”

Isserlis attempts to get closer to such composers through historically informed performances, but realizes there are limits. 

“All you can do is look at the score and see what it tells you,” he said. “Nobody can claim to re-create exactly how players played then. There’s the violinist who gave the first performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He played a piece of his own between the first and second movements with his violin upside down. I don’t think we want to re-create that, though it’s amusing to read about.”

Cellist Steven Isserlis will perform Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with Douglas Boyd conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Oct. 18, and at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Oct. 19.

Cellist’s path to Judaism

When cellist Lynn Harrell would play “Kol Nidre” at his synagogue on Yom Kippur, he felt more than the notes and the melody. It was through the music that he discovered he wanted to become a Jew.

“It was a 45- to 50-year journey to come to the realization that all the people I really loved, married and were close to all my life were Jews,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I am a Jew.”

Harrell, 69, converted to Judaism two summers ago, but over the years, he had always connected with the religion. As a child, every one of his friends was Jewish, and when he was a teenager, he was taught the cello by a Holocaust survivor. 

In 1994, he had the chance to play “Kol Nidre” with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vatican. The ceremony, attended by Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was the first Vatican commemoration of the Holocaust. That same year, at the Grammys, he also performed an excerpt from his nominated recording of Beethoven’s String Trios with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. 

His former wife and current one are Jews, and he sent two of his children to preschool at his synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. 

During the High Holy Days in 2009, Harrell decided to formally pursue conversion. “I wanted to make the journey complete, particularly for my cello teacher, who showed me his Auschwitz uniform,” he said. “It deeply affected me as a 13-year-old.”

 Harrell was raised in a Christian family with a brother who became a minister. His father was the leading baritone for the Metropolitan Opera, so he was raised around music. At the age of 9, he began taking cello lessons, which he would eventually pursue as a full-time career. 

He and his current wife, Helen Nightengale — a violinist and a Reform Jew — are the parents of Hanna, 8, and Noah, 6. Together, they decided that raising their children with both Christmas and Chanukah was not right, so they chose the latter holiday.

To start the conversion process, Harrell began taking classes with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels at Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform synagogue. He connected with the rabbi because the services are mostly song-based, and they are both musicians. 

Through the course, Harrell learned about the history of Judaism, the parables and the life lessons. He learned how to read Torah and celebrate the holidays. The rabbi tried to talk him out of the process three times, but he persisted. When he was ready to complete the conversion, he, along with Comess-Daniels, his family and some close friends, traveled to Jerusalem, where his immersion took place in a stream under the Western Wall. When Harrell emerged, he said, he felt like a Jew. 

“Before that, I was on the outside looking in,” Harrell said. “After my conversion, when it was Yom Kippur and I played ‘Kol Nidre,’ the rabbi said it was something extra special. I said that it feels different because I’m from the inside looking out now.”

Aside from being an active member at Beth Shir Shalom nowadays, Harrell celebrates his Judaism by practicing tikkun olam (repairing the world). In particular, he and Nightengale started their own nonprofit organization called HEARTbeats, which utilizes music to help children in need. 

The couple have also spent the past three years putting together and recording an album, “We’ll Paint You a Rainbow,” which features the music of Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Joan Baez. Released in March, the album benefits both the HEARTbeats Foundation and the Save the Children HEART campaign, which also serves kids in need around the world. As Harrell said, “Experiencing the emotion of music is something that can heal. It can simply change someone’s life.”

And it is music, in a variety of ways, which brought Harrell to Judaism and helped him discover who he was all along. “I came to realize more and more that this is who I am and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “It took a long time.”