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.”