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Chamber Mysteries

New York
Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
04/12/2024 -  
Robert Schumann: Three Fantasy Pieces, Opus 73 (Arranged by Jonathan Keren)
Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24
Naji Hakim: The Dove
Gity Razaz: Flowing Down the Widening Rings of Being (World premiere)
Claude Debussy: Two Dances
Zohar Sharon: The Ice Palace

Karim Sulayman (Tenor)
Artists from Israeli Chamber Project: Tibi Cziger (Clarinet), Carmit Zori, Kobi Malkin (Violins), Guy Ben‑Ziony (Viola), Michael Korman (Cello), Sivan Magen (Harp), Assaf Weismann (Piano)

ICP Members/K. Sulayman

Hearken, my minstrels! Which of ye all/Touched his harp with that dying fall,/So sweet, so soft, so faint,/It seemed an angel’s whispered call/To an expiring saint?
Sir Walter Scott

An excerpt [from Knoxville: Summer of 1915] was set to music by Samuel Barber in 1947, and has become legend. However, for me, there is nothing more powerful than the purity of this in its entirety.
James Agee

The New York/Israel-based Israeli Chamber Project  (ICP) has been around for two decades, their fame increasing each year. The explanations are twofold. First each member of the fungible ensemble is faultless in technique and understanding. That might be de rigueur for the strings. But as a habitual enemy of harp music, I never heard such wondrous playing as harpist Sivan Magen. Not the swirling stuff. But each note spot‑on, each sound real music rather than that Rubens/Raphael angelic mush.

The second reason the ICP stands out is because their programs are so utterly fascinating. And last night was a distinctive example.

Three composers were familiar. Yet Robert Schumann was transcribed from his “house music” for soloist and piano, to Jonathan Keren’s arrangement of Three Fantasies for clarinet and string quartet. One could not imagine a mere soloist here, though clarinetist Tibi Cziger played with velvet tones. Played without a break, Keren’s arrangement was mysterious, melodic and exciting in turn. Miles from mere Hausmusik.

Debussy’s Sacred and Profane Dances could never be transcribed. In eleven minutes the quartet was fine, and the harp–unlike Debussy usual whirling backgrounds–gave room for Mr Magen’s talent.

The third composer is left for later. Since one cannot possibly neglect, in three works, the tenor tones of Lebanese-American Karim Sulayman. Later, I read of his awards and extensive repertory. I didn’t care. Mr Sulayman’s stature, his smile, his unaffected mellifluous texture was hypnotic, no matter what he sung.

His entrance was the world premiere of Gity Razaz’ Flowing Down the Widening Rings of Being, five songs by Rainer Maria Rilke and the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi. That combination was a fortuitous one, both poets verging on or crossing over to the mystical. Ms Razas gave Mr  Sulayman (the work was written for ICP) time for fine interpretation against the strings. In Rumi’s “Dance, when you’re broken open” had a slashing violin opening, continuing with typical undanceable Dervish rhythms. In the fourth song. Mr Sulayman reached the emotional Rumi lines–“Am I a falcon, a storm or an endless song?” with the deepest emotion.

(Oh, language apart, one could only dream experiencing a diurnal stroll through a forest with Rilke and Rumi together.)

N. Hakim/G. Razaz

The other fortuitous work was Naji Hakim’s The Dove, based on verses from Genesis, Luke and John. This was relatively short, sung in German (it had been commissioned by a German organization). Each verse was about peace, each note summoned contemplation.

By far the most intriguing work was Zohar Sharon’s The Ice Palace. This was based on a novel, and all five movements used sounds heard nowhere else before. Each musician played Tibetan bowls, striking them or rubbing them glass harmonica style. Each of the poetic titles had a simulacrum in music, from “slowly freezing drops” to the happily balletic “Sparkling Flashes in the Mirror”.

Finally, though I have “heard” Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 several times, after the first line of the poem, I never listened to the music. Yes, Karim Sulayman’s oh so sweet voice sung the syllables with beauty. The string quartet and clarinet were fine accompaniment. Yet knowing the poem (which is much longer than Barber’s abridgement), and being very familiar with Agee’s work, I always felt the work was at best a tautology (a folk tune or two, auto sounds when the poem brought in cars), at worst irrelevant.

How nice, I imagined, if, after the first two lines, Mr Sulayman turned to the instrumentalists, put his finger to his lips, said, “Shhh”, and in his velvety voice, simply read that gorgeous poem in its entirety.

Harry Rolnick



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