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Interview with pianist Assaff Weisman

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Born in Jerusalem, Assaff Weisman is the Executive Director and pianist of the Israeli Chamber Project. Founded in 2008, the group consists of the finest young talents from Israel, including violinist Itamar Zorman, First Prize winner of the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition.

An alumnus and former student of the late Herbert Stessin, Weisman currently teaches in the Evening Division of the Juilliard School. Monday at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, he joins the Aeolus Quartet in works of Beethoven and Dvořák to open the 11th Music at Meyer season (tickets). Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with pianist Assaff Weisman. (A selection of this interview can be found in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper).

EH: I read that at twelve, you are the youngest to ever appear on the WGBH radio program ? What is your musical background ?

Weisman: Well, I haven’t checked their records of late, but yes, at the time I was (laughs). I started at the age of six, and there were no musicians in my family. When I was ten, we moved from Israel to Boston, where I began studying at the New England Conservatory, Pre-College division. It was the first time I was surrounded by other young musicians, performing regularly, and I was inspired. It was daily work and dedication, but I enjoyed it, and it was very fulfilling. Not long after this, I began thinking that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

EH: You studied at Juilliard with Herbert Stessin, who passed away a little over three years ago. What are your memories of the man, his ideas about music making, and what are his contributions to your growth as an artist ?

Weisman: I met Herbert in Aspen, where he was on the faculty for many years. I was about sixteen at the time, the year before college auditions, and a student of his thought that I should play for him. It was our trial, to see if we could work well together, and Herbert was absolutely wonderful. We spent a lot of time on sound, on getting the right touch at the keyboard. Oh, he had such a great knowledge of the keyboard, and he loved figuring out solutions to technical problems. Everything was really tailor-made for the specific student. I stayed with him throughout my time at Juilliard, and I often find myself quoting him in my own teaching, giving the same suggestions he gave to me. He had such a legacy, so many wonderful students, and I feel honored to have been a part of that, in my small way.

EH: What are your thoughts on the public’s understanding of competitions and the overall perception of its winners ?

Weisman: Music, by nature, has nothing to do with competition: it’s something you feel. The criteria are almost entirely personal, and nobody should be standing on-stage measuring a performance with a stop-watch. I don’t know if I have anything new to contribute to the subject, but it really has something to do with the business side.

Competitions are an easy way for presenters to market their seasons, to say, ‘This artist has won a stamp of approval’. There are many more deserving pianists out there than the ones able to win first, second, or third prizes. Of course, sometimes it’s not even enough to win one competition; in order to really make it big, you have to win several. It’s a sad state of affairs, but performance opportunities are limited, and competitions are a simple way for people who market our business to do just that. But I think it should be clear that artistry is not a subject suited well for competition. It’s sort of a necessary evil that we have to put up with in the business.

Tennis players, for example, play in the big competitions because they want to win: that is the goal. I don’t know if tennis players enjoy playing the exhibition games quite as much, as there’s nothing riding on them. But it seems to me that artistry is the reverse of this, where it really is more about the exhibition match, and we play the competitions in order to play more exhibitions. It’s a reverse paradigm, but there seems to be something in that analogy, for me.

EH: You are a founding member of the Israeli Chamber Project. What can you tell us about this exciting group and its raison d’être ?

Weisman: We founded the Israeli Chamber Project in 2008. At the time, we were eight musicians - a string quartet, two pianists, a clarinet, and a harp - and these were really among the finest Israeli musicians of our generation. Five of us were in New York at the time, either having just finished at Juilliard or still enrolled. We realized that in order to make an international career as an Israeli artist, we almost always have to live outside of our home country.

You see, there is little support there for the arts – in this country, as well, but even less in Israel. On the one hand, we all wanted to make international careers, but we also didn’t want to forget where we came from. It was our mission to go back and perform regularly. We established our group on the foundation of several ideas: 1) to go back and perform regularly – not just in the big cities, where you can hear the great artists, but also in remote towns and faraway places, often where there are no concerts at all; 2) to include educational outreach in our mission, to commission new works from Israeli composers to support the next generation of composers.

The past seven years have been wonderful. We tour two or three times in Israel every year, and we’ve been fortunate enough to bring with us some tremendous artists: two members of the Guarneri Quartet (Peter Wiley and Michael Tree) and the principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra (Joshua Smith). We’re actually getting ready to make our Town Hall debut (read Bruce Hodges' review), as part of Peoples Symphony Concerts, one of the most respected series in New York. The last artist they presented was Radu Lupu, and so we’re honored to be in that setting.

Of course, I learn something every day from my colleagues. The level of musicianship is very, very high – our violinist is the winner of the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition - and I always feel I have to be on top of my game in order to be a part of it. We play a diverse repertoire, and we push ourselves to be as versatile as possible. It’s just a tremendous honor to be a part of this.

EH: You’re currently teaching in the Evening Division at Juilliard. Looking back at your time there, was there something that would have been of great use, career-wise, coming out of conservatory, that wasn’t taught ?

Weisman: That’s a great question. The first thing that comes to mind actually has nothing to do with musicality or music, per se. When I was coming out of school, the idea of music entrepreneurship was really just starting to take hold; it's now a big buzzword in conservatories across the United States, and for good reason.

Certainly, the generation before ours was told, ‘Just play very, very well, and the rest will take care of itself,’. It’s now clear, to anyone trying to ‘make it’ in the music world, that that’s really not enough. I wish there was more of a focus on how to create a career. We seem to be moving away from the artist-seeking-approval model - winning competitions, getting approval from the gatekeepers of the business – to making something of our own. I believe many artists who came out with me were not quite prepared for this.

In addition to performing with the Israeli Chamber Project, I’m also the Executive Director of the group, and as such, I’ve received a crash course on the business side of music. Many of the things we never had to think about as musicians – e.g. as a non-profit in New York, we have a board, etc. - suddenly landed on my desk, and continue to arrive on a daily basis. I’m constantly learning on the road, and it’s fascinating to see the world of music from the other side. I now have a much greater understanding of music presenters and their perspective.

As an artist, of course you want to play concerts, but it’s important to realize that the presenters in the United States have almost unlimited options. There are so many wonderful, deserving artists out there. You might think you are the best in the world, but you might not get the call simply because there’s an endless supply. That’s the difficulty, but it’s something you have to come to terms with. You need to differentiate yourself, to sort of raise your chances of getting picked. Different ensembles do this in different ways, and it has been the case for some time now. It’s simply not enough to play well - not enough to sustain a career, and certainly not enough to build one. So that’s something that’s fascinating to come to terms with, face to face, and what we deal with on an ongoing basis.

EH: I’d like to talk a little about piano technique. At what age did you begin thinking of the problem of piano technique and how to improve your understanding of the instrument ?

Weisman: I still think about it a lot, actually. My earliest experiences at the piano were perhaps not the most efficient. I spent five years with a terrific Russian teacher in Israel, right before going to Juilliard, and he basically re-hauled my technique. By the time I arrived at Mr. Stessin’s studio, there were many things to think about still, and he introduced many different perspectives. It’s something I find myself immersed in when I’m teaching, being constantly in the mind-frame of ‘what’s the most effective way of handling this’, ‘how do we get a better sound’, ‘how do we find a way to get the structure across’, etc.

I used to think a lot more in terms of imagery when I was younger, but I now find myself thinking about a character rather than a scene. What is the mood of the passage that we’re striving for ? As far as technique is concerned, when you’re putting a piece together, anything that helps is fair game - whether it’s through imagery, or thinking of where the hands are in-relation with the keyboard. However, when you’re playing the concert, it’s ideally all forgotten. It should be engrained in your subconscious, to the point where you can just play, making the character of the piece come alive. I never feel that the work is done, and it’s exciting because every day is an opportunity to improve.

EH: A question I ask every pianist: which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Weisman: You’re assuming I’ve tried all of them, but I haven’t (laughs). I’m going to say probably a toss-up between the first (Opus 10 No. 1) and the double-thirds (Opus 25 No. 6). I have to sweat a lot to get those going (laughs).

EH: Your Schumann Fantasy is incredible, and the Liszt selections are a pleasure to experience. What can you tell us about your two-piano performances with fellow Juilliard pianist, Koji Attwood ?

Weisman: Thank you for saying that, Elijah. As you know, that used to be how the great symphonic repertoire became known - through reading it at home - before there were so many orchestras and public concerts. I really do enjoy playing two-pianos, and I loved playing those concerts with Koji; he’s one of my favorite pianists, and I’m happy to play with him anytime. I didn’t even know he really championed that Russian repertoire, with the Medtner work he suggested, but as you can see, it’s really in his blood. I’ve done some two-piano performances with him since, and it’s something I’d definitely want to do again.

EH: Collectors of old musical recordings often reject the talents of today in favor of yesterday’s glorious sound world. On the subject of conductors, Arnold Schoenberg said, “It must be admitted that in the period around 1900 many artists overdid themselves in exhibiting the power of the emotion they were capable of feeling…”. What comes to mind when you hear this ?

Weisman: First of all, I find that to be such an interesting quotation. Right now, I’m actually practicing Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, which is Opus 9, and we’re actually going to be performing a Webern arrangement of the piece, written for quintet. It’s hard to imagine anything more passionate than early Schoenberg.

I used to listen to recordings a lot, but I now prefer hearing performances live in concert halls. My favorite pianists are probably a couple generations from myself: Radu Lupu, Daniel Barenboim, etc. Aesthetics are different today, technical standards are always on the rise, as they are in athletics. Great artistry is just as hard to find as it was then, and tastes and paradigms shift. We live in an age now where there is more freedom, where it’s easier to go your own way rather than coming from a school of thought. It makes for very fascinating listening. For me, it’s more important to feel that the artist is honest. I understand where Schoenberg is coming from, but self-expression is what this is all about.

EH: I’d love to hear you describe your February 24 San Francisco program, with the Aeolus Quartet (currently in-residence at Juilliard) at Temple Emanu-El.

Weisman: Yes, I’d love to. This is my second appearance with Music at Meyer; I was there two years ago with the Israeli Chamber Project. The first half of the concert will be devoted to Beethoven. I’m opening with The Tempest, the sonata I’ve played most often through the years. I learned it at the age of twelve, and it’s without a doubt one of my favorites. Its character is murky, shifty, and hard to define; there’s a nervous energy throughout the piece, and I love that it constantly shimmers, boils, and unsettles in that way.

The Aeolus Quartet, which is absolutely wonderful, is in residence at Juilliard this year and next. They’ll play a quartet of Beethoven (Opus 18 No. 1) from around the same time as The Tempest, written a year or two earlier, and published the same year The Tempest was written. It’s a wonderful way to see what Beethoven was doing in his life, at a specific time, in two of his favorite mediums.

We’ll then join forces for the Dvořák Piano Quintet, Opus 81, one of the most beloved pieces of chamber music in the literature. Audiences everywhere really flock to it, and I’m looking forward to the collaboration with the Aeolus. Its melodic inventions are captivating, and it scrapes the lines between Czech folk music and various Western elements. It is really uncanny to hear Dvořák’s impression of the United States through notes; what an incredible way to synthesize a culture. And in this Quintet, I feel he really did this for his homeland - you really feel the Moravian-Czech countryside, the different dances, etc.

EH: Are you pleased with the direction that classical pianism has taken ? Do pianists have the duty to perform the works of contemporary composers ?

Weisman: I’m trying to get away from the feeling of duty. It’s important to do what you feel strongly about, and I think Classical music has suffered – and maybe it still does - over obligations. Walking through the halls at Juilliard, it seems to me that there are more and more people auditioning every year. People are still very much interested in studying this art form; what they’ll do once they graduate is another matter. As it stands right now, the established concert organizations cannot account for all the talent that’s out there. Students need to find creative ways to get to the public. It’s a sad reality, but we won’t hear many deserving talents. We need to consider wider audiences, rather than duties. It’s paramount to reach out to the audiences who can find fulfillment in what we do.

If you’re going to go into a life in music, you have to be 120% sure of it, because there are so many obstacles. But I find it incredibly satisfying to be able to share these works, to preserve these great accomplishments of mankind, because they ennoble us. I look at my job a little bit as a curator. I want to make the music the focal point. I clean it, dust it, I think of how to present it, and then we put it on stage for the public to enjoy. The fact that it passes through me is secondary; it’s all about the music. A musician needs to have the pull into that world. New composers need to be encouraged, given a platform, to share their insights. And I feel very lucky spending my life doing this.

EH: Assaff, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Best of luck Monday evening in San Francisco.

Weisman: Thank you, Elijah. It's been a pleasure!

A full list of reviews and interviews with artists can be found here, and new material can be freely sent to your e-mail by clicking ‘Subscribe’ below; follow us on twitter@elijahho.

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