Modern and classical, hand in hand: Israeli Chamber Project bringing verve, scope to local concerts

Beethoven and Brahms? Certainly. Famous Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich? Yes, the Israeli Chamber Project will play some of his works, too.

But the Chamber Project’s upcoming Northern California concerts also will include music beyond the familiar — such as a piece by Paul Ben-Haim, and a Matan Porat piece commissioned especially for the Project.

While some chamber music groups tackle only the expected classics, the Israeli Chamber Project is eager to take on a fuller spectrum.

“In the chamber music world, there are ensembles, like string quartets, which are fixed,” says pianist Assaff Weisman, the Chamber Project’s executive director. “Then there are societies like us, which have varied instrumentation and more people. The scope is larger.”

The Israeli Chamber Project is made up of eight, fairly young Israeli virtuosos — some of them based in Israel, some in Europe and some in the United States. For their upcoming Northern California performances, five musicians will be on hand: clarinetist Tibi Cziger, cellist Michal Korman (the only woman among the five), harpist Sivan Magen, violinist Itamar Zorman and Weisman.

Israeli Chamber Project will give two Bay Area concerts.

Cziger and Magen will be front and center on “Three Songs Without Words,” a piece scored for clarinet and harp by the German-born Ben-Haim, who lived from 1897 until 1984. He was one of the most prominent composers in pre-state Israel, and “Three Songs” (on the program at two local performances) is one of his most acclaimed works, but he is little known in the United States.

Porat’s “Night Horses,” on the program at just one of the local performances, was composed five years ago and dedicated to the Chamber Project. Porat is a modern-day pianist and composer who was born in Israel and has performed on distinguished stages around the world.

The Project’s local schedule starts Jan. 23 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco as part of the Music at Meyer 2012 series. The musicians also will perform on Jan. 24 as part of the Berkeley Chamber Performances series (at the Berkeley City Club) and on Jan. 29 in Carmel — before hustling to New York City for a Feb. 1 performance at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

In addition, there will be a one-hour educational outreach performance Jan. 25 in Berkeley, but it is for JCC East Bay members only.

The Chamber Project, which is based in Israel and New York, performed last year at San Francisco State University as part of the Morrison Artists Series, a lineup billed as “cutting-edge classical music concerts by internationally acclaimed chamber music ensembles.” Weisman says he’s glad to be back in the area, building on last year’s momentum.

He says performing Israeli music is a mainstay of the Chamber Project. In addition to playing older established pieces — such as Ben-Haim’s — they also commission new works, a total of seven since the group’s formation in 2008.

The Chamber Project has played numerous times across North America, and performs regularly in Israel — and not just in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The musicians make a point of going to kibbutzes and small towns, performing and giving master classes to young musicians, including Israeli Arabs.

It’s part of the Chamber Project’s mission to give something back to the country that nurtured its members.

“There’s an unexpected dynamic in Israel,” Weisman says, “where the generations previous to mine — anyone who was really successful in music — sought their fortune in Europe or the United States, because the Israeli economy doesn’t allow for a lot of arts funding. Now there’s a vacuum, where the next generation doesn’t have any teachers.”

He says he and his young colleagues made a “philosophical and moral decision, coming back to the homeland and making sure the next generation of students has excellent teaching. We go back to the same conservatories every year, and the kids expect us. We’ve seen them grow.”

As for Weisman, 34, he was once one of those kids. A native of Jerusalem, he started playing piano at age 6. A few years later, his family moved to Boston for several years. He went on to study at Julliard, and later made New York his home.

He now teaches piano at Julliard, and performs as a soloist around the world.

Around five years ago, Weisman’s friend and fellow Julliard grad, Cziger, first discussed the notion of a chamber music society composed entirely of Israeli musicians. The two recruited a base of eight musicians (including themselves) along with a stable of guest musicians in various cities.

The idea caught on. The Chamber Project thrived, with multiple donors providing financial support; in 2011, the Project won the Israeli Ministry of Culture Outstanding Ensemble award.

Though classical music in recent years has played second (or even third) fiddle to rock, jazz and other forms of pop music, Weisman thinks the genre will always be popular, as long as artists find new ways to connect with younger generations.

Such as, he says, playing Bach in a bar.

“If we present music with honesty and integrity, without the aloofness that sometimes accompanies classical concerts, then that really speaks to people,” Weisman says. “The music is so powerful, all we have to do is present it in a no-nonsense way. Everyone goes away with something and is curious for more.”

The Israel Chamber Project.
7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. $22-$25; 8 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant St., Berkeley. $25; 3 p.m. Jan. 29 at Sunset Center, Carmel. $30-43.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at