Renowned Israeli composer Aviya Kopelman flew into the Bay Area on March 11 with seven new handbells, a nearly finished choral piece, nascent plans to compose another work and multiple opportunities to meet with students.
Her two-month stay is courtesy of the Israel Institute’s Visiting Artists Program, which brings Israeli film, music, dance and visual artists for residencies at North American colleges and universities. The nonprofit institute, based in Washington, D.C., supports teaching, research and discussion about modern Israel.
She is in residence at UC Berkeley and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley.
Kopelman also is the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, a position that involves creating works and curating concerts. She became one of the youngest winners of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize for Composition in 2007, the year she was commissioned through the Kronos: Under 30 Project to create a piece, “Widows & Lovers,” that was performed and recorded by the world-famous Kronos Quartet.
So we probably can trust her on the handbells, which accent an otherwise a cappella piece she’s composing for the San Francisco Girls Chorus. The 10-minute work, co-commissioned by the chorus and the institute, is based on the poem “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran.
“I changed it to first-person so the children are singing about themselves, and shortened it a little to fit the structure for the music,” she explained in an interview. “The text says that ‘Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself … You may give them your love, but not your thoughts.’”
Kopelman said she chose the text because it “connected with a girls’ chorus and also, as I told the girls in the rehearsal, it’s easy for me to connect with the text, both as person and educator, as I don’t like being told what to do. I’m very independent. I’m sure my parents would say I never listened to anyone.”
Writing for handbells is a first for the composer — and a very Jewish-sounding choice. “With only voices in the piece, I thought, how can I add any color? I thought, some percussion instrument …why not handbells?”
The piece, which Kopelman said is nearly finished, will be performed early next year.
Meanwhile, she’ll begin another piece through her residency with UC Berkeley’s Francesco Spagnolo, adjunct professor in the Department of Music and curator of the Magnes.
Spagnolo showed Kopelman the Magnes’ extensive collection of Jewish amulets. “I’m going to learn it a little bit and get acquainted, and then provide a piece,” she said. “I’ll know much more after I work with him some more.”
Kopelman also taught a workshop in Spagnolo’s “Mapping Diasporas” class at UC Berkeley. “The students were very much interested in meeting a composer born in the communist Soviet Union, who moved to Israel and grew up there, and now is here.”
Born in Moscow in 1978, Kopelman moved to Israel with her family in 1987. A performing pianist, she earned degrees in composition from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and Bar-Ilan University, where her Ph.D. is in progress. She has taught graduate courses at universities throughout Israel.
A prolific multi-genre composer, Kopelman writes concert music for orchestras, ensembles, piano and voice, experimental pieces such as “Anarchy in a Synagogue” for violin and electronics, jazz-fusion reworkings of classical masterworks and lighter songs featuring her own lyrics. She is inspired by a range of sources: biblical texts, poetry in Hebrew, Russian and English, feminism, politics and conflict (such as the terror Israel faced during the second intifada and Israel’s 2014 military operation in Gaza).
“I think for something so emotional and complicated, the only way to deal with this can be music,” she said. “If I have to talk about it, no way I would find any way out of it. Music, which is for me the natural way to deal with ideas and wide spectrum of emotions and complex things, is exactly the place where I can deal with all the subjects.
“I just go to the piano, [or] I walk outside and hear sounds in my head. And I guess it’s something emotional that moves something in the brain.”
The Bay Area offers new places to walk and listen. “Israel is a very small country,” she said. “To come to the Bay Area is a great opportunity. This place is so full of art and performers and the public is very much interested in arts.”