“An absolute triumph. [The Jerusalem Quartet’s] playing has everything you could possibly wish for.” —BBC Music
Sharon Kam is “a most imaginative and individual artist” —Gramophone
Inon Barnatan is “A player of uncommon sensitivity” —The New Yorker
“[Ori] Kam's playing [was] at once mature and youthfully exuberant. He is an attractive, engaging presence onstage.” —The New York Times
The soul of Brahms is in his chamber music. It’s Brahms at his most personal and most powerful. For the first of three concerts, the Jerusalem Quartet are joined by two friends frequent collaborators, Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan and clarinetist Sharon Kam (sister to the Jerusalems’ violist Ori Kam), who plays Brahms’ intimate and autumnal Clarinet Quintet. This program includes another late masterpiece, the Viola Sonata in E-flat major (originally written for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld) and Brahms’ first published sting quartet, a piece haunted by the ghosts of Brahms’ predecessors, Beethoven and Schubert.
Alexander Pavlovsky, violin
Sergei Bresler, violin
Ori Kam, viola
Kyril Zlotnikov, cello
Sharon Kam, clarinet
Inon Barnatan, piano
BRAHMS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
BRAHMS: Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2
BRAHMS: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
This concert is approximately 1hour, 45 minutes long, with one intermission.
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A Conversation with Jerusalem Quartet violist Ori Kam
What does the music of Brahms mean to you?
Growing up in Israel, Brahms was such a pillar of the repertoire I was exposed to. In Israel his compositions are perceived as the height of Romantic music, played with great pleasure at every turn often bordering on sentimentality. When I moved to the US, I remember being surprised that Brahms was treated as a very intellectual composer. Audiences seemed to hear more of the intricacy and intellect in his use of structure and development of material. Later on, when I lived in Germany I was again surprised to find that Germans treat Brahms as a classical composer - an extension of Beethoven. They tend to play his music more lightly and less sentimentally.
To me, these different hearings of Brahms’ music are the sign of a truly great composer. His music encapsulates all of these traits. It is at once intellectual and emotional, earnest and sentimental, complex and heartbreakingly simple. I believe that this immense breadth is what makes him irresistible to us and, in our experience, to our audiences as well.
How did you create this series, Intimate Brahms?
In constructing the programs for our Brahms project, to begin we wanted to shine a new light on the three quartets. The audience will be able to hear the four instruments melt into a single 16-string instrument. We will follow each quartet with a sonata, allowing the audience to get to know one of the instruments (and players) of the quartet separately (violin, viola and cello). On display will be Brahms’ unique approach and writing for each instrument.
After the break, the Quartet will be joined by a fifth instrument, and the audience will be able to examine the quartet in different combinations. The clarinet transitions between soloist and ensemble, the viola adds a fifth string instrument seamlessly, and finally the piano is a counter-weight to the quartet.
This Brahms series is one of several focuses The Jerusalem Quartet has done on a single composer, such as Mozart and Shostakovich. What do you like about these programmatic concentrations?
Playing a project such as this allows us to get a deeper understanding of a composer’s musical language. As younger musicians we tend to focus on constructing beautiful phrases. Later on we focus on executing the arch of a section, then a movement, finally a piece. As we mature, we look towards placing each of a composer’s notes in the context of his life and other works. For example, I don’t believe Mozart’s music can be understood without knowing his operas.
Brahms is interesting because it’s hard to place any piece on his biographical timeline. He took a painstakingly long time to complete pieces and often revised them decades later. I think that his writing style and approach did not evolve as noticeably as Beethoven’s or Haydn’s did. Perhaps his evolution is more on the emotional content of the music? I think it’s dangerous to treat his later music as more nostalgic or philosophical because it often expresses such naive happiness or youthful exuberance.
Much of Brahms’ chamber music was written for particular people. Has the Jerusalem Quartet done much commissioning?
We try to commission and perform contemporary music as much as we can. Our hurdle is usually the concert presenters we perform for prefer standard repertoire due to the demands of their audiences. Raising funds for commissions is a big undertaking that requires the collaboration of several players. We hope to be able to put more of these collaborations in the future, since we believe that performers play an important voice in the development of contemporary music.
Inon Barnatan will be featured in all three concerts. How did you meet him?
Israel is a very small place, and Inon is around our age, so we “came up” together. It’s so wonderful to see his success, and we were so delighted when he made time to join us for this project. It’s so great when there is a personal connection on top of the musical chemistry.
Your sister, clarinetist Sharon Kam, is another guest artist. Do you come from a particularly musical family? How did you each choose your particular instruments?
My mother is a violist with the Israel Philharmonic. Perhaps that is the source of our love for the alto register. Our parents stressed music as part of a well-rounded education. For a while I think they were somewhat disappointed that we both became professional musicians. Sharon fell in love with the clarinet after playing piano and recorders. I played violin but fell in love with the viola after playing quartets with friends. Music, and chamber music in particular, was a big part of our household.
Does the Jerusalem Quartet have a particular internal management style or structure? How do you decide on such issues as concert repertoire, musical interpretations, etc.?
A quartet operates on consensus. It is not a democracy. While we each take the lead on some things, decisions are made together. We get along very well and for the most part things operate quite smoothly.
You seem to be on the road constantly, touring around the world. How do you stay fresh and musically focused amidst all the stress of travelling?
Travel is the price we pay for the privilege of performing in all of these great halls and in front of such wonderful audiences. Traveling together makes it easier. I often think of how lonely soloists get on the road. Over the years we have learned to manage our calendar so that we can maintain our sanity, health and have the time to lead healthy family lives.
Photo: Manuel Vaca
CD cover of Jerusalem Quartet’s 2013 recording of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with Sharon Kam and String Quartet No. 2