Meet the Music Makers: Alexander Fiterstein

UChicago Presents: Before coming to the United States to study at Interlochen and Juilliard, you spent most of your childhood in Israel. What was your young musical life like?

Alexander Fiterstein: I started playing piano at age five. I studied with the Russian teacher, and I played piano for a couple years. And then there was a new wind ensemble that started in my town. I grew up in in a small town in the Galilee, in the north of Israel. I thought it'd be fun to learn another instrument, and a few of my friends were going to try it out. So that's how I really started with the clarinet.

Music was all around. I think music education in Israel, especially at the higher level once you are advanced, is very good. There were a lot of guest artists that came through, there were a lot of international conductors and soloists who came to play with the Israel Philharmonic. It’s a small country, so you can get to anywhere – I mean, it does it does take a few hours from the town that I grew up in, but in any case, you had access to it. So early on I had scholarships from the America-Israel foundation, which is still around today, and that allowed me to take lessons in Tel Aviv. That basically started journey with music, and it was a great way to start, in Israel.

UCP: I understand that in addition to your activities as a classical clarinetist, you also actively perform klezmer music, and integrate some of that music into your programs. Did you come up playing both classical and klezmer music or did you sort of focus on one in your younger years and adopt the other later on?

AF: My father played the accordion, and when I was little we used to play together just for fun. Occasionally we would perform in in different settings – this was age nine to twelve, pretty young – so that's when I did a little bit of klezmer. Then when I started playing classical more seriously, I didn't do much with klezmer, but I came to it later through more classical pieces that I played, like Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, which was a big piece I played at Marlboro, and that really inspired me to play klezmer again. Also, pieces by Betty Olivero, and meeting with her and playing her work.

So that was my path to come back and play klezmer a little more again. Also, the Weinberg Sonata, which we’ll play on this program, it’s interesting because it definitely has some klezmer influence. It was these works that I found, and made interested in doing more with it.

I would say that nowadays I’ve involved klezmer in my classical concerts, like I like doing classical concerts that are influenced by klezmer, or are entirely made of works that are influenced by klezmer. I think that exploring klezmer helps me as a classical artist, because it kind of gets you back to the roots of when you play something that dance-like, you know, it has to really have that dance quality, because it’s made for dancing.

Basically, klezmer music’s function is for dancing, or maybe it's a slow tune, but it’s made to evoke an emotional appeal – it's helpful not to forget that there's so much folk music in classical music, and not forgetting that connection that with dances or different types of folk music is great for keeping classical music close to the source.

UCP: You mentioned the Weinberg Clarinet Sonata, which is a really amazing but frankly underrated work. What drew you to this piece?

AF: I guess I first heard about Weinberg more than ten years ago. I wasn't aware him, and I was always interested in Jewish composers, especially from the Soviet Union, because I was born in Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel with my family when I was two. Weinberg lived in Belarus for a while, where was born, and that that was interesting to me.

And that's how I started kind of reading about him, and I found out about his repertoire for clarinet. He also wrote a concerto for string orchestra, which I think is very interesting piece.

So with Weinberg, as soon as I heard a recording of this piece somewhere, I knew that I had to play it because of not only the klezmer influence, but you can hear in the first movement, for example, and throughout the piece really, there’s a lot of Shostakovich influence. I know they were good friends, or maybe it was Weinberg’s influence on Shostakovich, but later sounded like this similar language. Among Russian composers for some reason, then there's not a lot of repertoire for clarinet. There is some chamber music by Prokofiev, including his Overture on Hebrew Themes.

There's a lot of orchestral parts in Shostakovich, of course, which are great, with a lot of good solos, but no sonata by Shostakovich or anything like that. So this kind of fills that void, having a Russian Sonata from the 20th century. I think it's a really great work, on the level of sonatas by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. So there’s the Russian influence, but also the timing of the work, being written during World War Two, which was very devastating for many people. For Weinberg himself it was really devastating. He lost the most of his family during that time, yet he continued to compose.

So yeah, the timing of the piece, and then when you listen to pieces from that time, it's interesting to hear the echoes of war and the questioning – like the last movement sounds like a bunch of questions that are being posed about the future, which is similar to the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time. It’s a little bit apocalyptic. So that was that was something that made me want to put these two works together. On the surface, these composers don't have a lot in common except being active around the same time.

So this was how I found out about these piece, so it was first about Weinberg himself.

UCP: Like you you mentioned, the other work on this program is Messaien’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which is a work with a fascinating and moving history and perhaps one of the best-known chamber works that feature clarinet, if not one of the best-known chamber pieces of all time. What particularly moves you about this piece, and how do you approach such a musically and historically rich work?

AF: I think what's interesting about this is that this piece is now considered, like you said, one of the greatest chamber works of all time, but I think that’s fairly recent, within the last maybe 20 to 30 years that it really got its place as a main-repertoire piece. I mean, I think the reason why it's so successful is the language of the music. There’s a lot of variety in the music, a lot of different influences. The combination of instruments is very interesting, very unique at least for that time. Also the fact that an instrument gets to play solo while the others are kind of sitting around and being part of the experience as a listener. I think that’s a new concept. You don't see that in a lot of works. You know, if you have a string quartet, everybody's playing all the time. But here, it starts out with all four; then in the second movement, there’s a long stretch where just the violin, cello, and piano playing. Then you have ten minutes of clarinet alone, which I mean, I don't know of any other piece that does that. And then you have movement 3 without piano, omitting one. So the way he uses the forces that he has augments the effect much more than just the quartet. There are some sections that sounds huge; it's possible that it's because it’s in relation to other moments in the piece where it's just cello, piano, and clarinet alone, that kind of thing

Also, the ending is incredible. Such an original way of ending a piece, right; you have a quartet but only the violin and piano in the end, which is very unusual.

For me, I’ve played the piece several times over the years. In the beginning when I first started playing it, it's kind of daunting because it's hard, it's complicated. You have to have not only the have a musical understanding, but also the stamina to be able to execute some of the things he’s asking for. It takes experience and time to get to the point where you have enough control, where you can deliver that solo clarinet movement really well.

It’s something that you can’t even master by practicing; I think takes a several live performances and really experiencing it, because there's nothing quite like it, it’s unusual.

The influence of nature and the birds, especially, that was central to Messiaen It’s all throughout the piece, this bird element. So that's something I really try to tap into when I'm working on the piece

In terms of the clarinet part itself, it's mostly “The Birds,” the solo movement to play in an imaginative way while following his instruction you know as much as possible.

I find it interesting that Messiaen himself recorded the piece twice, or maybe more than twice, but I’m aware of two recordings. He was playing the piano, and the tempos were completely different in the two recordings. One recording is thirty-something minutes, under 40 minutes, which is very fast, and the other one is close to an hour, even though he’s playing on both recordings. So you know trying to adhere to Messiaen’s markings as much as possible, but also making sure it fits with flow of the phrasing of the music. So those are the main things I try to think about with this piece.

UCP: You’re performing the Quartet with a talented trio of young chamber musicians [Elena Urioste, Nicholas Canellakis, and Michael Brown], with whom you’ve been performing quite a lot recently. How did you come to perform this work together?

AF: I first played with Nick Canellakis more than 10 or 12 years ago. We've been performing together over the years. I’ve also played with Michael Brown separately in recitals, and in trios with Nick sometimes. And then with Elena and the quartet combination, we also played a recent piece that Michael wrote. He also composer so we did this piece that has to do with the botanical gardens in the U.S., so I’ve played with each of them several times. I was at Marlboro with Michael and with Elena, so yeah, over the years we’ve played together a lot.

When we played the Messiaen for the first time, it felt very natural in a way, like we didn't have to try so hard. It sounded good and felt great from the start, so that was the reason I suggested this particular combination of players.
You have to feel comfortable with people on stage, especially in a piece like this. You have to trust each other, because if you're playing together for the first time, many times it works, but it helps that you’ve rehearsed to a point where you have a certain level of comfort when you go on stage, and you don’t have to worry. It’s a good feeling.

UCP: One of the salient aspects of your chamber music career is the Zimro Project, the ensemble you formed dedicated to performing chamber music by Jewish composers. Can you talk about the origins of the project, and about the work the ensemble does today?

AF: So the reason for the ensemble was that about 100 years ago, there was an ensemble in St. Petersburg, Russia called the Zimro Ensemble, and as I was reading about them, the group that premiered the work by Prokofiev called Overture on Hebrew Themes. So they toured the world for a few years; they played in the US several times – they played in Carnegie Hall, even – and it was a fascinating story, and I was looking more into their repertoire and then I realized that there were other composers that wrote in the genre after the group, even though they didn’t exist in a anymore. They were only around for about or five years ago, right after the Russian Revolution. So historically, it was very interesting to me. Also, the fact that the clarinetist ended up in America, and was really a big part of the American clarinet school. He played in the New York Philharmonic for many years. It's interesting, given current affairs, that a Russian clarinetist ended up in the New York Philharmonic for like 20-odd years. Also, the music that they collected was very interesting, because these composers were encouraged to use folk melodies and other influences from their heritage by Rimsky-Korsakov, who thought that this way, the music would be more authentic, because it’s something that comes from you in a direct way.

Other than Prokofiev, the other composers were not as well-known. Prokofiev was
Only one of the Europeans just commissioned by them. Another interesting thing is that they commissioned the piece while they were in the States, and Prokofiev was in New York on tour. So this was a fascinating story to me, and I thought, Wow, there's so much repertoire that’s been written since then, not necessarily for sextet – the original group was clarinet, string quartet, and piano – but there’s so much repertoire, whether it’s clarinet with string quartet, or trios; for example, there’s works by Paul Schoenfield that, to me, fit into this category exactly, but fall more into the realm of contemporary music.

In terms of what I’m doing with the ensemble, we’ve commissioned a few works over the years, and some arrangements of klezmer music. For example, I commissioned a set of pieces form Lev Zhurbin, who goes by the name of Ljova - a set of arrangements for clarinet and string quartet of some of my favorite klezmer pieces. I’ve premiered a couple works with this ensemble. In general, it's something that I do a few times a year, so we don't perform every month or anything like that. But it's something that I'd like to keep doing, and expanding the repertoire as well, and also performing some of these pieces. For example, I don’t know how often the Weinberg Sonata actually gets performed.

So I'd like to keep doing for the audience, and making it a more an integral part of the records of the concert repertoire.

You know, there are some great works from other composers like Brahms, but I think it’s great to have more of a history of these words, and have them performed more often.

UCP: In addition to being a champion of the core repertoire for the clarinet, you’ve worked with living composers and premiered new works written for you, including Michael Brown’s Garden Quartet with the same ensemble as the November 16 program.  Are there any composers you haven’t worked with yet whose music you’re particularly excited about?

AF: Absolutely. Actually, just to add to the list of composers you’ve already named, is Shulamit Ran, I’ve worked with her. I'm going to work with Joan Tower this coming week actually, and perform her solo clarinet piece, called Wings.

In terms of new composers, I'm always interested in new music and new composers, listening to a lot of music. Among the more recent clarinet collaborations are a concerto by Roger Zare, I like his work a lot. I recorded a piece by Carolina Heredia, a clarinet quartet. She’s someone who I’d really like to work with on another piece, maybe a concerto. I’ve worked with Mason Bates before, on a piece called Mercury Soul for clarinet and piano. There’s a lot of people. It’s hard to just say who just one person might be I’ll tell you that I’m working on a project for 1920 where I will play contemporary music by American composers. The program will include Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, Joan Tower’s piece, Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul, and we’re looking to commission a fourth piece, so we’re looking into a few composers right now to figure out who would be a good fit to complete that program. I'm very excited about it, it's going to be very demanding, technically speaking, because these works are very demanding in terms of range and stamina. But it will be fun to play; I think it’ll be great to have a program dedicated to American contemporary music from the 80’s until now, and they’re excellent, excellent works that I’m sure will stay in the repertoire for a long time. 

UCP: You’re not a stranger to the UChicago Presents series – you first performed with us in 2014 and have appeared a few times since. Is there anything you’re looking forward to about being back at UCP?

AF: This will be the third time I’ve played at the University of Chicago Presents. My first time was with my trio with Amit Peled and Alon Goldstein, and then I played Orion Weiss and Arnaud Sussmann. I feel like this is such a great series, and looking over the programs from the different years that featured new music in such a great way, which is kind of unusual, while still doing some classical works as well. I’m very excited to come back to the series.