Friday, January 3, 2014
Concerto to Israel
Evgeny Kissin, the 42-year-old prodigy pianist, rarely gives interviews • But there is a subject that compelled him to talk to the media -- Israel, and the manner in which it is treated in the Western world • Last month, Kissin became an Israeli citizen. Amit Lewinthal Renowned pianist Evgeny Kissin Evgeny Kissin rarely gives interviews. The 42-year-old prodigy pianist, who was born and raised in Moscow and currently lives in London, prefers to express himself only while he's sitting up against his favorite instrument. With one touch of the key, he produces a full, rich note, illuminating every chord in his own special interpretation. Nonetheless, there is a subject that did compel Kissin to agree to talk to the media. It's a topic that burns in his bones -- Israel, and the manner in which it is treated by the western world. Dissatisfied with mere statements, Kissin also took action. Last month, he was granted his request to become an Israeli citizen during a special event in Jerusalem. His blue Interior Ministry-issued identiy card and his Israeli passport were awarded to him by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver. Also in attendance was Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, whom Kissin initially turned to in hopes of becoming an Israeli citizen. "I'm a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state, and for quite a long time I have felt that even though I live here, Israel is the only country in the world that I can identify with completely," he wrote to Sharansky in a letter. "If I as a human being and an artist represent something in this world, it is my people, the Jewish people, so Israel is the only country on the face of this earth that I would want to represent in my art and my public activities, irrespective of where I live." Two days after receiving Israeli citizenship, which finally came through after a long, exhaustive bureaucratic process, Kissin was scheduled to perform a celebratory recital for the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes. Tel-Hai is a special project. Founded in 1991, it invites 15 of the best pianists from around the world to Israel to advise and instruct 80 young, gifted pianists -- half of them Israeli, the other half foreigners. Half of the Israelis in the program are exceptional musicians who serve in the IDF. The project, which is headed by Sarah Lahat and under the artistic direction of Professors Victor Derevianko and Emanuel Krasovsky, takes place every summer over the course of a three-week period. The organizers of the recital told Kissin that it would be preferable to hold the event in Tel Aviv, where it would be much easier to sell tickets. But the virtuoso performer would hear none of it. "I insist on doing my first recital as an Israeli citizen in Zion, the capital of Israel," he said. The concert was scheduled for the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. Kissin, who is currently in the midst of a tour through Europe, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Israel Hayom this week. He tells us why he insisted on receiving Israeli citizenship while also sharing with us some antidotes that shed light as to how Israel is perceived worldwide. "A few years ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt that I can't continue to stay silent any longer while wicked, anti-Israel propaganda is running wild in the Western world," he said. "After all, I'm Jewish, and deep inside I was always very concerned for Israel." "I felt that Israel's worries, its troubles, its problems were also my problems, so I decided to use my name and reputation in order to come out in defense of Israel," Kissin said. "I felt that if people love music, they need to know what it is and who it is that I represent, what I believe in, and what made me the musician that I am today. And if certain people don't like it, I'm not interested in having them see my concerts." Kissin says that while he held dual Russian-British citizenship, he always kept a special place in his heart reserved for Israel. As the years went by, his emotional attachment to Israel only grew and grew. The time he spent living in Britain and France exposed him to a social and media landscape that was fraught with anti-Israel sentiment. At one point, he felt compelled to pen a letter to the BBC in protest at what he felt was the network's antagonistic slant toward Israel in its coverage. Kissin makes sure that his fan clubs' web sites include articles and information that are supportive of the Israeli cause. "My fans' pages include writers, most of whom aren't even Jewish but are supporters of Israel," he said. "In many cases, they're even Arabs. Bridget Gavriel, Noni Darwish, Conte Ahmed, Walid Shuabat, and others ... our enemies are never fearful of expressing their positions, and nobody really knows Arab supporters of Israel, and they are worthy of credit and appreciation." Chopin at age 12 Kissin's pro-Israel activism began a profound, internal process of soul-searching. "Up to a few years ago, I felt that I'm in a weird position as both a Russian and British citizen who always defends Israel publicly and supports it," he said. "Yes, I'm a Jew, but which country do I represent? With which country do I really identify? That is how I naturally came to the idea of becoming an Israeli citizen." What or who compelled you to turn your thoughts into action? "I shared my idea with my close friend, Lady Anabelle Whitestone (Arthur Rubinstein's widow, who today is married to George Weidenfeld, the powerful and influential British publisher. Whitestone is active in the classical music world and is also known for her outspoken support of Israel)," he said. "She fully supported the decision, and she made contact with public officials in Israel who are her friends," Kissin recalled. "A few days later I wrote a letter detailing the reasons I wanted to be an Israeli citizen. Since I had no intention of making aliya to Israel, there were bureaucratic obstacles to overcome before I could get citizenship. So that is why it took two years, but, finally, I'm Israeli. I'm happy and proud to be a citizen of Israel and I now feel more in harmony with myself." Evgeny Kissin was born in the Soviet Union at a time when there were no diplomatic ties with Israel. He sat down at the piano for the first time at age two. When he was six years old, he was already thought to be a wunderkind. He began appearing on stage before audiences at concerts and recitals at age 10, amazing the crowds with his renditions of Mozart and Chopin. At age 12, he recorded two of Chopin's concerti. From that point onward, his career blossomed. Despite the Iron Curtain and the difficulty in moving around and playing in foreign lands, Kissin became a star on the classic music scene throughout the West. In the mid-1980s, he began playing to audiences outside of the USSR. Since then, he has not stopped appearing before some of the world's most famous recital and concert halls and prestigious music festivals, playing solo on the piano while accompanied by a world-class orchestra and composers. Kissin is considered an expert in interpreting composers from the Romantic period like Chopin and Franz Liszt. During his illustrious career, which now spans over three decades, he has captured numerous prizes and accolades (including two Grammy Awards). He's only 42 years old, but his resume contains enough to fill a lifetime. Every year, Kissin appears at 50 concerts and recitals throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. His schedule is very packed, and it includes shows in 18 countries and many dozens of cities. When he was informed that he had been booked to perform in Jerusalem in December 2013, he made sure to give the date prominence on his web site before mentioning the other international dates that had been scheduled. In talking to Kissin, one gets the sense that music comes natural to him. "Never in my childhood did I dream of a career like this," he said. "I just loved music, and I wanted to play all the time. That's it. I didn't even care about a career." When I asked him if he had more ambitions and goals, the maestro replied: "Not career-wise, but in my art, of course. Yes. There's no end to it. It's the nature of art." I asked him about his favorite works of art. He struggles to pick one. "It would take an entire newspaper to detail every one." Who are his favorite composers? Here, too, Kissin has trouble coming up with names. Finally, he remarks: "If I had to pick the composer that is closest to my heart, it would be Chopin," he said. Kissin is not impressed with pop music or rock n'roll. He does, however, enjoy listening to classical jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, and Art Tatum. Learning Hebrew Kissin has many friends and relatives in Israel, a country he has frequented before. His first visit came in the late 1980s. For him, it was a time he will never forget. "I came to Israel with the Moscow Virtuosi," he said. "We were invited by the Israeli Communist Party. We were told by those in the audience who came to see the show that Meir Vilner (the communist MK and one of the leaders of the ICP and Hadash) and his friends sold tickets at much higher prices than what they paid for them originally, and they kept the money for themselves. Still, it's a good thing that even this episode didn't help those bastards win votes," he said with a smile. Aren't you concerned that becoming an Israeli will cost you fans and align people against you in the classical music world? "That's the last thing I'm worried about. Even before I became an Israeli citizen, I would never even think of going to a hostile country that doesn't welcome Israelis. In fact, I have never played in totalitarian countries. It's not just because of a sense of disgust I feel to set foot in those countries -- as someone who grew up in a totalitarian state -- but it's also because I don't want to support such countries in any way, not even with money that I would spend while I'm on their soil. So I never travel to China, no matter how many times people try to persuade me to do it and how much money they offer me." What do you remember about your childhood in communist Moscow as it relates to Israel? "In the country I was born, if we ignore anti-Semitism, all of the people, both Jews and non-Jews alike, were natural supporters of Israel on condition that they weren't exposed to the brainwash of the official Soviet propaganda. For them, it was an obvious thing, and no explanations were required. They understood that Israel was in the right." "That is why many countries in eastern Europe -- even Poland, where anti-Semitic prejudices were always very deeply rooted -- today support Israel," he said. "From their standpoint, an anti-Israel ideology was naturally tied to the Communism which they rejected. These countries know full well that they share the same ideals and values with Israel -- those of freedom and democracy. This is why those same communist leaders who were oppressive tyrants were allies of Israel's enemies." How do you now plan to exercise your rights as an Israeli citizen? "I am learning Hebrew," he said in Hebrew. "And I also know to quote passages from the Bible and tracts of text from the Declaration of Independence." Kissin said he will return to Israel in May, when he will be awarded an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University. Afterward, he will perform in a recital for soldiers. Performers, not composers Kissin once again talks about Diaspora Jewry's battle against anti-Semitism. The world-class musician draws a direct correlation between hatred for Israel and hatred of Jews. "The anti-Israel voices are the byproduct of anti-Semtism," he said. "Those who are behind the anti-Israe propaganda are haters of Jews. The problem is that it's clear to me that many people are influenced by this propaganda and are not anti-Semitic at all. In fact, I know a few people who like Jews and Jewish culture, but at the same time they share prejudicial opinions about Zionism and Israeli politics. That's a shame." "It's actually because of the anti-Israel atmosphere that is popular in Europe that I find it difficult not to support Israel," he said. The more Israel finds itself the subject of opprobrium, the more vocal Kissin becomes in advocating and defending the state that he loves so much. He is careful to point out that Israel is the only democratic country in the region that shares the same values with the enlightened West. "Israel is my country," he says emphatically and repeatedly. "With all of its victories and achievements, in addition to all the tragedies that have befallen it, with all of the nice things about it alongside all of the horrific things that it has endured, it's my country. And it doesn't matter if I like this fact or not, Israel is the only country that can be called 'my country' in the full sense of the term." We spoke at length about Jewish identity and a connection to Israel. It was impossible not to mention the fact that many of classical music's giants were Jews, including a number of fervent supporters of Israel like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern. "We're a musical people, it's as simple as that," Kissin said. "You could see it in many instances mentioned in the Bible. In my view, the interesting and complex question is this: Why are there so many great Jewish performers in classical music while there are relatively few Jewish composers? I don't know if I have a precise answer, but I do have an inkling. According to Jewish tradition, the Jews were chosen by God to perform his will. Perhaps it is in our nature that we are performers rather than creators."