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Harvard Composer and Retiring Pianist at HRO


Chaya Czernowin (file photo)
Chaya Czernowin (file photo)

Chaya Czernowin is a local composer and the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at Harvard, but the heart of her musical performance life is in Europe where she is involved with festivals in Bern, Lucerne, Stuttgart, and Saltzburg. So when the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra presents Zohar Iver (Blind Radiance) in Sanders Theatre on Saturday, it will be a rare opportunity to hear her work locally.

I spoke with Czernowin on the steps of Sanders before a rehearsal, and she offered a descriptive preview of her piece and also discussed her international perspective on contemporary music.

“When there is radiance of something, it is not done, it is not made, it is simply there,” she explains in reference to the work’s title. And “the blindness is how we perceive [the piece]—it is not addressing you.” While most of the classical repertoire communicates directly with listeners—Czernowin compares this to speaking in words—she tries to capture something different in her music. “There’s another part of the communication that is more important: our inflections, what we do with our hands. It’s more subliminal. That’s what I try to uncover … all that comes underneath.”

Zohar Iver is scored for a large orchestra with a solo group of electric guitar, saxophone, percussion, and piano. The solo parts will be performed by the Vienna-based Ensemble Nikel which originated the work in 2011 with the Bern Symphony Orchestra and has since taken it on tour to British Columbia and Israel. When asked if she had a message for Saturday’s audience, Czernowin mused “this piece maybe needs to be heard with closed eyes, it’s very quiet … you’re invited to get into the sound.”

Born in Haifa in 1957, Czernowin studied in Tel Aviv and later at Bard College. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Diego and taught in Tokyo and Vienna before coming to Harvard. From her extensive travels she notes that the world of contemporary music “is very small, [but] it really differs in the culture in which it grows … every place has [a] really different kind of new music scene. It differs [with] the framework of culture and support.” She praises Europe in particular for its comparatively generous support for the arts and for its community of performers willing and able to delve into the avant-garde.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra will perform Zohar Iver under the direction of Federico Cortese on Saturday, April 27 at 8 PM in Sanders Theatre. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor complete the program. The concerto soloist will be the illustrious scholar/pianist and BMInt advisor, Robert Levin, in his last appearance as a member of the Harvard faculty.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.

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