The next time you listen to a classical music piece by Israeli composer and Bar-Ilan Professor of Music Betty Olivero, you might detect an “echo” of Jewish tradition – maybe a little Klezmer or a cantor performing snippets of Kol Nidre. That’s because Olivero, whose compositions are performed all over the world, specializes in integrating Jewish music into her work. Through it, she creates a powerful symphonic “mash-up.”
Borrowing a term from modern day Internet parlance is not entirely out of place. Olivero has made a name for herself in the art of “transcribing” sounds from outside the concert hall into rich new musical creations.
An example: Olivero created a piece based on the synagogue experience. The rich voice of the cantor became the basis for a bass clarinet solo, while the background murmur of the congregation was transformed into the full orchestra. No, the actual cantor and crowd did not appear in the performance itself, but it was the “image” Olivero says she had in her mind when composing.
“My aim,” Olivero says, “is to use traditional, ethnic music materials in the compositional processes, thus doing my part to participate in the essence of oral tradition.” Indeed, by applying Western contemporary techniques, timeless Jewish melodies assume new forms in different contexts.
An even starker case study illustrates the point. Early in her career, Olivero was part of a team led by her mentor Luciano Berio to re-imagine the work of the Renaissance era composer Claudio Monteverdi.
“Monteverdi wrote his music for the masses. He would perform it in courtyards where people could come in from the street,” Olivero explains. “Where are those audiences today? They are listening to pop music.”
Olivero set about to transcribe Monteverdi’s music to a present-day context as a way of making the music “more authentic, closer to its origin,” she says. The resulting composition is nearer to a rock concert in its orientation, with sections of the orchestra using modern folk instruments – mandolins and even accordions – far different from those used by Monteverdi’s courtyard players.
Olivero and Berio collaborated together for 18 years, during which time the Israel-born Olivero lived in Florence, Italy. “I originally met him when I participated in an international workshop at the Tanglewood (Massachusetts) music festival,” she explains. She was one of only 10 composers selected to “have the privilege to study three months with him.” She was about to head west to complete her doctorate at the University of California at San Diego when Berio invited her to join him in Italy.
It was during her long sojourn in Europe that she met her husband, a double bass player. Their children were born in Italy, but Olivero missed Israel. So when Bar-Ilan called in 2000 to offer her a position, Olivero jumped at the opportunity. She started teaching in 2002.
Perhaps Olivero’s most fascinating project was composing the music for Der Golem, a classic silent movie made in Germany in the 1920s based on the classic Jewish legend. By chance during a trip to Munich, she met both the curator of the city’s national silent film museum and Israeli virtuoso clarinetist Giora Friedman. Their collaboration resulted in a performance for clarinet and string quarter played along with a newly restored version of the movie during the Vienna Silent Film Festival.
Olivero’s latest commission, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is expected to be performed in 2012. It will also have a Jewish element, “but in a more metaphoric way,” she says, modestly declining to say more, then adding, “I haven’t finished it yet!”
Her most recent work – for saxophone and symphony – was performed in October 2010 at the Jerusalem Theater. Somewhere in the midst of all of her creative output, she still finds time to teach graduate composition workshops. Among her most notable students are jazz fusion composer and ordained rabbi Uri Brenner; pianist Anat Fort; Menachem Weisenberg, who lectures at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem; and jazz composer Shai Cohen.
Now, that’s a musical arrangement Bar-Ilan University can take note of.