Yinam Leef on his String Quartet No. 2

3446135435Yinam Leef is one of the leading Israeli composers of the day, and he was my colleague when we were both students at Penn at the end of the ’70s. His music is passionate and thoughtful, with influences from Middle Eastern traditions subtly integrated with European/American practice. I am lucky indeed to count him as a dear friend. His String Quartet No. 2 will be on the concert in honor of Richard Wernick on April 18 here in Philadelphia, played by the Daedalus Quartet. Here are his notes for next week’s program – comments both on studying with Dick and on his quartet.

On studying with Richard Wernick:

In 1979, Richard Wernick visited The Jerusalem Academy and presented his Visions of Terror and Wonder to the composition students.  The impact was so strong, and there was so much I didn’t understand that I knew I wanted to study with him.  Less than a year later, I was sitting in his office at Penn. He was silently reading a score on which I was working and suddenly pointed to a certain bar and jumped toward the piano. “Keep this low F in the basses for another two measures!” he exclaimed, while hitting the high F# in the high strings.  An entire section fell into place, proportions were set, the drama enhanced.

That was Wernick, as a teacher of graduate composition.  In a nutshell, he was an observer, first and foremost.  He would let you wander, carve your way for dozens of bars.  For weeks, lesson after lesson, he would observe the results of your writing, erasing and revising, reading the score silently, with occasional episodes at the piano.  If you were looking for someone to manage your materials, compliment you blindly or offer you quick solutions when you were stuck, Wernick was the wrong teacher for you. He intervened only when he was sure you knew where you were going, and then he helped you get there. He knew how to build a sense of trust and ultimately how to make a young composer trust oneself.

Wernick did not shy away from technical matters.  On the contrary, he enjoyed discussing those little secrets of the trade—pitch organization, canonic relationship, instrumentation, nuances of orchestration—these are all part of composition, he said.  But his teaching went far beyond that.  It was about the wider idea of tonality; it was about the essence of polyphony, about proportions and form.  It was about the daring modernity in Beethoven, the genius abstraction of Bach, and the drama in Berlioz; he always found a convincing example from the standard repertoire when deliberating a question in a contemporary work in progress.

Along with this unique gift of knowledge, Dick and Bea Wernick offered us the gift of their precious friendship. They saw us mature and our kids grow.  Decades of letters, then emails, scores and CD’s crossing the ocean in both directions replaced by digital files.  Every new Wernick score has been another learning experience from this great master who, like a seasoned poet, uses less to say more, and we realize once again that there must always be a solid, strong foundation, called craft, that sustains everything else, both what we can describe and what is left for us to contemplate.

On String Quartet No. 2:

This work directly connects with my Elegy for harpsichord solo, composed in December 1990.  I later re-arranged it for string quartet, planting a seed for the future.  Upon receiving the commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society to write a major work for the Colorado Quartet, it was clear to me that the Elegy would not only be included, but also serve as the point of departure for the compositional process of the longer, preceding movement.

Entitled “Dreams Interrupted”, the first movement does not follow any traditional formal scheme, but rather contrasts highly directional materials against floating, meditative ones; intense music against lyrical lines, which all keep recurring and referring to themselves.  It was not conceived as having to reach a single climactic moment or definite conclusion.  Energies spread and dissolve, as dreams come and go, disturbing, soothing or eluding us in an unexpected sequence. But still, I wanted to create the sense that somehow, behind these wandering changes and interruptions, there is a common, connecting thread.

While the original version of the Elegy was somewhat inspired by Louis Couperin’s monodic, improvisational manner, the change from harpsichord to quartet is significant, as it tends to enhance the inner polyphony and harmonic tensions.  Written in a modified ternary structure, it attempts to form a contemporary view on past ideals of a period long gone, and it leads, as the climax resolves, to a series of short quotations from J.S. Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”, which gradually disintegrate into the central motif of the work.  I now perceive them as glimpses of yet another elusive, distant dream.

The first short quotation is the tonal answer to the theme of Bach’s immortal work.  Its notes, A-D-C-(A)-G#, reversed in order and given a sharply different rhythmic profile, form the very opening gesture, the starting point of the entire work, closing the rather unique cycle of time in which the quartet was written.


Go here for a sample of Nami’s music; and here for a fascinating article about his work at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and about his daughter’s prominent role in social protests in Israel.

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