by Mike Telin
One can never predict where life will take you, but wherever it does, friendships, artistic and personal, endure. If in doubt, just ask pianists Yaron Kohlberg and Bishara Haroni.
Kohlberg, the second prize winner at the 2007 Cleveland International Piano Competition, and Bishara Haroni first came together for a peace concert at the Oslo Opera House in 2011. After that, the two pianists chose to redirect their professional energies away from solo careers in favor of pursuing their career paths as a duo piano team — and Duo Amal was born.
On Sunday, July 24 at 2:00 pm, Duo Amal will kick off Piano Cleveland’s inaugural PianoDays @CLE in Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art with a program featuring music by Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Milhaud, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, and Schubert. Read a Festival preview here and purchase tickets here.
Duo Amal last played in Cleveland in 2014 — a concert that many still remember. Although much had been made of the teaming of an Israeli and a Palestinian, in an interview with this publication prior to that performance Kohlberg said that forming the duo was all about the music and the musical chemistry the two pianists felt in Oslo.
“The thing for us is first of all musical. The fact that we are Israeli and Palestinian is just a fact. We are just two people who are musicians and we focus on the music. Obviously when we met in Norway, first of all we felt a very strong musical connection.”
Although Kohlberg’s and Haroni’s lives have changed since 2014, during a recent Zoom conversation, the two pianists made it clear that they never completely abandoned the Duo. “At that time we were both living in Berlin,” Kohlberg said. “Then I decided to move to China, which was supposed to only be for a few months but ended up lasting for four years. During that time we always stayed in touch and continued to play concerts together, just on a lesser scale.”
The next phase of their musical lives occurred when Kohlberg was appointed president of Piano Cleveland and Haroni became busy with Bestival, an international festival he founded in his hometown of Nazareth which brings together performances of Arab, Jewish, and traditional classical music.
“This festival is something that has never existed in the Arab world,” Haroni said, adding that the first year featured 35 performances by local and international artists. “It was surprisingly successful. Most of the performances were something that grown-ups and kids could enjoy together. For example we did sand drawing with music, and music with dance. And there was always something to attract people who are not so familiar with the music to help them to understand it and enjoy it more.”
Even with their time limitations, the pianists said that they enjoy spending time together and being onstage. “I think Duo Amal will exist until our final days,” Kohlberg said.
When asked about Sunday’s program, the Duo said that choosing the repertoire became a difficult task. “We went back and forth about it because Bishara and I play many different programs,” Kohlberg said. “And this concert is particularly important to us because Cleveland is now my home and we had great memories of our previous concert here. So we wanted to bring the audience a couple of pieces that we played in 2014 along with a few new ones.”
Their program will include a reprise of the Schubert Fantasie which comes via special request from a close friend of Piano Cleveland, as well as transcriptions that were written especially for Duo Amal, including Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance and two works by Khachaturian: “Adagio” from the ballet Spartak and the Saber Dance. Milhaud’s Scaramouche and Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.1 are also on the playlist.
“We wanted to keep the program on the lighter side but at the same time showcase different aspects of the Duo’s playing,” Kohlberg said. “We know that a lot of classical music lovers as well as many friends of the organization and personal friends will be there, and in keeping with the mission of PianoDays @CLE, we hope there will be something that is enjoyable for everyone.”
Returning to that 2014 interview when the pianists said that from their first rehearsal in Oslo, everything fell into place very easily — is that still the case?
“I think that as musicians we are evolving all of the time,” Haroni said, “so somehow I think it is even easier now than it was back then, because we have more experience. And since we are friends it is definitely easier because we understand each other very well. We don’t argue, we don’t fight, we agree because we have passed all those things back then. As close friends we dealt with all the surprises in our differences. And now we think alike.”
Can they read each other’s minds? They both laughed. “I was going to say that because I know him so well, I never know what to expect,” Kohlberg said. “I know I will be surprised but I have to say that I’m always pleasantly surprised. I think he always has amazing thoughts and ideas and I always trust him to come from an angle that is not one that I would think about myself. He is my go-to guy for a lot of subjects both inside and outside of music.”
Again the pianists agreed that developing that trust took time. “We never had any borders, we shared everything with each other,” Kohlberg said. “We argued about everything and put everything on the table, and that took many years of work.”
I asked Haroni if he wanted to add anything? “No, Yaron speaks English so well that he can express himself, so I am good with all he said.” Again they both laughed — a laughter that is infectious.
“I’m excited about our concert because in a way it’s closure,” Kohlberg said. “When we were here in 2014, I was a past competition winner. Now I’m the presenter and Piano Cleveland is the organizer. So for us it is a privilege to open the festival where there are going to be such amazing artists participating in it.”
“I’m looking forward to coming back to Cleveland,” Haroni said. “I told Yaron that I’m like a little kid — excited to come to visit him and to play the concert — and I hope everybody will enjoy it.”
In his closing thoughts, Kohlberg noted that PianoDays @CLE is all about celebrating the piano in all of its forms and having fun. “I’d like to encourage people to catch Bishara for a chat. He’s very accessible and very fun to be around and an interesting conversationalist.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 20, 2022.
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