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Paula Robison on Halil

PHOENIX SHARES STAGE WITH LEGENDARY FLUTIST

A towering presence in the international flute community, the magical Paula Robison needs no introduction to Boston audiences. Her storied career as performer, mentor and artistic trailblazer stands alongside any other in classical music, as well as her reputation for being an incredibly approachable musician. We at Phoenix are obviously delighted to have any excuse to collaborate with Paula, and she will bring bonafide star power to our Calderwood Hall debut "American Voices" on Sunday, October 14.

PAULA ROBISON AT A GLANCE

  • Studied flute, theatre and dance in college
  • Debut with NY Philharmonic at age 20
  • First American to win First Prize at Geneva Int'l Music Competition
  • Founding member of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
  • Numerous recitals at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, MoMA, Kennedy Center
  • Founding member of Brazilian music trio Mistura Nova
  • Premiered many new works for flute and spearheaded multidisciplinary collaborations
  • Faculty of New England Conservatory since 1973

The cool thing is, though, that we have more than just your typical reasons to join forces this weekend. In fact, the whole occasion feels pretty cosmic! It turns out that Paula has an extrordinary relationship with the piece she's playing with us - Halil by Leonard Bernstein - and the story of that relationship is as compelling as any between a musician and a work. Since there's not enough time during the concert to fully discuss/appreciate that history, you can read her personal program notes for Halil below. (You'll see why we feel so honored to perform it with her!) True to form, Paula was generous enough to chat with us on the record for this particular occasion, so her answers are related here as well.

PAULA ROBISON ON HALIL

Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece Halil for Flute and Orchestra has not enjoyed the same acclaim as many other of his works, and I feel that this is in part because it addresses a subject which has always been and probably ever shall be a highly sensitive and controversial one: Israel.

Halil (the Hebrew word for “flute”) was written in memory of a brilliant nineteen- year-old Israeli flutist, Yadin Tenenbaum, who was killed in his tank in the Sinai at the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The piece is clearly a tribute to Yadin, to his youth and beauty, to his great powers as a musician. This tribute includes his loving family and their grief at losing a son and brother, and it does of course extend to all the people of Israel, soldiers included.

The important thing to realize, however, is that the images evoked in “Halil” extend even farther, beyond those particular borders. They are not limited to one country or one people. Rather, I believe that the composer meant to include all of humankind in his tribute and grieving; not only Israel, but all lands where there is war with its hellish waste of life. Leonard Bernstein wrote: “Halil is formally unlike any other work I have written, but is like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love, and the hope for peace.”

I have many reasons to treasure Halil and to feel a kind of mission to perform it. I was blessed to have worked with Leonard Bernstein since my youngest days as a flutist, to have experienced first-hand his passion for music and for life, and to have witnessed his constant search for ways to work towards peace in the world. I played Halil for the first time at his memorial service in New York City. I continued to perform it after that, always searching for “who I was” as I played it, since it is such a theatrical and a narrative work. And then I had a transformative experience.

During a scholarly trip to Israel I asked our guide if he’d ever heard of Bernstein’s Halil and he answered “Of course! I knew Yadin! Do you want to talk to his sister?” He took out his phone as I picked myself off the floor, I spoke with Ella, and she invited me to Tel Aviv where I spent an unforgettable afternoon with the Tenenbaum family. Such kind, elegant people! They showed me pictures of the tall and handsome Yadin, played me recordings he had made, and after we had spoken together for a while his mother looked at Ella, and at her husband, and suddenly asked me “Would you like to play his flute?” Yadin’s flute case had not been opened since his death. His father brought it into the room. He opened it. I took the flute in my hands and played it. And suddenly Yadin was there, alive in the room with us. We all knew this. We all wept. Since then I have felt that his spirit is close by as I play, just as Leonard Bernstein felt it as he wrote the piece.

Halil was written for solo flute, strings, harp, percussion, and, hidden within the orchestra, 2 flutes answering the solo flute and symbolizing Yadin’s spirit. Halil opens with a great rush of sound, as if a young man were bounding onto the stage, filled with life and youth. It modulates into to what I call the “Love Theme”, a gentle, intimate melody, like a mother rocking her child. This theme is interrupted by a call from the spirit voices, and then nightmarish sounds from the percussion, suddenly turning and leading into a joyous, jazzy dance, the flute singing out. All seems well and happy. Abruptly a shot is heard and more shots, with a full onslaught of the percussion. We are in the midst of battle. Smoke is everywhere. The flute cries out, shrieks, hallucinates, sings fragments of themes, shudders, tries to rise, but in the end, after more intense fire, and after one great cry, is silent. The ensemble continues, singing from the heart, and after a pause, we hear again the love theme. But it is interrupted, gently, as if we are thinking of Yadin, and we stop, and look around, and we say “But he’s not here; where is he?” Then again we hear Yadin’s flute spirit voices, as if to answer our question, and in the last few bars the solo flute finally speaks again as if from a great distance, in what Bernstein called “its ambiguously diatonic final cadence”, breathing a final “amen”.

PAULA CHATS WITH PHOENIX

It feels like the stars are aligning for this retelling of Halil, which you first performed at the composer's memorial service. Not only are we celebrating the centennial of Bernstein's birth-year, but your performance falls on the 28th anniversary of his passing.

Yes indeed the stars are aligned! This is also the month of Yadin's passing. But it's a funny thing; I always feel that the stars are aligned when I play Halil~or at least that there are higher powers guiding all of us who are united to play and listen to it. The story of Yadin has the power to touch us every single time because it expresses so vividly the horror of war, and along with it our constant longing for peace.

Additionally, we have the delight of playing with you in gorgeous Calderwood Hall, a venue where you have frequently featured and to which you have a special connection.

I cannot wait to play Halil in Calderwood. The hall will embrace all of us. The inner resonating space will be both musical and spiritual. And I cannot wait to make music with Phoenix! I am so happy you asked me to join you for this beautifully conceived concert!

How do you reflect on the significance of these coinciding details, and how might it affect your enjoyment of the occasion? How might you use this opportunity to bring a unique perspective to the piece?

I hope that our audience takes a few moments to read the program note before listening to Halil. It's the story of the piece, but also of my life-changing experience on the day I met Yadin's family in Israel and spent several hours with them....An amazing, astounding experience. Tears come to my eyes just thinking about it! Being in Yadin's house, seeing his pictures, touching his flute, all brought me close to this wondrous piece, gave me a pathway to it, helped me understand it and why Leonard Bernstein used the gestures he did: The young man full of life, the loving circle of family, the battle, the grief, the spirit-voices, and the final amen....

Theatre and film have been so influential in your family as well as your career. Have you ever considered (or achieved) creating a visual/theatrical element to compliment Halil? Why or why not?

Of course! It's a dream! Maybe we can find a way together to film after we experience the piece together. Wouldn't that be wonderful?


Thanks so much for reading, and we hope to see you all at our season-opening Calderwood Hall debut on Sunday, October 14! It's gonna be 🔥

-Jesse Christeson

Jesse ChristesonComment