Jerusalem Post (Apr 19, 2002)
Have marimba, will travel
Byline: Barry Davis
Date: Friday, April 19, 2002
Publication: Magazine Page: 22
Keywords: Alex Jacobowitz, Music, Profile
Caption: Alex Jacobowitz
Have you ever wondered how the percussionists in a classical orchestra spend the time in between their generally highly infrequent calls to duty? It can't be much fun waiting for a half an hour or more for a dozen bars of frenzied tympani or cymbal action before resuming the long-suffering bystander role, while the strings and wind instruments take care of things. New York-born resident of Kiryat Arba Alex Jacobowitz once earned his keep as a member of the percussion section of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO). His decision to aim for individual fame and glory - if not fortune - was prompted by an incident which took place one day in 1983, when the JSO was rehearsing Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony at Jerusalem's ICC building. Jacobowitz was entrusted with the 'mighty' triangle for the piece and, knowing he had plenty of time to wait until he would be called upon play in the fourth movement, he left the building and went across the road to take care of some pressing financial business.
'As I took my place in the bank's line, Valery from Leningrad [the percussion section leader], ran in breathlessly and in clear earshot of the other bank customers read me the heavily Russian-accented Hebrew version of the riot act,' Jacobowitz recalls. 'I surrendered, and walked back with him to the concert hall to dutifully await my triangle cue in the fourth movement - one hour and seven minutes later.'
That altercation with his orchestra boss did it for Jacobowitz and he began to plan his big break for freedom, and the life of a soloist, which would allow
him to be occupied on stage on a full-time basis. 'When I played in an orchestra, I did love it. But I realized that this was not the way I wanted to spend my whole life, that it was better for me to find a truly artistic form
of expression.' Almost 20 years later, Jacobowitz appears to have achieved that goal.
He now regularly appears in Europe's top classical music venues and has just released a new classical CD, The Art of Xylos, with the Arte Nova label, an offshoot of one of Europe's most prestigious record companies BMG.
If you're going to break away from the artistically constraining, but comfortable, life of an orchestral musician for the freedom and financially riskier life of a solo performer, it helps if you choose an instrument which marketing managers would call 'sexy.' Keyboard players and guitarists, for example, have a distinct advantage there.
There aren't, however, too many PR executives who would jump at the chance of representing a marimba player.
Jacobowitz began his musical career as a percussionist. He'd hammered away at drum sets from the age of 10, and played a range of percussion instruments while a student at the State University of New York. One of
those instruments happened to be a marimba - a two-meter wide wooden xylophone with a 100 keys - and it was, basically, a story of love at first smite.
'As soon as I played a marimba I fell in love. Although I liked percussion, I loved marimba.' Jacobowitz says he knew he was going to do something unique with the instrument but, if he was looking for encouragement from his mentors, he was going to be sadly disappointed.
'I went to my percussion professor and asked him what it would take to become a world-class classical marimbist. He just laughed and said: 'There is no such thing and, in any case, you have no virtuoso qualities.' But, I was so in love that I knew I couldn't do anything else besides playing the marimba.'
There was no turning back after that and Jacobowitz soon took a break from his studies to work and save up enough money to buy his own marimba.
'I realized that, if was to become a marimbist, I would have to have my own instrument. When I'd done that, I went back to school with my very own marimba. That was really the beginning of everything.'
Jacobowitz immediately set about honing his skills on the gargantuan instrument, but soon realized that if he was going to a true artist, he would have to learn how to express his spirit as well as display top-class technique. 'I think the very first press review I got said something like: 'Jacobowitz was a splendid performer who never allowed virtuosity to blanket the unique musical message.' That was right on. In my opinion, although it is a valid goal to become a virtuoso, it doesn't mean anything until the virtuoso realizes it has to be connected to being virtuous. You have to have something to say - something that people enjoy.'
Top musicians use expressions like 'finding your own voice' and 'getting your message across.' For Jacobowitz, offering his audience something that is both unique and relevant is of paramount importance.
'When I started playing my instrument I didn't just want to do it to be different. With so many performers and recordings, it's hard to find one's niche without having to become ever more esoteric. It's very hard to create a new interpretation that really means something without saying: 'This is the very first performance that was done under water standing on my head.' We have people on my instrument who are creating quarter tones and who specialize playing the original instrument from Africa. But I want to play music that means something to me and, therefore, it is easier to convey that meaning to the audience.'
That search for meaning also led Jacobowitz, who comes from a secular home, to become a ba'al teshuva (newly religious). Considering he spends much of his eight months a year on the road in Germany, his physical
appearance, with flowing beard, long payot (forelocks) and large black kippa, must surely evoke some interesting responses from his audiences.
There is no mistaking Jacobowitz's cultural and religious identity and he has some close calls with malevolent onlookers who didn't like the way marimbist looked. 'I have felt challenged,' he says. 'But I wasn't going to go away, and I wasn't going to be afraid. My kippa, my beard, my tzitzit - these are not props. They are who I am.'
Jacobowitz admits his appearance is somewhat 'in the face' and says it can take both performer and audience a while to settle into a 'normal' musician-listener relationship. 'I wouldn't say I feel entirely comfortable the whole time. I grew up in New York as an American with a very clear anti-German bias. But my grandparents came from Hungary and Romania so I also felt comfortable in European culture. After ten years playing primarily in Europe, I think I have gone a long way to understanding how people want to be seen and how they need to be seen by others and, in a lot of ways, how music can act as a therapeutic source - not really a cathartic source, but working on people's identity.'
This search for a direct and intimate relationship with his audiences prompts Jacobowitz to continue setting up his unwieldy instrument on street corners and in public squares all over Europe, even after topping the bill at some of the grandest auditoriums the continent has to offer.
'There are heroes and grinders,' he says. 'The grinders count the money as they busk. The heroes want to get a message across, and get their music heard.'
Jacobowitz's repertoire includes Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi, but he is also happy to play klezmer music. With such a versatile instrument at his disposal one might expect the marimba player to include more clearly
improvised material in his programs. But, after breaking out of the orchestral player role, Jacobowitz is keen to maintain his independent and flexible status.
'When you get involved into trying to cover all professional bases you lose your focus,' he declares. 'What I really want to do, more than anything, is to
show people that what I do is a little world inside itself. If I start getting into jazz that automatically predicates me having to play with an ensemble and my having to learn to work with other people's limitations, as well as their strengths. That's a potentially positive thing but I'm wondering if that's just going to wind up alienate me from my natural constituents. You have to stay where you feel at home.'
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