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Shirley Brill: a musical love story

Israeli musicians Shirley Brill and Jonathan Aner have a new CD out. Jessica Duchen heard their musical love story

    Shirley Brill
    Shirley Brill Photo: www.shirleybrill.com

    Shirley Brill and Jonathan Aner’s new recording is a landmark for the two Israeli musicians. But it is also just the latest step in a long, musical love story that has taken the Brillaner Duo across the world to study with some of the great musicians of their day and, more recently, to Berlin, where the clarinettist and pianist have settled with their two small children.

    One German newspaper praised them as “One soul and one breath…a completely sublime experience.” And now they have been signed up by the German record label Hänssler Classics. Their first CD comprises the Brahms Clarinet Sonata No.1 and the Janáček Violin Sonata in a transcription for clarinet by Brill herself.

    Perhaps it’s lucky that Brill did not stick with her first instrument, the piano. As a schoolgirl, living near Tel Aviv, she was making good progress at the keyboard, but feeling discontented because she wanted something more social from making music. “I wanted to play with other people, rather than by myself, and to play in the orchestra. But I didn’t know which instrument to choose.” The head teacher recommended she try the clarinet with a new teacher who was about to join the school: “It was love at first sight — both with the clarinet and the teacher, who was soon like my third grandpa,” Brill says.

    It wasn’t quite love at first sight when she and Aner met at a music summer school when she was 16 and he was 20, but the pair were soon drawn to one another and played in chamber ensembles together. “Gradually we became a couple,” Brill smiles. “Since we left Israel we have gone everywhere together. We went to Germany to study together, we went to the States together and then back to Berlin.” The couple are not religious, but, says Brill, they always observe the Jewish holidays: “That was always important to me and it’s something I want for my kids too.”

    In Lübeck she studied with the clarinettist Sabine Meyer and in Boston with the leading American soloist Richard Stoltzman. Aner pursued piano and chamber music studies; today he has a flourishing chamber ensemble, the Oberon Piano Trio and is also a professor of piano in Frankfurt.

    “We’re both very open-minded people and we see music pretty much the same way, perhaps also because we started very early,” Brill reflects. “We’re lucky to be able to play together, live together and combine everything. He’s a fantastic, phenomenal pianist and I learn from him all the time. It’s a dream to be able to play with him and to be together.”

    Besides the duo, chamber music and solo work, Brill has also been a member for many years, on and off, of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; last year she became a professor at the new Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin. The WEDO was founded in 1999 by Barenboim and the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, aiming to bring young musicians from Israel and the Arabic countries of the Middle East to work together at the highest level. Brill returns to the WEDO’s intensive periods of rehearsal and touring whenever her family and working life allows.

    “Barenboim succeeds in bringing something very special out of the orchestra,” Brill says. “Because we are people from all sorts of countries with different backgrounds and traditions, we see music slightly differently and the levels of playing vary, but he eventually managed to make us really like one person, with a very unified ensemble. This is what he’s always talking about: we all play in the same way, we think the same way and we laugh at the same jokes — to show the world that Israelis and Arabs can get along together. It is possible!”

    The same principles underpin the new Akademie, at which up to 90 young musicians from across the Middle East study together in a state-of-the-art building that includes an impressive new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal. Brill’s pupils there include a gifted young Syrian clarinettist: “How often does it happen that an Israeli and a Syrian guy are working together, thinking the same things, having the same goals?” she reflects. “We meet sometimes twice a week, for a couple of hours. It’s something unique and special for me, not just as a teacher, but also because the humanitarian side is very important.”

    The Brillaner Duo’s CD of Brahms and Janáček Sonatas for clarinet and piano is out now on Hänssler Classics

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