Following the tragic murders at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem last March, many Jews asked themselves how a terrorist massacre could occur at a place of Torah study.
In Pittsburgh, though, one Israeli-born composer chose his own way to seek the
Nizan Leibovich’s musical interpretation of the terror attack, the chamber piece, “Avaksha” (“I shall ask… “), makes its world premiere on Monday, Dec. 15, at Chatham University, as one of eight pieces performed by the IonSound Project in “IonSounds of the Season: Sacred Invocations.”
“I don’t recall in recent history a terrorist attack at a spiritual and religious institute,” Leibovich said. “One of the greatest questions was why this happened there.”
“It was of such a magnitude, this event,” he continued. “It was so big and so significant. I think it shocked everyone.”
“Avaksha,” an elegy for clarinet, violin and cello, is dedicated to the eight young students who were shot down by a terrorist while studying Torah on March 6, and to their chief rabbi, who grappled with the question of “why” following the murders.
The gunman, an East Jerusalem Arab, also wounded 15 others before an Israel army officer killed him.
Leibovich said he composed “Avaksha” after he saw an interview with the yeshiva’s chief rabbi on Israeli television.
“I was very touched,” he said. “He was so fragile and so sincere. He didn’t come with answers, but with all this tremendous belief in what they were doing.”
Leibovich was particularly moved by the rabbi’s response when asked: “What if the boys who survived the attack had questions about how it could have happened at such a spiritual place?”
“‘I would be worried if they don’t,’” the rabbi replied.
The murders raised many questions in Leibovich’s mind as well. “And when I have questions, I go to music. It’s a way I can explore my inner thoughts.”
The piece is “very intimate,” he said, with only three instruments, each representing a different part of the soul.
According to Kabbala, the soul has three parts: neshama (breath); ruach (wind); and, nefesh (rest). In “Avaksha,” Leibovich said, one can hear each part of the soul, beginning with that part represented by the clarinet, leaving the body, going on to “higher domains,” searching for an answer.
The three components are eventually reunited, ending “with a sort of requiem, lending peace and rest to the soul.”
“‘Avaksha’ seems to work in thematically with our program very well,” said Elisa Kohanski, cellist for IonSound Project. The group will perform eight “spiritually inspired pieces” Monday evening, bridged by various readings from a range of different faiths and cultures.
“The whole concert is about unity,” said Kohanski. “We wanted to incorporate all the faiths at the holiday season. Nizan’s piece works well with our concept of the idea of all the faiths getting along together, and the parallel themes of hope, peace and the desire for unity.”
“It’s a beautiful piece, and I’m enjoying playing it,” Kohanski added.
IonSound Project, founded in 2004, is comprised of six musicians who perform innovative concerts, commission works of new music, and frequently collaborate with artists in a variety of disciplines. IonSound is Ensemble-in-Residence at University of Pittsburgh, where it performs the works of graduate students in composition.
“Avaksha” concludes with fragments of a melody based on one of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, which, Leibovich noted, was a guide to the young victims throughout their lives and which continues to guide the survivors of the attack.
Born in Tel Aviv, Leibovich moved to Pittsburgh in 2001. He has held positions with orchestras, ensembles and festivals throughout Europe, the United States and Israel. He regularly conducts most of the major orchestras in Israel, and also currently serves as the music director of the Zohar Chamber Singers of Pittsburgh. His piece “There is No Utterance, There are No Words, Whose Sound Goes Unheard,” inspired by a 2002 terrorist attack in which a close friend was killed, was recently featured as part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days in New York.
“In Israel, things happen,” he said. “After a day or two, it passes. But this event (the Mercaz Harav massacre) was still there at least a week. It affected everyone on a different level.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)