T he original heyday of the amateur talent contest was the Depression. Major Bowes ruled the airwaves and talent contests were a highlight in movie theaters and dying vaudeville houses around the country. Today the venue has changed to “reality” television, but the staggering economy still helps fuel people’s dreams of stardom, from “American Idol” to “The Voice.”
Regrettably, live competitions are significantly fewer, although some stalwarts like the Apollo Theater still soldier on.
The classical music world is, of course, the exception. Nerve-wracking competitions with big payoffs are a longstanding tradition there. The latest addition to the ranks, “Opera Idol,” is something of an Israeli production, a relatively small-scale operation in its first year, with ambitions to bigger things.
The primary movers behind “Opera Idol” are Tel Aviv-born siblings Michael Peer, 30, and Ronit Ashirov, 34, respectively a singer and pianist. They owe their involvement in the project not only to their own musical talents and interests but to their bloodlines as well. Their grandfather, Arkadi Namatiev, was a prominent baritone in the former Soviet Union who made aliyah in 1973 and spent the last 15 years of his life as an equally prominent cantor. Six months ago, Peer and Ashirov established the Arkadi Foundation in his memory, and set in motion the machinery to create the competition, in large part as a charity fundraiser. (The proceeds from the event will be going to the oncology unit of Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Services.)
“Grandfather really loved opera,” Peer said in a telephone interview last week. “We wanted to revive his name as an opera singer. He died in synagogue during a Shabbat service, a very holy death. About 20 years later, we found recordings of him singing, and we’ll open the evening with a brief excerpt from one of them.”
Then the tensions will rise. Twelve experienced opera singers will meet as finalists, with three prizes being awarded. First prize is the title of “Opera Idol” and $1,000; second prize, chosen by the audience through text messaging, is $500; third prize is a private coaching and recording session.
Peer, who will be one of the three judges (along with Metropolitan Opera singer Mark Oswald and pianist Ziva Namatiev, Peer and Ashirov’s aunt), has been on the other side of the competition grind. A widely experienced bass-baritone currently teaching at Queensborough College, his advice to the contestants is refreshingly straightforward.
“They have only five minutes apiece,” he would remind them. “I try to orient them on how to do character — acting, not just singing. If they want to take the advice, that’s fine. If not, that’s OK, too. These are experienced singers from around the world. They’re still young, between 20 and 35, but they’re at a good level.”
All they have to overcome is the nerves that accompany live performance with 11 competitors listening for their every miscue.
“It’s very easy to lose a competition,” Peer cautioned. “There are so many good singers. You try to think what the judges are thinking, to know the music, the diction. But the bottom line is talent. You can study all your life, but it’s talent that stands out.”
Which is why they used to call them talent shows.
“Opera Idol” will take place on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Merkin Hall (129 W. 67th St.). In addition to competition itself, the program will include a mini-recital by Michael Peer. For information, go to http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall/event/arkadi-foundation-presents-opera-idol.
Shimrit Shoshan Arrives!
Jazz Piano From Israel To Harlem.
She’s not exactly fresh off the boat. In fact, Shimrit Shoshan, yet another rising jazz piano star from Israel, has been in New York for nine years, which, given that she’s only 27, is rather amazing. But Shoshan doesn’t do things the easy way. It wouldn’t fit her philosophy of music and life.
“We’re living in a period of instant pop stars,” she says, nursing an iced coffee in a café in Washington Heights. “That kind of fame fades away. If you don’t have a good foundation, you lose yourself. I know that this is the harder way to go, but many young musicians just don’t know the history behind their music.”
She surely does. Her first CD, “Keep It Movin’,” is a heady collection of smartly crafted original tunes, with Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” thrown in as a brisk chaser. Her writing voice is distinctive, a blend of influences that harkens back to the interregnum between late bebop and the modal innovations of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a period of jazz piano that hasn’t got a label but does have a special sound. It’s cerebral but funky, a little impressionistic but bluesy.
Oddly, what Shoshan’s sound doesn’t include is Middle-Eastern influences. She cautions her interlocutor that the recording and the tunes on the CD are three years old.
“The music I’m writing now might have more of that flavor,” she says. “I came here to learn, not to conquer. I needed to do some investigation before I could call [what I write] Israeli jazz.”
Shoshan is clearly an independent spirit. That much is evident from her impetuous decision to come to New York. She had completed her military service, performing with other army musicians. That stint included two months of workshops in the States and she knew immediately that this was where she would be heading.
“I worked in a record store for a few months and saved, then I came to New York, a 19-year-old kid with two suitcases and a thousand bucks,” she recalls.
Like any newcomer, she was dazzled by the vitality of the city’s music scene. “I wanted to study with street musicians and hang out in the clubs,” she says. “I knew the Cohens [clarinetist-saxophonist Anat and trumpeter Avishai] from home, but Avishai had said to me, ‘You have to do it yourself,’ and I took that to heart.”
If there is an “Israeli jazz mafia,” Shimrit Shoshan isn’t part of it. By her own description, she’s more of a loner, living in Harlem where it gradually turns into Washington Heights, in a building whose past tenants included Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
She thinks about her predecessors — Bud Powell, Monk, Sonny Clark, Herbie Nichols are name-checked — and “the vibe that’s there in Harlem,” and she knows she has farther to go. But even a casual listen to the album tells a listener that she’s already gone a long way.
“I feel I’ve developed a lot,” she says. “It’s taken a long time, and the process isn’t easy. But you can’t avoid it, you have to go through the process. If you don’t grow, something is missing, you’re not doing the right thing.”
She doesn’t have to worry about that. She is definitely growing, with a voice all her own.
Shimrit Shoshan will be playing with her quartet on Sept. 30, Oct. 14, Nov. 4, Nov. 26 and Dec. 8 at Fat Cat (75 Christopher St.). For information go to www.fatcatmusic.com. For more information on Shimrit, go to her website, www.shimritshoshan.com. Her debut CD “Keep It Movin’” is available for download on iTunes or for purchase from www.CDBaby.com.