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Spotlight on Sivan Magen

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New Boundaries for the Harp

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When most people think of a career at the harp bench, what comes to mind is an orchestral harpist, the guardian of the harp's position alongside other major orchestral instruments. But Sivan Magen (BM'07, MM '08, harp), whose career is made up almost exclusively of solo and chamber performances, notes that there's been a shift in the harp world recently. “There are many more people who are adventurous at the instrument, looking for ways to find their voice at the instrument as soloists and collaborative artists. It's really fantastic!” he told The Journal. “It's less about the harp itself, and more reflective of a larger shift in classical music. Harpists, like other musicians, are seeking ways to expand the scope of classical music.”

Sivan Magen

Sivan Magen

(Photo by Musicians Designs)

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Among Magen's many projects is the Israeli Chamber Project (I.C.P.), of which he's a founding member. Now in its ninth season, the ensemble has grown considerably in profile in Israel and the United States—it's based in New York City and performs in both countries. Last year's performances included a clown-themed concert (yes, you read that right) at the Morgan Library featuring a new chamber transcription of Stravinsky's Petroushka alongside a staged performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. New repertoire and interesting programming are strong commitments of the ensemble, and of Magen in particular. Among his fellow co-founders are Assaff Weisman (BM '99, MM '01, piano), Tibi Cziger (Graduate Diploma '06, Artist Diploma '08, ;clarinet), Itamar Zorman (MM '09, Artist Diploma '12, violin), and Michal Korman (MM '07, Artist Diploma '09, cello).

Though the I.C.P.'s work—performance, outreach, commissioning—is complex and multifaceted, its foundations are simple. “There was a group of Israeli students who arrived at Juilliard in different capacities and different points in our educations,” he said. “We had a common love for chamber music but wanted a way to maintain artistic connections with each other and with other musicians back in Israel. We're just a group of friends who enjoy playing together.” In the U.S., concerts tend to take place in traditional venues while in Israel, “our concerts aim to provide classical music for underprivileged communities,” he explained. “Over time, our visits to Israel have become increasingly special as we've come back to certain places many times and been able to see the progress of our educational outreach with students in those areas.” The group has also been active in commissioning new works with particular emphasis on support for emerging Israeli composers, among them Jonathan Keren (MM '06, composition). It has also commissioned Lowell Liebermann (BM '82, MM '84, DMA '87, composition).

Magen places a high value on musical breadth and on the benefits of connections among different musical communities. Born into a family of musicians, he studied at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris before coming to Juilliard to study with Nancy Allen (BM '76, MM '77, harp). “It's important for musicians to be exposed to as many traditions as possible,” he said. “Coming from a small country, it was especially important for me to study at both Paris and Juilliard and to witness the different styles and expectations.” Indeed, Magen's eagerness to wander may have started early. He asked his parents if he could play the harp “without really knowing what it was. As my parents are both cellists, I think I wanted to play something as far away from the cello as possible!”

Though Magen didn't begin playing the harp until he was 12, his longer-term musical training at the piano helped inform his unique approach to the harp. He's known for his transcriptions of keyboard works, and his first solo album, Fantasien, contains transcriptions of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, intermezzos by Brahms, and a host of other works by composers from C.P.E. Bach to Tchaikovsky. “Overall, my training at the piano gave me an acquaintance with repertoire that one might not get at the harp alone. In addition, there are many elements on the piano that are easier than the harp, so pianists are often able to deal with certain artistic matters more immediately than harpists,” he said. “It's this sense of immediacy I feel that helped to foster an artistic awareness that preceded my technical abilities at the harp.” Magen's career is a handful, but he finds it fulfilling. When asked why he didn't become a pianist, he said he felt the harp is “more gratifying because of the control one has of sound production—it's the only [orchestral] string instrument where it's directly produced by your fingers on the strings. As a result there's a huge amount you can do with the resonance of the instrument.”

Among the many transcription projects on Magen's horizon are the Sixth French Suite by Bach, a Mozart piano quartet with the I.C.P., as well as works by Bartók and Janácˇek.The number of new projects could make Magen seem like a trailblazer, but when asked what boundaries he wishes to push, he said, “I wouldn't say that I am one to push boundaries. I think what I enjoy about the instrument is the level of expression that the instrument offers—I try to define my personal playing style by showing it.”

Second-year master's harp student Parker Ramsay holds an Irene Diamond Graduate Fellowship and a Hobin Harp Scholarship.

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