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Ittai Shapira Interview

Posted on 04 February 2008. © Copyright 2004-2024 Composition:Today

C:T talks to violinist Ittai Shapira, who has commissioned and performed many new works, and is also a composer.

Ittai Shapira
Tell us something about your background.

I grew up in Israel where I studied with Ilona Feher, who taught quite a few of the well know Israeli violinists (Shmuel Ashkenasi, Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz, Hagai Shaham, etc) and moved to NY at 15 to study at the Juilliard School wth Doroty DeLay and then Robert Mann. I started performing regularly as a soloist in my late teens- a very traditional career of standard repertoire at first, and in the last 10 years or so have added quite commissioned works to my repertoire. I now play 15 concertos that were written for me.

You are principally known as a violinist - how did you get into composing?

Very gradually; I studied theory which spilled into composition with Mark Kopytman (who was Osvaldo Golijov's teacher) in Israel. When I started working composers I knew, so felt comfortable making suggestions for changing passage work, wrote my own cadenzas, etc. I wrote a lot of transcriptions, fantasies on themes and 4 years ago wrote my first piece for violin and orchestra- "Virtuoso Variations"; each variation was dedicated to a different violinist- from Paganini to Grappelli and Menuhin. I have since written my own caprices and very recently a full violin concerto-"Concierto Latino"

Tell us more about the Concierto Latino

I premiered the concerto last week with the Israel Sinfonietta under Ori Leshman. It is inspired by Latin dances and has loose elements of the Tango, Flamenco, Soleare. Conga and Salsa. I didn't want to reveal my own story and perspective until after the premiere-this concerto was written as result of odd circumstances. I was attacked by a gang in New York in 2005; While it seemed like a relatively insignificant event at the time (I was released from the Hospital the next morning and played a concert a few days later) I heard very consistent sounds in my head months later. In time, I remembered it was the sounds of my falling on ice. I decided to write them down. Those sounds and my interest in Latin music (I was listening to a wide range- from De Falla to Evora and Shakira) somehow burst into melodies, which eventually turned into a concerto. The first movement, "The Attack" starts with just that-and then depicts sounds of my running away and attempts to "negotiate" with them prior to the attack. The second movement "Lament" deals with Sorrow, mourning interrupted by a dark, rustic Tango and the third , "Party" is an optimistic collection of Dances. I was honored to be able to perform it!

Who or what has influenced you most as a composer?

I make little distinction between what influences me as composer and performer, actually. When I prepare standard rep, be it the Elgar violin concerto or Sibelius, Dvorak, I make a point of getting to know their compositions for other instruments, symphonies and am of course very interested in their orchestration.

Having gotten to know composers I work with regularly, their personal stories an approach has tremendous impact. For example- my most CD release is a live performance of Shulamit Ran's violin concerto which I premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Still, every time I perform it I think back at the time she told me the whole concerto was about her mother, depicting her strength and then the inevitable feeling of loss (her mother being quite ill at the time- she did make the premiere and sadly passed away 3 years ago). Dave Heath, whose works wrote a piece in the memory of Daniel Pearl which involved quite a spiritual journey and even a work called 'Naima" which was an homage to Coltraine. Avner Dorman who found an exhilarating way of combining his love for different genres in music-Baroque to Pop into his own style I find this sort of collaboration very meaningful. Every piece has its own stories and usually as performers we are removed from them, not knowing the circumstances under which the works were written. I think those personal stories pushed my buttons to write my own music.

As a violinist what do you look for in a piece of new music? And what turns you off?

I think that a piece of music should always communicate-whether it's an immediate connection or a longer process. Sounds obvious but I do get turned off when I feel I can't connect. If I am curious about a new piece, I will find a way to relate to it but there needs to be some kind of an instinctive attraction to the sound. When working with composers I always try to push the envelope, look for new sounds but of course it has to come from a place of integrity.

Do you commission new work?

Yes, I do-I have been lucky to have orchestra cooperate with me on this, and end up premiering at least one new work a year. In the last few years I have been interested in an umbrella theme of folk music; have done a Ragtimes Suite by John Novacek, a Celtic Concerto by Dave Heath and lots of other ideas in the works!:) I tend to work with composere who are quite familiar with my playing and are open to a collaborative process-lots of give and take, rewriting etc.

What are your plans for the future?

In addition to touring with a lot of standard repertoire the immediate future includes another premiere- "The Runaway Bunny" for violin, narrator and orchestra. It is based on a children's classic, and was written by four time Emmy winner, Glen Roven. I have recorded it for Sony/BMG with the Royal Philharmonic, Brooke Shields Narrrating and am looking forward to performing it with her on April 29th at Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony- the composer will be conducting. This will be a benefit that a foundation I co-founded with Hagai Shaham (The Ilona Feher Foundation) will be putting together for the Schneider Children's Hospital in Israel.

How can people find out more about you?

My web site: and also

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2024

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