Musical chairs

Tar player Piris Eliyahu melds East and West, with pianist wife

It’s a family affair at the Eliyahus’ concert at Confederation House, breaking new musical ground

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Pianist Larissa Eliyahu (left) and her husband, Tar player Piris Eliyahu, will perform together for the first time in their 41 years of marriage on April 20, 2023 at Jerusalem's Confederation House (Courtesy Peter Vit)
Pianist Larissa Eliyahu (left) and her husband, Tar player Piris Eliyahu, will perform together for the first time in their 41 years of marriage on April 20, 2023 at Jerusalem's Confederation House (Courtesy Peter Vit)

When Tar player and composer Piris Eliyahu performs in Jerusalem on Thursday night, he and his new quartet will break new ground, connecting East and West in a musical work he’s calling his “opus.”

“I call it post-Mizrahi and Western music,” said Eliyahu. “It’s post both of them. We’re living in this society that’s got East and West and this is something that’s beyond that.”

Eliyahu will perform on his long-necked string instrument together with percussionist Roni Ibrin, bassist Daniel Ibrin, and his wife, pianist Larisa Eliyahu, at the Confederation House, under the management of Effie Benaya.

Surprisingly, this will be the first time Eliyahu performs with his pianist wife of 41 years.

“We’ve been playing together since I’m 17,” said Eliyahu, who was born in Derbent, Dagestan and earned his first degrees at the Rostov Music Academy in Russia.

He has focused mostly on Eastern music since they moved to Israel in 1989, while Larissa Eliyahu has remained in the traditional, Western musical tradition. “We’re always playing together, four hands on piano, but not in performances.”

The four are sometimes joined by the Eliyahus’ son, Mark Eliyahu, a musician who plays the kamancheh, and who’s also known for composing the theme music to Apple TV+ series, “Tehran.”

“It’s really a family affair,” said Eliyahu.

Eliyahu is a master of Eastern music and its instruments, borne of his Northern Caucasus background, its proximity to Persia and those influences on his musical family.

A composer already at 15, Eliyahu focused for years on Eastern sounds and liturgical music as well, earning his PhD at Bar Ilan University where he now teaches at the School of Ethnic Music.

“The sounds of the West were strange to me,” he said. “But years passed, and I’m less of an Eastern idealist.”

Coming to Israel also had an influence on Eliyahu, opening him to a wider frame of influence, particularly as Mizrahi musicians were “fighting to bring their voices,” he said, a battle that was particularly fraught for many years.

“The Western methods from Europe have always been here, but where are the Eastern scales?” said Eliyahu. “Teach that in the kindergartens and then there won’t be this contradiction, it will be in harmony.”

Eliyahu has been part of the battle, working to teach Eastern music through music programs and schools that he helped establish, including Musrara in Jerusalem and Maqamat in Tzfat, often without any government funding, at least initially.

Tar player Piris Eliyahu was born in the Caucasus and moved to Israel in 1989, and has moved to meld East and West in his music. (Courtesy Peter Vit)

“It looks a little different today,” said Eliyahu, remarking that musicians have to get up and make the change they seek rather than waiting for handouts.

These days, the Eliyahus reside in the city of Arad in the Judean Desert, where they work and compose with views of the desert.

“This musical work has been influenced by nature and how it affects me, and I’ll bring the audience to that world of dreams and imagination,” said Eliyahu.

“I’ve worked hard to tie the traditional harmonies of Western music to the sounds of the East, he said. “It’s an effort that took many years, and now it doesn’t feel like someone from the East is just dipping into the West.”

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