A recital reimagined: Yale violinist merges tradition, technology

By utilizing LED lights, video game projections, and more, Ilana Zaks hopes to create a sense of intimacy and connection — along with wonder — for her audience.
Ilana Zaks

Ilana Zaks (Photo by Andrew Hurley)

When Yale School of Music student Ilana Zaks performs her Master of Musical Arts recital at Sprague Hall this week, it will not be a typical concert experience.

For starters, she’ll begin the recital in the hall’s balcony with her audience seated on the main floor below her. During the whirlwind performance, she’ll also wear LED lights while a video game is projected on a screen behind her, play alongside an actor silently performing scenes from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and invite audience members to edge closer to the stage for a more intimate experience.

Above all, she’ll tell a story, through the music itself and her own narration, about the history of classical music performance — from the days when concerts were social occasions for the well-to-do in private residences to a period when they became more equitable entertainment in the public marketplace, and from a time when artists performed mostly in silent concert halls to the more experiential events of the modern era.

But make no mistake; this is not a performance of experimental or avant-garde music. Zaks, who is 22, is a classical violinist who will perform a predominately classical music concert in the traditional space of Sprague Memorial Hall. She’ll just do so in a way that she hopes creates a sense of intimacy and connection — along with wonder — for her audience.

I want to bring the kind of experience where everyone is able to communicate and feel that they belong, no matter how much they know or don’t know about classical music,” says Zaks. “The audience is there for an experience, and it’s not about whether you are ‘qualified’ to listen to it or you know enough to understand it properly.

It is just about enjoying it and experiencing it firsthand from an emotional perspective, but also from an experiential perspective — and leaving with an impression of joy.”

She has titled her recital “The Violin Reimagined: A Performance Installation.” She imagines it almost like an art installation — something that is temporary, tells a story, and allows for a reimagining of the space where it happens.

Intimacy of ritual’

Ilana Zaks
(Photo by Andrew Hurley)

Zaks’ recital fulfills a requirement of the School of Music to obtain an M.M.A. degree. She earned her master’s degree from the School of Music in May of 2022 and her B.A. from the New England Conservatory in 2020.

In her recital, Zaks, who has been playing the violin since she was three years old and has won many top prizes in musical competitions, will include pieces that span four centuries, allowing her to explore the evolution of music and performance, and how audiences interact with art.

She’ll begin the recital, from the balcony, with a performance of “Khazn’s Recitative: Elu D’vorim,” written in 2003 by Gabriela Lena Frank, an exploration of Jewish cantorial music. “I wanted to explore the ways that I could bring together that intimacy of ritual that was so prominent in medieval and Renaissance musical experiences, which were not necessarily formal concerts in the way we think of now,” she said.

From there she’ll move on to Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 296 (1778), with School of Music collaborative pianist, David Ji, and then Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice No. 17, which is one of 24 caprices he wrote between 1802 and 1817 for solo violin, and considered one of the most challenging violin pieces ever composed. (Paganini, she said, changed the way that people listen to solo violin music — and the way they listen to performers of any solo instrument — because he depended on the public marketplace, not on aristocrats.)

And when she premieres “Video Game Vespers,” an original composition by School of Music student Aaron Israel Levin ’27 D.M.A. written for her, Zaks will implement wearable LEDs as a part of the video game that will be projected on a large screen onstage. For this part of her program — for which she will also employ a special computer software that will project electronics and her audience’s reaction onto the screen — she collaborated with award-winning game designer and Yale alumnus Jack Wesson ’19 and artistic designer Winter Willoughby ’22.

The recital idea was inspired by two syllabi Zaks found when she was registering for Fall 2022 classes: Yale School of Music’s music history professor Lynette Bowring’s “The History of Public Performance” and Department of Music professor Anna Zayaruznaya’s “From Concept to Concert.” After intensive summer reading and discussions with the professors over the past several months, she began to design a program to bring these ideas to the stage.

Ilana is more than just a terrific violinist; she is a thinker and an innovator,” said Ani Kavafian, professor in the practice of violin at the School of Music, who teaches Zaks. “This recital will show her audience the best of what she can do.”

The incorporation of technology was drawn from Zaks’ recent experiences as an artist fellow and later a blended reality fellow at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM). “I am the furthest thing from a techie,” she said. “But every time I enter the CCAM, I always find something that astonishes me, or I meet someone who absolutely shocks me to my core about ways of creating a new spectator experience.”

Zaks’ recital takes place at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 10 in Sprague Memorial Hall, 470 College St. Admission is free. To learn more about Zaks, visit her website.

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