Interview With Yohanan Cinnamon, Composer and Self-Taught Musician

Meet Yohanan Cinnamon, a composer based in Jerusalem. His recent album, Piano & Strings, features two suites that he composed and were arranged by Israel Edelson, a former assistant conductor to Maestro Leonard Bernstein. As the album title implies, Cinnamon has never received formal music training. In fact, he is a British-French biblical studies teacher working in Jerusalem. Despite this, Cinnamon’s love for music, extensive experience in composing, and collaboration with renowned musicians demonstrate significant promise in his musical works. In this interview, Cinnamon introduces us to himself and his album.

Yohanan Cinnamon

Yohanan Cinnamon

Nice to meet you! Would you like to tell us something about yourself? I know you did not receive formal musical training, but you self-trained on the piano and learned through musical collaborations with arrangers. Did you grow up listening to a lot of classical music? When did you start writing music?

Apart from a few piano lessons, I’ve never really studied music, and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know how to read or write music. My career as a composer took off in my early teens when I started picking out tunes on my guitar. The guitar was eventually replaced by the piano, and my compositions gradually gained sophistication, probably as the result of my changing tastes in music. As a kid, I was very much into ‘pop music’ and the Beatles.

I gradually graduated to singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison before eventually being drawn into the rich and wondrous world of classical music. Truth be told, my first exposure to classical music was as a young child. I still recall sitting with my late father on Sunday afternoons and listening to some of his favorite records, including Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Today, my main source of inspiration comes from just listening to music, as well as just playing around on my piano.

Congratulations on the release of the album Piano & Strings. The album includes two sets of pieces, one for string orchestra and one for piano. Can you tell us a bit about each piece?

Yohanan Cinnamon

The two suites featured in my latest album, one for piano and one for string orchestra, are comprised of individual pieces that were composed intermittently over a long span of time. The decision to make a recording of piano pieces came about while going over some of these pieces and realizing just how apt they would be for solo piano. This was also during a period when I was going through a ‘piano phase,’ i.e., when the only music I wanted to listen to was piano music.

The Piano Suite includes recordings by pianists Haim Tukachinsky and Eliyahu Zabaly. Do their musical interpretations differ?

Haydnesque from the Piano Suite

The piano pieces were recorded over seven years ago at two different venues in Jerusalem. The first venue was with the late French pianist, Eliyahu Zabaly, and a year later, the second was with the late Israeli pianist Haim Tukachinsky. If I had to characterize their different styles, Zabaly had a greater technical mastery over the piano, while Tukachinsky had a more soulful approach to his playing. For the Piano and Strings album, I made use of the Zabaly recording for 2 of the more challenging pieces, while the other eight pieces were all taken from the recording with Haim Tukachinsky. Each of these ten pieces underwent somewhat of an audio facelift in honor of this latest release.

So, how about the Romantic Suite for Strings? How was the experience working with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra?

Love Eternal from the Romantic Suite

The Romantic Suite for Strings was tentatively embarked upon just before COVID started. It took almost three years for this project to come to fruition finally. Unlike the piano pieces, the arrangements took longer to make and involved more give and take between Israel and me. The main challenge of this project was actually financial. My decision to go out on a limb and self-finance this recording speaks volumes about my inherent belief in the potential of this music. The recording itself was a considerable gamble, i.e., would the players play with the required commitment, and would they succeed in mastering these pieces in the relatively short recording time allotted to each piece? Thank God the members of Orpheus, led by their principal violinist Richard Rood, acquitted themselves marvelous and really rose to the occasion. It was especially encouraging for Israel and me to see the warmth and enthusiasm with which the members of one of the world’s greatest chamber orchestras received our music. I remember the day of the recording as a combination of nail-biting tension coupled with an amazing feeling of elation, accompanied by my fervent prayers for success.

Allegro in Springtime from the Romantic Suite

This release includes arrangements by Israel Edelson. Edelson was a former assistant conductor to Maestro Leonard Bernstein. Did you know Edelson as a friend? How did you two work together as composer and collaborator? Did you and Edelson have similar taste in music?

Israel Edelson

Israel Edelson ©

The music in this album was created together with my good friend and musical associate Israel Edelson. I provide the basic compositions, while Israel is responsible for making them ‘presentable’ via his arrangements. I was first introduced to Israel about 30 years ago by the late Professor and composer Andre Hajdu. I was looking to make a recording of some of my pieces, and I needed an arranger. Professor Hajdu kindly recommended to me three arrangers, all of whom I collaborated with in the making of my first recording. One of these three arrangers was Israel. Over the years, he has become my main musical partner. We differ in our musical tastes in so far as Israel is very much connected to the world of Jewish Chassidic music; he’s a composer in his own right of ‘nigunim’ (soulful Chassidic tunes), while I’ve always felt more of an affinity for general classical music. Apart from music, another important thing that we have in common is that, despite coming from a secular background, we both made the decision to become religious and adopt Judaism as a way of life.

Are you currently working on any new composition projects? Would you like to tell us a little bit?

I’m happy to announce that Israel and I have recently embarked upon a new musical project, the nature of which will remain hidden until completion!

The album is now available on Spotify and Apple Music.

To learn more about Yohanan Cinnamon, please visit his Facebook page.

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