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The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival marks the start of the concert season in Israel. It opens this weekend at the YMCA auditorium and will run from September 3-15. Its internationalism used to refer to the participants who came here from abroad. But now, says festival director and founder Elena Bashkirova, it also refers to the festival ensemble's appearing abroad.

Up until a few years, it was concentrated, as its name indicates, in Jerusalem alone. Now the festival ensemble, with Jerusalem in its name, plays abroad at important venues - the opening concert at Carnegie Hall's new auditorium (it has been invited to return) and festivals in Lucerne, Berlin, Vienna and Madrid.

"The whole worldwide audience cannot come to Israel, for all sorts of reasons," says Bashkirova, "so we go to them and hope that more and more will also come here from there."

Bashkirova is joined and at international concerts throughout the year by musicians who are regulars at the festival in Jerusalem, which is now in its seventh year, among them: the string players and brothers Renaud and Gautier Capucon; clarinetist Karl-Heinz Steffens and others

Bashkirova has been criticized for her standard core of musicians: "Why do the same people always come?" people ask.

She responds that their coming can not be taken for granted, that they receive no financial remuneration and they come year after year with enjoying the aura of international music centers.

So what motivates them to come nevertheless?

"The joy of performing together and primarily the audience. There is nothing comparable to the Jerusalem audience at the festival: A core group of devoted followers has developed. Some of them even study the pieces ahead of time and don't miss a single concert. The energy created by this concentration and devotion is felt very strongly by us on stage, more than on any other stage in the world."

In the past, the festival hosted some of the biggest musicians in their fields, including cellist Micha Maisky, pianist Yefim Bronfman, bassist Robert Holl and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim (Bashkirova's husband).

This year's roster of musicians features several internationally renowned musicians as well, including some of the first musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Bashkirova resides in Berlin): bassoonist Daniele Damiano, flutist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinetist Karl-Heinz Steffens, contrabassist Nabil Shehata and the orchestra's concert master, Israeli violinist Guy Braunstein.

They and other regulars such as violinist Madeleine Caruzzo and cellist Alban Gerhardt will be joined this year by numerous Israeli artists, who will comprise around half of the 50 or so participants.

"We want to create a broader body of musicians: perhaps not an orchestra, but enough to perform big pieces," says Bashkirova. Consequently, at this year's festival one can hear Israeli musicians too, and not only the "kvuim" participants: violinist Hagai Shaham, oboists Tamar Inbar and Dudu Carmel, French horn players Alon Reuven and Hezi Nir, the PercaDu duo on percussion, the trumpeter Eran Reemy, the Jerusalem and Carmel String Quartets and numerous others.

Jazz concerts

Each year it seems the festival broadens - in length and in the variety of works performed: "The only thing is to keep moving forward and not stagnate," says Bashkirova, "so as not to strangle the festival." This year will see a new collaborative effort with the Jerusalem Music Center, where there will be master classes and jazz concerts, and with the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which will screen music films; and from the stylistic perspective, the horizons have broadened considerably.

"I believe in having a given theme to guide the program in order to pile on works that are not related but, on the other hand, a theme that is broad and non-dogmatic enough to embrace a sub-theme and be enriched by different styles and tastes."

Last year, the concerts focused on Vienna and this year on Eastern Europe as a whole, a theme that is flexible enough to cover the Czech composers Smetana, Martinu and Janacek; the Hungarian composers Kodaly, Kurtag and Ligeti and the Polish composers Szymanowski, Lutoslawski and Penderecki.

Dvorak will be given a special status in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death as will Beethoven, one of whose works will be performed at each concert to add diversity.

There will be duos and sextets, as well as a Beethoven septet and a Mendelssohn octet (conducted by Lawrence Foster) and songs by Franz Liszt and Gottfried von Einem, performed by the renowned baritone Andreas Schmidt.

Each year Bashkirova tries to commission an original work: last year it was from the young Israeli Matan Porat and this year the job fell to Russian Tatjana Komarowa, who wrote "Page from a Diary" in memory of cellist Boris Pergaminchikov, a key figure in the creation and continuation of the festival.

From her perspective, says Bashkirova, the festival is one of the highlights of her professional career: "There is a moment in life when it seems that everything has already been done, and there's still so much more to give, and this is my way of doing so. In Berlin, New York, Paris - where there is everything - it seems that appreciation of the special is not so great because of the huge supply available.

"But, on the other hand, we, as musicians, what do we need?

"We need the audience's gratitude, genuine gratitude and a sense that we are doing something good, important and meaningful. The fulfillment of this, in Jerusalem, is what gives meaning to my playing here year after year."