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At the end of last week, the music department of the Science, Culture and Sports Ministry informed Israeli orchestras how their playing had been ranked by a special committee. There were surprises, there were disappointments, there were angry reactions. The grades are based on assessments by 13 examiners who attended concerts this season. In a vote after each performance, the examiners were asked to rate the music quality as “excellent, good or satisfactory. A change in the classification of an orchestra is likely to affect its image, as well as the department support it receives.

The vote rates only two groups - the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and the 21st Century Ensemble (which specializes in modern music) - as "excellent." Three other orchestras were classified as "good" - those of Rishon Letzion, Jerusalem and Haifa - as were the Israel Camerata, the Tel Aviv Soloists and the Israel Baroque Orchestra.

The "satisfactory" group included the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra and the Be'er Sheva Sinfonietta. Additional groups, such as the Musica Nova Ensemble, were not mentioned at all. The reason: Because of their limited scope of activity, these groups do not receive regular annual support, but only assistance for specific projects.

The vote results were sent in a document all the orchestras, and in that document the examiners emphasized that "satisfactory" is not enough. The director of the music department, Raya Zimerman, says this is true only for certain groups, and that these groups will receive a separate notice. All the orchestras were asked to submit reactions by July 4, after which the department will discuss the classification again.

Ehud Gross, the director of the Israel Symphony Orchestra - Rishon Letzion, responded: "I hope there was a mistake in the document, because if not, we would like to know by exactly what tests and indices the examiners determined the classifications."

The conductor and director of the Israel Camerata, Avner Biron, said: "The Camerata has been an excellent orchestra for years, in everyone's opinion, and it is definitely worthy of being categorized as such." Based on an initial perusal of the paper, Biron found it surprising that groups that are hard to compare are in the same category.

Biron's basic stance seems quite reasonable: Assessing quality based on three divisions (rather than 10, as in the past) places the Camerata and the Baroque Orchestra, for example, in the same category, although there is undoubtedly a great difference between them.

The Israel Chamber Orchestra notes in its response that one must be extremely careful in assessing the quality of an orchestra's playing, which is complex and multifaceted and therefore should be discussed "in the clearest, most transparent and most professional manner, a manner that will withstand public tests." The heads of the orchestra, Arie Bar Daroma and Gil Shohat, pointed out to the music department and the culture minister that at least two of the committee members are, as they put it, "people with official roles who receive salaries from two ranked orchestras, and another three members of the committee have artistic ties with other orchestras and their directors."

Zimerman, the music department director, said that in those cases the examiners refrained from voting.

The heads of the Israel Chamber Orchestra also wrote in their response, "The very dissemination of the interim report (which is not final and has not been accepted by all the members of the committee, and certainly not by all the orchestras) at a time when all the orchestras are engaged in marketing the coming season, is not an innocent act." And also: "The presence of examiners at Israel Chamber Orchestra concerts this season was very meager."

In that case, on what basis was the quality of the orchestra rated? The orchestra heads continue to say they have no doubt that if the committee members had actually attended concerts by the orchestra, it would have been given the highest ranking.

The conductor of the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, Yaron Gottfried, also responded angrily: "The orchestra has enjoyed a rare artistic flourishing in recent years: good reviews and a very large and steadily growing body of subscribers, thanks to a consistent investment in leading high-quality players." And he continues: "The conductors and the soloists praise the level and the seriousness of the orchestra. The strange ranking results raise doubts regarding the ability of the department and its members to hand out artistic grades."

Orit Wolf, director of the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra, responded to the paper with the fact that the orchestra's audience is constantly growing, and according to the official Culture Ministry statistics, it has pulled the second-largest audiences for years. "As with every other consumer item," says Wolf, "the test of consumption is the No. 1 test of quality."

Performance quality is only one of a series of criteria according to which the Culture Ministry determines its financial support, but it is a threshold criterion: An orchestra that is not classified at least as "satisfactory" does not receive any annual support.

The examiners were members of the music department: Eitan Haberman, Ruth Almagor Ramon, Ben Ami Einav, Hayuta Dvir, Mira Zakai, Binyamin Yosopov, Dubi Lenz, Marina Neeman, Edwin Seroussi and Emanuel Krasovsky. In addition, Michal Zamora Cohen, Daniela Rabinowitz and Yael Shai also voted. The examiners were told to refrain from voting on orchestras whose concerts they did not attend, those with which they have a personal connection, or those they believed to be less than satisfactory.