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Tel Aviv was host to two magnificent celebrations of music last month - symphonic concerts attended by enormous crowds. Both took place in the most prestigious musical venues in the city: the Mann Auditorium and the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. Among the thousands who attended those concerts were mayors, leading members of parliaments both from Israel and around the world, as well as individuals of great wealth. Bouquets of flowers glistened under the bright lights on stage. Television cameras brought a live broadcast of one of the concerts to millions of viewers throughout Europe. Renowned soloists performed in the other, and impassioned speeches were delivered about peace and brotherhood among the nations.

None of this is out of the ordinary. Pomp is an essential ingredient in the world of classical symphony. Exquisite limousines (and before them, ornate horse-drawn carriages) have always carried people in dinner jackets and furs to openings. And politicians have long exploited these occasions to display the extent of their love for culture and music, never missing an opportunity to prattle into the ears of society's fattest and most refined.

But there was an exceptional element here, which raised questions regarding the glorious, ceremonial context: The orchestras performing the concerts were comprised entirely of students. They were, in other words, modest humble orchestras made up of artists just at the beginnings of their careers. And the events themselves were intended to be educational, having been sponsored by the two most important institutions of music education in the nation, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (formerly the Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University).

Money is the whole story

If one attempts to ignore, for a moment, the ostentatious background against which these concerts were performed, in order to focus on their musical and educational attributes, one can only stand in awe. The Buchmann-Mehta student orchestra, which serves as the junior orchestra of the Israel Philharmonic, joined its older sister to play a concert superbly conducted by Zubin Mehta, starring two Israeli soloists of international import, clarinetist Sharon Kam and soprano Chen Reiss. In itself, this was a finely executed celebration between generations and between teachers and students.

The concert performed by the Jerusalem Academy Orchestra was no less impressive and festive. That orchestra and the school's choir were joined by musicians from a number of foreign academies, all performing a powerful work, Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem." The Mezzo Television channel's direct broadcast of the concert to viewers throughout Europe represented a tremendous achievement. That also meant that the piece's extra-musical message of protest of the horrors of war echoed in Europe. Education, music, art and morality would appear to have been somehow perfectly integrated. But only apparently.

Because the feeling in these concerts was not one of spirit and culture, but rather of business. The events were characterized by a glitzy atmosphere, empty speeches, adulation of wealthy donors, self-deprecation before such politicians as U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, her Israeli colleague Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The stature of three women may be great, but their words were banal and reeked of arrogance and self-satisfaction. And all of this took place in English, despite the context of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. All of these factors prompted despair, which grew more profound as the balance between spirit on the one hand and money and politics on the other was breached, and as the students on stage became the backdrop for the event rather than its heroes.

Money is the whole story. At a time when higher education in Israel in the humanities and the arts is approaching the brink, the status of these academies has been reduced to that of beggars. They are victims of base priorities and have no choice but to rely on private donations to survive and meet their educational objectives.

The absurdity of producing gala concerts of this sort becomes more apparent if we attempt to view them from the vantage point of the students who sat on those stages, warming up their instruments as they waited in shame for the performance to begin. They came to an academy of music after years of lessons, in which their performance proficiency became increasingly sophisticated and refined. From a young age, they learned to listen to themselves, to hone their sound, to fight to achieve every possible nuance of expression. Sensitivity and thought, intellectual curiosity, and the example of the great artists of the past: An entire culture and aesthetic was bequeathed to them by their teachers. Anyone who has seriously taught music knows the uncompromising nature of this routine, of the daily work, which is entirely a quest for beauty and expression.

After auditions and selections, they arrive at the upper level of the pyramid: higher education in music provided by renowned professors, training at a high standard, stringent demands in theory and implementation, rehearsals and competitions - all in the name of improving yet more and more. And now that the big moment of the annual concert arrives, rather than stand center stage, they are pushed to the sidelines. Instead of their music being the primary focal point, it becomes a side effect.

It is true that the quest for beauty does not pay the bill at the corner grocery. And it would be wrong to delude students by telling them they need worry only about artistic excellence, as if their livelihood will take care of itself; or to pretend that the spiritual world in which they operate lacks its financial and political aspects, or that there will be no need for them to engage in prosaic struggles to survive within that world. But, perhaps, the academies' stewards might find it worthwhile to search for a middle road between artistic purity and making a mockery of oneself that is an inevitable result of the brown-nosing and obsequious overtures to donors. Perhaps they can find a balance that would allow them to swerve less toward opulence and more toward the simplicity of authentic expression like music.