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For young Israeli musicians, the direction is westward. Their art comes from the West, along with the classical music that fills their lives, and that is also where they are headed - to study and train, to make dreams come true, and to earn a living. Singers, musicians, composers, conductors and soloists, whether on the verge of an international career or still taking their first steps, avant-garde modernist trailblazers and artists of ancient music playing authentic instruments - they are all are impatient, eager to leave and go west to the centers of the musical world, such as New York's Julliard or Berlin's Eisler Hochschule.

But to make those dreams come true, they need money, and now a new door of financial help has been opened for them: The America-Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF), which for dozens of years has provided scholarships to students of the arts in Israel, has expanded its scholarship activities to include outstanding students of the arts who want to study outside the country. The AICF recently published two ads: one announcing the last date for registering for study grants abroad, and another about the opening of registration for scholarships in Israel.

Double pay in the back seat

The director general of the foundation and its driving spirit, Gideon Paz, does not think that the two announcements contradict each other. He believes that both directions complement one another, because studying abroad has the potential to develop musical life in Israel. "Outstanding young students get perspective when they study abroad; they learn that the term `outstanding' is relative, and they open their eyes," he says. The foundation offers scholarships of up to $10,000 a year for the duration of a study program, sometimes up to four years. The foundation's scholarships currently are helping 33 students, at a total sum of $302,000, to study abroad.

"The scholarships are for Master's degrees and are intended for those who already have a Bachelor's degree or have exhausted all possibilities for study in Israel," Paz says. "The candidates are tested by a committee in their field of art, and economists calculate their expenses abroad to determine how high their scholarship should be. If they are found worthy, and only if our scholarships cover what they need, they get it. During their studies, we request authorization from the schools, grades, reports on exhibitions, film screenings, and plays or recitals, and in this way, we monitor their studies."

Paz says that the foundation encourages students "to leave but also to return. According to the system we have developed, the students have to return half of the scholarship, which can be as high as $30,000-40,000, when the time comes. But if the student returns to Israel within two years of completing his studies and starts to work here, the entire scholarship becomes a grant. That is a significant sum, and that is how we are fighting the talent drain. We try to tie them to Israel so that we don't lose them and one day find them playing in some orchestra in Cincinnati."

For Paz, Cincinnati symbolizes the last stop for artists who leave the country without intending to return. "It always infuriates me," he says. "Musicians play in Cincinnati in the back row of the string instruments, but nevertheless, they receive double, or even triple what a violinist earns with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which offers the highest salaries in the country. They are lost to us and don't return. And there are many like them."

Paz says he can understand where they are coming from. "If the first violin in the Jerusalem Orchestra made NIS 10,000 a month (rather than less than half that amount, which is the reality), and if we didn't have orchestra musicians making starvation wages of NIS 2,500-3,000 a month, we wouldn't have a problem of a talent drain," Paz says. "Until the salaries of orchestra musicians, dancers in dance troupes and theater actors are raised, at least to the level of university lecturers - who also, by the way, suffer from underpayment - the situation will continue to deteriorate.

"And what's the difference between a violinist and a senior professor? Both have to put in 15 years or more to reach their position," Paz says. "It's a political decision that no minister of education and culture has yet made. It's very nice that there is a struggle to increase the support for culture to one percent of the budget, but that is not enough. Artists hardly find any work for money; they still have to work voluntarily and that is a disgrace."

A flood of talent

The AICF's initiative to grant scholarships for study abroad is part of the foundation's long and reputable history of supporting art students here. Almost all local music teachers and performers who studied in Israel in their youth received AICF scholarships. And receiving a scholarship from the foundation is considered an outstanding achievement. In recent years, 2,200 students have submited applications for scholarships each year, and less than half have earned scholarships totaling NIS 4.5 million.

The foundation's annual budget is NIS 11 million, which primarily goes to funding studies and courses, prizes at competitions and festivals, and support for workshops and the advancement of young artists in all areas of art, including architecture, graphic design, multimedia, fashion, metal design and industrial design. "The numbers keep growing all the time, and we are careful to give scholarships only to the most outstanding based on tests, and unrelated to their financial situation," Paz says.

He points to new trends in recent years. "We receive hundreds of applications for acting scholarships. In jazz, almost 200 young people submitted applications, all of whom play and perform in ensembles; there is a huge awakening. For many years, there were no scholarships for Arab musical instruments, and this is the second year we could once again give them - 27 musicians received scholarships, especially oud players, as well as nay (an Arab flute) and violin players, most of whom are students of the Music Academy in Jerusalem. Suddenly there is a boom in brass wind instruments: trombone, trumpet and the tuba, an area that three years ago was desolate. And singing: Once we had very few candidates, between 10 and 40, and today we have 200."

Paz says he is impressed with the pool of talent. "There's a flood of talent, and not only performers, but also composers too. We see enormous, dynamic creative activity, but the dearth of budgets is undermining it."

Paz points to a number of models that have had a crucial impact here. "The young musicians unit of the Music Center in Jerusalem has revolutionized chamber music in Israel during its 15 years of existence, and today Israel has some of the best string ensembles in the world.

"Or the Suzanne Dalal Center in Tel Aviv, for example. That's an excellent example of a place that is changing the entire attitude toward art, whose activities have brought about a fundamental change in the art of dance in Israel. While the troupes that appear there can't make a living between festivals and competitions, and few make enough to pay wages, this vibrant center has put them on the map and managed to do a great deal to advance Israeli dance in the world: At least 80 Israeli dancers are well known abroad, and Israeli dance has a definite presence in the world," he says.

"And a place like the Tel Aviv's Tmuna Theater - it has next to no money, scrapes a bit from here and there in order to keep its head above water. But it has enormous potential to change the entire new music and theater scene in Israel if it were just given the chance. And it is not the only one."

A cultural paradise

Paz returned to run the AICF in 2001 after a nearly 20-year break. The foundation, which was founded by benefactors in 1939, began operating here in the 1950s with four music scholarships, which grew into 120 in the 1970s. Paz initially ran the American branch of the foundation in the late 1960s, and then returned here to run the local branch from 1970-1981.

Then he left the job: "I was drained after so many years," he says. First he managed the Israel Festival and Spring Festival in Jerusalem, and moved over to private management. He can be credited with the arrival to Israel of important orchestras, including Berlin, Vienna, London and Stuttgart, the Pina Bausch Ballet Company, and the top Tokyo and Alben Berg quartets.

Later, he managed the Jerusalem Orchestra, served as chairman of the spring competition for young artists and was musical adviser for a concert series held in the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv. "In 2001, Benny Gal-Ed, the executive director at that time, decided to leave the foundation, and they asked me to watch over things in the meantime until they could find someone new. I'm still here."

The deterioration in Israeli audiences' expectations concerns him. "The combination is fatal - the drop in the level of visiting artists and diminishing budgets. Chamber musicians are willing to make do with NIS 400 a concert, and that is a disgrace. The orchestras only look at the bottom line, and with only rare examples of daring - like the Musical Discoveries series of the Jerusalem Orchestra - they are stagnating. As a result, the level of expectations drops, and the audience becomes willing to make do with less," he says.

"One has to make a considerable effort just to maintain the level; and to think that at one time there were performances here who set a completely different level, when audiences didn't cheer every requiem by Mozart or Verdi just out of gratitude for the performance itself, without relating to the quality!

"All we have to do is create the right atmosphere, and then we will have no less than a paradise of cultural creativity," Paz says. "If only 10 percent of all Israeli artists currently active abroad were to move their center of activity to Israel, what a change that would bring! And what half a billion shekels, a tiny part of the education and culture budget, could do here. It would shake everything up. The salaries could be doubled, and with them, the artists' image. Everyone would understand that it is worthwhile to be an artist here, that it is worthwhile to be an actor or dancer, that it is a profession rather than merely a whim on the part of people with uncontrollable artistic urges. Unfortunately, the AICF does not have that kind of money, although I would be happy if it could bring more money here."

Paz believes that such changes are important to the country and would "create a different quality of life. We don't have to make do with mediocrity. Why can't we be culturally like Spain or Sweden, in education and art, in music, in support for artists? Why can't we have concerts here like in Finland - original music before a full house? Why is it that in France, every major city has a "maison de la dance" that includes a dance school and large dance troupe? Why can't we have that here? After all, we have the talent. It is simply repressed. If we could become a major world player in high-tech, we can do it in the arts too."