Soundbox / Mendelssohn of the fields
It was possible to believe it of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra musicians; they are Israelis, after all, and they travel the length and breadth of the country giving concerts. The naturalness with which they took their seats in the performance hall at Kibbutz Yifat in the Jezreel Valley, warming up, tuning their instruments, playing scraps of melodies and scales now and then, wasn't anything surprising or out of the ordinary. There was a feeling of home, as though the musicians were sitting down in their own Mann Auditorium. A stage is a stage and an orchestra's seating arrangement is always the same, and these overrode the circumstances: the journey through the dark that twisted from the Nahalal junction toward Migdal Haemek to Kibbutz Yifat.
But if the cow barns and chicken coops of the kibbutz were a long way from the orchestra's uber-urban home base in Tel Aviv, the distance was even greater for German conductor Kurt Masur.
When Masur took the stage, waved at the orchestra and bowed deeply to the audience, it was enough to cause one's jaw to drop in astonishment. Kurt Masur, a symbol of the Old World, a man of Leipzig, a successor to Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn - here, in the midst of the sheep and goats, on a cold black night at the foothills of the Arab town of Yafia? Kurt Masur, the international conductor who lives in plush suites in Europe and American and travels the world in luxurious airplanes and opulent trains - here, amid the scent of hay and steamy manure. This was something that was hard to digest.
The concert in Yafit last week was the first in a series of performances in the Jezreel Valley and was part of the Mifneh project initiated by conductor Zubin Mehta, and supported by the Jezreel Valley Center for the Arts, the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv, banks and private donors. The project's name means "turnabout," and this is what it is trying to do: create a musical turnabout, especially among the Palestinian-Arab inhabitants of the north. The project offers music lessons and master classes, vocal and instrumental ensembles, support for private instruction and stipends - and concerts like these. And indeed, the sound of Arabic echoed through the lobby during the intermission - a true cultural revolution and a significant departure from the composition of the usual orchestra audience.
The concert itself was excellent. It was devoted in its entirety to Mendelssohn, to mark the culmination of the 200th anniversary of his birth and as homage to Masur, who serves as musical director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, over which the composer presided in his day.
First on the program was the Hebrides Overture (also known as Fingal's Cave) and last was Symphony No. 3 (also known as the Scottish symphony). Masur, whose arms rarely rise higher than his shoulder when he conducts and who is all expressiveness and precision in arm movements that come from his abdomen and chest, brought out a traditional beauty in the pieces, making them sound like a nurtured cultural treasure that has been preserved for 200 years and sounds the way it seems the Mendelssohnian style ought to sound.
The concert also featured the Violin Concerto, which may seem to be almost tiresomely familiar, but is actually fascinating once you get over the opening motif, which has indeed become a cliche. The young violinist Nikolaj Znaider worked wonders with it, treating the piece as fresh raw material, without any obligations to the past or guilt feelings.
By the end of the concert, it made no difference whether the cow barn or the Saint Thomas Church was nearby.
A man's low voice, a pleasant baritone, reverberated through the speakers set up in the small hall at the Felicja Blumental Music Center and Library on Tel Aviv's Bialik Street. The voice, speaking German with a trace of a foreign accent, spoke about Israel, about Germany, about exile in Siberia during World War II and the slaughter of the man's family - and about the musical library itself. This was the voice of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994), a Polish-German Jewish composer who in the 1950s made his home in Israel, founded the music library and served as its first director. The library has now come into the sights of those seeking to cut the municipal budget.
The library founder's voice was heard as part of a lecture on Haubenstock-Ramati by German musicologist Thomas Schaefer, which was accompanied by recordings of his works. It was also part of the Nikel Ensemble for contemporary music and hinted at the ensemble's debt to its origins - both to Lea Nikel, the artist who has been memorialized in the group's name, and to past composers like Haubenstock-Ramati, who paid a high price for their innovative approach to music.
Haubenstock-Ramati, Schaefer revealed, composed a work for one of the orchestras here that was supposed to be played at a contemporary music festival, but the orchestra cancelled the performance because it didn't like the piece and found it difficult to play. Shocked by the slap on the face he got in the country he saw as his new homeland, and apparently having little faith in the future of culture here, Haubenstock-Ramati accepted the offer to teach at a university in Austria. He left Israel, and was never to return.
The Nikel Ensmeble, too, is turning out to be a rebellious child, at least to judge by its season opening: the lecture and its concert last Wednesday. At the center of the concert was composer and musician Ewa Reiter, who plays antique instruments like the Baroque recorder and the viola da gamba. At the concert she played a bass recorder built especially for her contemporary musical needs and the viola da gamba - along with computers, live electronic music and an electric guitar, altogether making quite a lot of noise.
Reiter's performance resembles heavy metal, and she and the Nikel Ensemble celebrate this avant-garde noise as though the classic composers had never been.
When one thinks about classical Arabic music, the music that arose in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s based on the infrastructure of the ancient Arabic scales - the maqamat - and became an expression of the entire Arab world, one thinks about two things: the singing and the fervor. The singing is the chief element; think of stars like Umm Kulthum and Farid Atrache, and the tarab is the excitement that grips the audience, arising and swelling from the performers to the listeners and back again, bringing the audience close to ecstasy.
But Khaled Jubran, an oud and buzuq player who lives in Jerusalem, refuses to bow to this tradition. Jubran's recital at the Friends Boys School near Ramallah on Thursday revealed innovative, and even radical, thinking on the Arabic music scene: a concert that consisted solely of instrumental music, without singing, and which did not try to over-stimulate the listeners. Rather than bow to habit and expectation and sweep up the audience in the traditional fervor, this concert left listeners in the realm of the abstract musical experience. This was a daring act.
About 250 people filled the hall, a few days after another couple of hundred people crowded into the Al Hakawati Palestinian National Theater in East Jerusalem - keen to listen, participate, and thanking the artist. This showed that the daring fell on fertile cultural ground.
Jubran is a true virtuoso. His oud sings, and in his hands the buzuq - a longer and narrower instrument than the oud, with a smaller sound box and therefore a higher register, clearer and sharper in tone - sounds as though a number of instruments are playing at once.
He is not deterred by harmony or polyphony, the status of which is trivial in classical Arabic music, and he is sparing of trills and elaborate arabesques. And he also jokes with the audience, taunting it for not being familiar with Palestinian folk music. But even when the banter is excessive, and because of it the timing gets lost, Jubran's fingers come along and restore the necessary order and experience.
The Arabic nature of the music is stretched to its limits and the audience demands more, and finally as an encore it gets a familiar classical song. "Like what do they call it, a sing-along?" says Jubran, this time aiming his arrows at the inhabitants of Israel outside the walls.