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In the 1970s there was a noticeable tremor among young Israeli musicians: They shared a desire to spread their wings and try out possibilities overseas. They were feeling their way and testing their limits in contrast to many who go abroad today without a sense of mystery or adventure.

Violinists were prominent: Shmuel Ashkenasi, Yossi Zivoni, Miriam Fried and Ilan Gronich, who all became successful internationally teaching, conducting and performing. And there was one viola player, Atar Arad.

"We all emerged from the same melting pot, the Gadna orchestra," says Arad, referring to the pre-army, state-sponsored youth movement. He spoke to Haaretz during a break from a master class at Keshet Ayalon.

"After we parted, we continued to meet around the world on musical occasions, playing together or under the baton of one Israeli conductor or another, for example, Uriel Segal. When we meet, we recall the Gadna symphony, which always bores everyone's partners a little."

Arad, born in Tel Aviv in 1945, is today a professor of viola and chamber music at the renowned Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington.

"My international career started without my being able to stop it," he says. "The first chord was a decision to leave the violin and take up the viola, because of its deep, low sound, and its intriguing repertoire."

The second chord was winning important viola competitions a year later. He played and recorded with musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Eugene Istomin, lived and studied in England and then moved to the U.S., where he joined the much-praised Cleveland Quartet. Jean-Pierre Rampal, Mstislav Rostropovich, the Tokyo Quartet, the Emerson Quarter, Pinchas Zuckerman and Janos Starker are some of his chamber and solo music partners at key festivals, while his recordings have been highly praised in every possible review venue.

He teaches chamber music master classes at the Keshet Eilon Music Center at Kibbutz Eilon.

Is it true to say that Israeli chamber musicians are especially talented, perhaps the best in the field, as many claim?

Arad: "I doubt it. In chamber music, the last question asked is where the players are from. In Japan, for example, I discovered the greatest young quartet I've heard in years. I was supposed to teach them but in the end we just sat and talked. I've heard many groups from all over the world, and usually what's really important is who their teachers were wherever they came from, and not their nationalities. The nationality of chamber music players is chamber music.

"And the soloists," he continues. "One can't point to a particular 'national talent'. They are terrific in the West, and also in China, where there are wonderful soloists, far from the label that's been stuck to them, as [merely] excellent mimics of western playing.

"The best piece of music that I played this year is by a Chinese composer, Tan Dun, his 'Ghost Opera' for string quartet and pipa [a pear-shaped Chinese instrument with four strings]. It was an emotionally powerful experience, for I was playing great music, and during the performance I also had to vocalize, to play a water pipe and beat a gong."

Ladino legacy

Those who are familiar with the viola repertoire no doubt know the name of Atar Arad not only as a player but as a composer.

"I was a late bloomer in composing," he admits. "I began only at 48, but today I receive commissions for pieces, and my work is obligatory in viola competitions. I can't stop composing."

Did something particular get you writing music, after so many years performing? "Something technical?

"I had ideas about new viola techniques, and I began to write them down. I realized that what was taking shape was music, and that it was filled with longing for Israel and my childhood. I didn't stop and so my first sonata was born, for viola and piano. It went easily, it flowed. I didn't have any way to measure its worth, but since three viola players have recorded it, and a theater director has used it in a play, I grasp its value."

This first composition, published in 1992 by the Israel Music Institute, was followed by more, including a quartet inspired by Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and a concerto for viola and orchestra. "For that one I took time off. I had never orchestrated before, and what I came up with surprised me."

Music from Arad's early childhood and his student days percolated into the concerto. "I was born in Tel Baruch, a Tel Aviv neighborhood whose residents came from Bulgaria, like my mother," he says. "I worked two Bulgarian songs that I knew from her singing into the concerto. I didn't plan to, but that was my world, my childhood environment." Thus Arad's Ladino heritage found expression in his work, as did early Israeli classical music.

"I cannot and don't want to shake off Israeli music," he says. "My teachers at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv were composers - Paul Ben-Haim, Odon Partos and Mordechai Seter. When I was a student, I wasn't so interested in their work; Bartok and Stravinsky interested me more. But their music wasn't lost on me, and the impression they made is a presence in my work today.

Where does your name 'Atar' come from?

"A friend of my parents, the writer [and former Haaretz cultural editor] Benjamin Tammuz, suggested it when I was born, from the root le-ha-ah-teer (to enrich). As for Arad, the family name was originally Stuckart. When I was 11, I received a scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett himself presented them to us. "Stuckart," he said, "when are you going to change your name?" [to a Hebrew one]. "I promise to do it soon, prime minister," I answered. And the whole family followed suit, including his parents and his brother, the noted designer and architect Ron Arad. "Soon I'll be going to his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York," Arad says with unconcealed pride.

Arad records and plays his own compositions. "It's a great pleasure," he says and adds, "It took me a very long time to realize that I didn't have to be Chopin or Paganini to compose, but rather simply to hear the music playing in my head and have the courage to put it down on paper, without worrying whether it is new or important. In this way I listen to my inner voice, and understand myself better."

Of his instrument, he says: "The viola has the reputation of being an instrument for laments, introverted and melancholy. A lot of mourning pieces have been written for it. But it can also be joyful and funny. That's how I wanted to write for the viola, to show its virtuosity, to boost it, to drive it as fast as a violin, so that it would flutter like a butterfly and sting like a bee."

On the border

This is the 19th year of the Keshet Eilon educational program, founded and directed by Gilad Sheba. It began small, under pioneer-like conditions, and grew into an international undertaking including concerts and a violin- and bow-making atelier. It attracts hundreds of would-be participants and excellent teachers. This year 44 string players from 20 countries were accepted. Teachers, along with Arad, included violinists Shlomo Mintz, Itzhak Rashkovsky (who is also the program's musical director), Shmuel Ashkenasi, Hagai Shaham, Ida Haendel and Haim Taub and cellist Hillel Zori.

Tonight at 8 P.M., in the Smolarz Auditorium of Tel Aviv University, participants will demonstrate the results of their workshop sessions in a festive concert for soloists and chamber players in the premier of Avner Dorman's "Prayer for the Innocents" for two string quartets.

Arad: "My summer is full. I'm moving from one festival to another, from one master class to another, from Ravinia in the U.S. to Canada, but this project is exceptional."

Aren't master classes the same all over? What is different about Keshet Eilon?

"The others have a long history, a tradition, while here you can feel the place beginning, its creation, with all the enthusiasm and imagination that entails. Aside from that, the other master classes are not conducted on the Lebanese border."