Making Music Out of the Box

There are those who say the feminist revolution is over. In the realm of music, by extraction, this should mean that women composers are equal to their male counterparts. So, in the name of pluralism and enlightenment, why is it necessary to have a concert of works exclusively by women composers (at the Hateiva Studio in Jaffa, on Wednesday, at 8:30 P.M.). What is the point of creating a "ghetto" of this sort - and, indeed, what is the relevance of a forum of female composers (for whom this is the annual concert) within the Israeli Composers League?

The new chair of the Women's Composers Forum, composer Dganit Elyakim, thinks this is obvious: "The Israeli musical scene is entirely male dominated," she explains. "The feminist revolution will be over not only after men realize the importance of caring for children, of education and of looking after the home and the family - but also when they become involved and do these things themselves. In the meantime we have to be seen and to make our voice heard - the voice of women composers who only find time for their creative endeavors after all the other things they do."

The forum was established in the summer of 2000, at a difficult time when 60 active women composers - all of them excellent musicians - took part in only 5 percent of the classical music scene here in terms of commissions of works, performances, recordings and broadcasts. At that time, furthermore, not a single one of them was a university lecturer on composition, a house composer or the musical director of a large mainstream organization.

Elyakim: "Now our aim is to produce as many projects as possible, to provide a stage to women composers, to create collaborative efforts with organizations and with women musicians from other cultures - and at the annual concert, to enable those of us whose works haven't been performed during the year to have them played, as well."

Thus the idea for the Maximum-2 concert in Jaffa was born: an evening of nine works by nine women composers, for ensembles of no more than two musicians. The works include "Big John Campbell's Last Song" by Ivana Kis for solo guitar; piano pieces by Irena Svetova and Tali Assa; works for solo instruments like contrabass and bass clarinet by Gila Karkus and Maya Dunitz; songs for solo vocalist by Anat Pik; plus works for instrumentalists with electronic recordings by Hagar Kadima and Dganit Elyakim herself; and even one piece without any performers: "Masks," for tape recorder, by Yasmin Tal.

The styles are varied, the origins are multicultural, the composers are from Croatia and England, Israel and Russia - although the means of performance are limited.

"Until now it had been customary for one ensemble to play all the works, and this has several disadvantages," Elyakim notes. "These include the unchanging color of the sound and the great amount of rehearsal time required if we want to present many works, as well as the absence of an individual treatment of the work of each and every composer.

"Limiting the means of performance solves all this - and also the budgetary problem. The performers here are enamored of and trust the composers, demand little pay or even appear on a volunteer basis. Performances involving a single instrument, creating a sort of austerity, lead to a completely different level of communication than that offered in the beautiful sounds and harmonies of an orchestra."

Dganit Elyakim was born in 1977. She studied at Rimon in Ramat Hasharon, and did her B.A. at the University of Haifa with composer Arik Shapira, before going on to the National Conservatory in The Hague in Holland, where she encountered great enthusiasm for contemporary music, and even entire festivals of it.

"There's no notion there of 'someone else should do it for me' ... [Over the years] I have learned to overcome my shyness and my tendency just to write music and remain anonymous," she says of her role as head of the women's forum. "I didn't leap at the job. At first I refused to accept it, but I realized it's part of the struggle to change the way this society looks - [to create] a place where we and those who come after us will be able to live in a truly cultural climate."

Nocturnal metamorphosis

This is not how it's done, we were always told. This is not how we listen to a concert: in a small theater-pub, in the dark, around tables, drinking beer and munching a grilled sandwich or salad. One should never use amplification with a string quartet - that is equivalent to desecration. And clearly it only makes things worse to tack on gimmicks like video footage and backlighting, or - heaven forbid - to break a work down into its constituent movements and scatter them among other works. Music is supposed to do its job all by itself, in a holistic way - at least that's what is customary in the classical world. It is an art of sounds, sublime ones, and anything that is added will be detrimental. So why was the concert by the Israel Contemporary String Quartet on Saturday night, which broke all these rules, so stunning, successful and exciting?

Time after time, the quartet, established at the start of this decade, has shown that the conventions of the classical concert - both with respect to contents and repertoire, and to mode of presentation - lost their validity long ago. The ensemble started as decidedly a women's project; its founder and musical director is composer Dikla Baniel and all four of its original members, all excellent instrumentalists, were women.

In the meantime, the quartet has changed and a male cellist has for the first time had the privilege of joining this group: Ira Givol is now performing together with violinists Hadas Fabrikant and Tali Goldberg, and violist Katya Polin.

Above all, this quartet plays at the highest technical level, even when it comes to the traditional classical-Romantic repertoire. In addition, it takes upon itself projects that demand precise, hair-trigger timing in combination with such accompaniments like pre-recorded music, a soundtrack and a video film as well as changing sets, costumes, lighting, movement and props. All this is understated and nuanced, but very complex.

At the Tmuna Theater on Saturday night Fabrikant, Goldberg, Polin and Givol, led by Baniel, together with video artist and VJ Asia, showed what a multimedia performance/concert is. The concert was called "Metamorphosis" and its sound and sights intertwined in a breathtaking journey: It led from Tchaikovsky played on Polin's recorder, through "Nocturnal Metamorphosis" by contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, to "At a Snail's Pace" by Nevet Yitzhak and to Avi Balili's "Fairies," then to "Metamorphosis" by Philip Glass and "All the Rabbis Dance" by Baniel herself, and on to "Slave" by the Salem metal ensemble from Givatayim, before returning to Tchaikovsky and dismantling him.

This was a kind of simultaneous threnody for, and celebration of, a classical tradition that is reincarnating itself as something different, new and exciting - as presaged by the quartet.

Local triple-header

Apparently a sight like this had never been seen before at an Israel Philharmonic concert. The conductor was Israeli - Ilan Volkov; the soloist was an Israeli woman, pianist Berenika Glixman; and the other soloist was an Israeli and a member of the orchestra: violist Roman Spitzer.

Three local powers at center stage, where the audience usually expects to see only the classical nobility - and if the names aren't famous, they should at least be foreign. At least this is what is usually expected from the lineup of soloists and conductors who appear with the Philharmonic year after year. But here were wonderful, local instrumentalists: Spitzer (in his late 30s) in Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," and 20-something Glixman in a virtuoso debut performance with the orchestra, in a concerto by Prokofiev, under the baton of a very confident and professional Volkov, who finds his way between technical navigation and expressiveness, while eliciting slow and delicate piano passages from the orchestra along with precision and enthusiasm. In a single moment the legend of the audiences' snobbery was refuted.

These young musicians did not encounter scorn or disappointment because they are local - rather tremendous applause and demands to return to the stage. Glixman, who at the last moment replaced a Chinese pianist who canceled, came back on stage four or five times before playing an encore.

It is true that audiences of such orchestras almost automatically applaud everyone and demand encores because they are deserved, but on Saturday evening the applause was very authentic and the voices cheered with greater persistence. It seems that it is possible to be a "cultural patriot" without retreating into provincialism - and for every single listener in the audience to delight in being part of a vibrant and dynamic, local musical world instead of watching a parade of talents from abroad.

That's how it is with music: It is planted in a context, it isn't cut off from its environment, it wants to belong. And it is great that the Philharmonic experienced this moment. Perhaps it will realize that orchestras, like the music they play, need to exist within their own particular context and not outside of it.