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Several years ago, a businessman from Ramat Gan was led, under false pretenses, to a site somewhere in his city: It was his 50th birthday, and he believed the visit was going to be a joint outing with his wife. But when he entered the building, he was greeted with the traditional greetings of "mazal tov" from a large crowd of friends he did not expect to see, who had joined together to help celebrate his birthday without his knowledge.

It sounds like a standard and even somewhat annoying surprise party. In fact, it was an unusual event that reflects a unique phenomenon on the local music scene: The party was not in a private home but in a concert hall, and those who greeted the guest of honor were not just a bunch of friends, but a group of nearly 500 people, including over 40 musicians from the top performing groups in the country. The birthday present: a marathon concert that lasted three hours.

The celebrant is not a composer or performer, does not manage a festival and is not a legendary philanthropist who finances cultural grants or scholarships. He is Israel Bar-On, or "Froike" as his friends call him, and he has no direct connection with the local music scene. He is a relatively anonymous person, but nonetheless a venerable group of performers came to honor him, including pianists, jazz musicians, chamber ensembles and singers.

Who is this mysterious Israel Bar-On? What prompted dozens of musicians to perform for him? And who were the hundreds of guests who came from all across Israel and filled the theater's auditorium to listen to a concert in his honor?

It turns out that all of these performers and listeners, and thousands of others, are members of a semi-underground and growing community, a hidden sub-stream in the local music culture: They participate in a network of home-based concerts, and Bar-On is one of its uncrowned leaders. In 1991, he founded the Israel Association for Chamber Music, in whose framework he organizes about 100 concerts a year in private homes. There are nine branches of the organization, including in Herzliya, Modi'in and Jerusalem, with a central branch in Ramat Gan; each has its own chairman. It is thus not surprising that some of the participants in this network gathered together to celebrate with Bar-On.

The response to this undertaking has been tremendous, and the 2004-2005 season, for example, is already closed. This reflects a pinnacle in musical activity in the country: Featuring classical and jazz, opera and klezmer, ancient music played on authentic instruments and choral music, and involving the participation of local artists of all ages as well as foreign musicians - hundreds of soloists and ensembles have already taken part in these events.

"There is no obligation to come to these concerts," says Bar-On. "We don't sell subscriptions and don't require attendance. Whoever comes - comes. Still, all of the concerts are completely full."

And what attracts them so much?

Bar-On: "In addition to the quality of the concerts, there is the informality, the lack of barriers between the musicians and listeners. When the violinist's arm brushes again the lapel of someone in the audience, this has a positive effect on both."

What drives you to invest so much energy in organizing this network?

"Only the desire to contribute to culture. Everything is done on a voluntary basis, and no one receives any money. No one makes a living from this. I'm not an impresario and don't represent artists, and these concerts are not my livelihood. The desire to help and connect people - these are the things that motivate me."

Formerly a professional violinist, Bar-On no longer makes a living from playing music. "But it is hard for me to separate myself from the things I love, like music, and in which I have invested so much."

A European tradition

Before there were records and discs, and when symphony concerts in auditoriums were rare, musical evenings in the salon of a private home were held in Europe. They included family recitals of symphonies adapted for four-hand piano, and performances for chamber groups, string quartets or a violin accompanied by piano. Schubert held his famous gatherings of music-making and song in his Vienna apartments together with his friends; leading world figures came to the Berlin home of Felix Mendelssohn to hear and play music, including choral works; and the same was true with Schumann.

"Today, home concerts are the new musical salon," says cellist and music educator Dudu Sela, one of their central organizers. "I see them as a direct continuation of the 19th-century tradition in Europe."

In his spacious home in Kochav Yair, in the garden, the tranquillity and the informality that he himself radiates combine to give a special flavor to his concerts. "With such great demand, I could squeeze in 80 people," he says. "But I keep it to 50-60 because any more than that would not be pleasant; it's too crowded."

Sela regards the growing popularity of home concerts as a natural: "Where else can you hear a chamber music concert at half the price of a ticket?" he asks.

And you?

Sela: "I don't do it for the money and don't take any payment."

Nonetheless, all of the work the organization requires and all of the energy invested - don't you deserve something for this?

"What work? All that needs to be done is a few telephone calls and the rest operates by word of mouth, among the listeners themselves. There are also no big expenses, maybe just for a few disposable plastic cups. And there will always be those who bring refreshments: One person brings cakes, another brings coffee or fruit. Besides, most of the things that I do in life are voluntary. Culture and music, are these things a person does for himself? In my view, it is clearly for others."

Realizing musical dreams

A week before the concert at the home of Adi Etzion and Jonathan Zak in Tel Aviv, the salon is already prepared: Rows of dozens of chairs are set up, waiting for the audience that will fill them on the coming Saturday night. The kitchen is sparkling, waiting for the guests to descend upon the trays of drinks and cakes that will fill it when the time comes.

Zak is a top-tier pianist in the local music scene and a professor emeritus of piano at Tel Aviv University's Academy of Music. Etzion is a multi-talented artist in the fields of poetry and theater, and he is also a director and writer.

In the living room of their apartment, oil paintings are tastefully displayed. The artwork, some of which was purchased in markets in Eastern Europe, creates a museum-like atmosphere. Adding to this is a fascinating collection of porcelain items in glass cabinets. Only the grand piano, which is beautiful in its own right, gives away the real purpose of the room. "During the past quarter, we sent out almost 3,000 letters," says Etzion. "And we have already held 14 concerts."

Etzion and Zak started the "home production enterprise" (as Etzion calls it) two and a half years ago. "It began with a singer who sang with Jonathan and wanted to do a trial run before a concert," Etzion says. "I invited a number of people to the house and 15 came. So I said to Jonathan, let's publicize this and we'll see how it develops." Since then, they have been holding concerts on a regular basis, on Friday evenings and sometimes on Saturday nights.

The project consumes almost all of Etzion's time: "We no longer have any social life," she sighs. Building the program is exhausting, together with the daily contacts with people; considerable financial resources are also necessary. "You can imagine what happens to an apartment where dozens of strangers enter every week," she says. "It requires the investment of many hours of work, before and after each concert: Arranging the large room and all of the furniture in it, the kitchen, cleaning before and after everything."

The expenses are considerable: Letters, telephone calls, monthly piano tuning because of the many hands playing it, occasional reconditioning of the instrument, repairs to the apartment, and not least of all - the refreshments. "I like to provide refreshments, so I learned to bake three cakes and I serve them every week," Etzion laughs. "Judging by the response, it seems that they are actually quite tasty." The payment at the entrance, NIS 60, is meant to cover only expenses.

And nothing remains of this for you?

Etzion: "The goal is not to make money, but rather to realize special musical ideas and to provide a stage for young people," she says.

And, in fact, a look at the musical program reveals the richness of the concerts in this home. The new series of concerts not only features a repertoire of chamber music, but also evenings of opera, a one-man show of songs and skits by a star of the Yiddishspiel Theater, cabaret performances including "The Blue Angel" of Marlene Dietrich, and a Brecht-Weil performance. There is also an evening devoted to the life and work of Alma Mahler, written, directed, translated and performed by Etzion, who also made the costumes for this show. The series includes a new program of works by Israeli composers and "A Night in Canaan" - a meeting of East and West in Hebrew song. In addition, there are exhibitions, evenings of poetry and literary readings, a bazaar of ancient artwork and jazz. The abundance and wide range of artists participating in all this is indeed mind-boggling. And all of the artists are handpicked by Zak, who is very familiar with their abilities.

Close enough to touch

According to the most recent report by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, which surveys only some of the activities of local music organizations, more than 2,300 concerts are held each year in the country, and about 1 million people buy tickets to attend. This is the mainstream and, according to the report, it appears that the home concert network does not pose a threat to it - at least for now. However, from the perspective of quality musical management and direct experience with music, the network seems to be taking shape as an alternative, both for the musicians and their audience.

There is also an element of protest in choosing this medium - against the high price of tickets for listeners, on one hand, and the starvation wages of musicians, on the other.

The musicians say they find the intimate setting attractive. "There is no stage, no gap between myself and the audience," she explains. "And this is a great experience. At first, this closeness, people sitting right by your side, at touching distance, bothered me. In the midst of playing, I saw faces, noticed eyes watching me, and this broke my concentration. But after I got used to it - the excitement of the audience together with me, the way they sometimes hold their breath together with me, I hear and feel all this, and it's an incomparable pleasure.

"Afterward, there are discussions with the audience," she continues. "Sometimes I say a few words before playing and this breaks the ice. And at the end, people always want to know about the music, to understand, express their opinions - they ask questions in an atmosphere that is inherently informal. If I had a large living room, I would also do this. It suits me."

The evening of the concert at the home of Etzion and Zak arrives. The program, played by the Dafna quartet, includes a string quartet playing "The Italian Serenade" by Hugo Wolf and the "Dissonance" quartet of Mozart; after the intermission is the second "Rasumovsky" quartet of Beethoven. The salon now has special, soft lighting, and there is a festive feeling in the air. The audience begins to arrive, paying the entry fee at the door and dispersing - each in his or her own direction - to chat with acquaintances in the living room or to the kitchen, where the cakes are amazingly delicious and the tea is hot. The hosts sit on tall bar stools, observing the salon from the rear.

Silence settles on the room and Zak introduces the music with a few words. He then backs away and starts the mini-disc recorder - he always gives a recording of the concert to the musicians as a gift. The music is played, the performance is wonderful and there is indeed a special flavor in this primary, chamber music experience.

"They are flesh-and-blood musicians," Etzion whispers. "You can hear their breathing here and even see the beads of sweat on their brow - these are not the back seats of the balcony in a concert hall."