The Israeli Musician Who Dared to Pluck the 'Forbidden Fruit'

When he conceived the idea of the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival decades ago, Sigi Stadermann, who recently passed away, did something shocking: He dared to expose local audiences to works based on Christian liturgy.

It all began the year after Israel's independence in May 1948, and actually started out as a hobby of Felix Gad Sulman. A long-time Jerusalemite who was born in Berlin in 1907, Sulman was a professor of applied pharmacology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but was also a professional musician (choirmaster, pianist and guitarist ). After discovering the church on the hill overlooking the village of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem , he and his friends would go to sing there on Saturdays for their own pleasure.

The parents of Ruth Rozovsky - who herself would later become a member of the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival choir and sit on its board of directors - were part of this group. Rozovsky and her boyfriend, later husband, Avraham, would join her parents there from time to time. She recalls that some of the singers traveled to Abu Ghosh in taxis ("After all, who owned a car in those days?" ), and that Sulman himself had a tiny Fiat.

In 1955, Sigi Stadermann, a 33-year-old musician who at the time was the director of the Ramat Gan workers' choir, happened to attend one of those intimate musical sessions at the Abu Ghosh church. German-born Stadermann, who died earlier this year, had immigrated to Palestine in 1939 with the Youth Aliyah program, and a few years later went off to fight the Nazis in Africa as a soldier in the British Army. He would later play a pioneering role in the development of Israel's music scene, and, apparently, the idea of holding concerts in the Abu Ghosh church was his brainchild.

The annual vocal musical festival was launched in 1957 - a modest event under Stadermann's directorship and baton, with the declared purpose of showcasing music not ordinarily heard in public in Israel: namely, works with texts based on the Christian liturgy, and whose titles contained words like "Mass" or "Stabat Mater." Unlike the situation today, one should remember, a live concert in the monophonic era was far more pleasing to the ear than anything one could hear on a vinyl record.

Every May, busloads of enthusiasts would arrive at the bottom of the hill on which the Catholic church stood. Sometimes, local youngsters offered a shuttle service (by donkey ) to the top. While most of the members of the Abu Ghosh festival choir were amateurs, the orchestra consisted of professional musicians. On Saturdays, alongside the vocal events, chamber concerts (featuring primarily Baroque music ) were also held as part of the festival, with the participation of leading string and wind musicians, many of them members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The majority of festival soloists back then were celebrated artists who appeared in other important performance frameworks. In the late 1960s, for example, the roster included three distinguished singers from the Netherlands: tenor Arjan Blanken, contralto Marianne Dieleman, and the elderly (German Jewish ) bass singer Hermann Schey.

Highbrow culture

At the first concert in Abu Ghosh, Luigi Cherubini's Requiem was performed before an audience of only a few dozen people. However, within a few short years, the annual festival became an attraction, perhaps because attendance gave people the feeling of belonging to highbrow culture: Indeed, the success in the early years was attributed to the program of "forbidden fruit": the performances of vocal works featuring Christian liturgical texts, including well-known cantatas and the Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach. From this standpoint, it is possible to see Stadermann, the conductor who founded the festival, as either the pioneer of a historical wave in the world of music in this country, as someone who knew how to exploit and enjoy its benefits - or both.

In any case, the circumstances were propitious for such a festival; all that was needed was a guiding hand and someone with initiative. Thousands of music lovers in Israel were already familiar with Bach's instrumental works, which they heard at concerts, on the radio or on records; some even performed them themselves. However, they had no opportunity to hear Bach's choral works in public.

Up until 1970, festival concerts were held in the church, where the festival had been launched. But when the directorship of the adjoining monastery changed hands, it was not interested in having concerts there. All lobbying efforts aimed at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church were of no avail: The festival was forced to go into exile. Deprived of its traditional venue, it was held for the next two years in concert halls in Tel Aviv and on various kibbutzim. The result was diminished popularity - perhaps because what was now missing was the exotic setting of the church in Abu Ghosh.

An additional blow to the festival was the High Court of Justice's rejection of a petition filed by the festival directors requesting state support in 1971. Justice Yitzhak Kister wrote in his decision: "The state should not be expected to use taxpayers' money to support the activities of a religious sect that are intended to promote its religion and the articles of its faith."

Today, when Christian works of music are regularly performed around the country, Kister's position may not seem very convincing. Nonetheless, the festival was forced to shut down and Stadermann eventually moved to the United States, where he enjoyed a less-than-illustrious professional career.

In 1992, after a 20-year hiatus and after the authorities in the church in Abu Ghosh changed their stance, the Abu Ghosh festival was revived under the direction of entrepreneur-producer Gershon Cohen and musical director Haggai Goren, who has since been succeeded by Hanna Tzur. Tzur was one of the leading vocalists in the original festival and had helped Stadermann prepare the choir for its performances. Now, the level of the local choirs who perform there, under the batons of various conductors, is higher than in the past.

Stadermann was a charismatic, dynamic individual who, while outwardly sociable, was somewhat of a mystery as far as his private life was concerned (see below ). In any event, his success in recruiting people to perform was phenomenal: The administrative team with which he worked coalesced into a group of friends, who collaborated in a spirit of volunteerism and true dedication, fired with a sense of mission. Stadermann himself received no fee for his work.

There were those who believed that his ability to lead a choir together with an orchestra was limited. As one singer who appeared under his baton, contralto Eliezra (Lucy ) Eig-Zakov, said in an interview in 1987: "Sigi never managed to have a proper hold over a large mechanism; at times, he would plunge himself into ecstasy, as if the notes were controlling him, instead of vice versa."

Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, Stadermann was the person who exposed thousands of Israelis to the vocal works of Bach, George Frideric Handel, Heinrich Schutz and others. In this context, one must mention that he paved the way for the annual Liturgica festival in Jerusalem that Gary Bertini subsequently founded with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. (Stadermann and Bertini were schoolmates; they both pursued advanced studies in music in Paris in the early 1950s ).

The idea of concerts of Christian liturgical music at the Abu Ghosh festival was not well received by everyone: Some religious Jews were outraged by the idea that the words of the New Testament were being sung before Jewish audiences in the Jewish state. In the recording of a concert at Binyanei Ha'uma in Jerusalem in the late 1960s, one can hear the shouting of people who came to disrupt the performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." At the time, it was reported that they were students at the nearby Merkaz Harav yeshiva.

Whenever Stadermann was asked about performances of the Passions, with their controversial texts accusing Jews of deicide, he would invariably speak about the need for religious tolerance. His approach and that of those who followed him was essentially that music and politics are two separate spheres, that art is art, and that prohibiting performances of liturgical works before Jewish audiences would constitute an act of religious coercion.

Criticism also came, however, not just from religious Jews. One of their leading spokespersons was Emanuel Amiran, who wrote many popular Israeli songs. In an article in Maariv in May 1966, Amiran, then the first national inspector of music studies in the school system, attacked the idea that one can separate a text from the music which it accompanies. Specifically, he was furious with local Jews who flocked to concerts featuring works with texts from the New Testament, that, in addition to accusing Jews of killing Christ, served what Amiran called the building blocks of anti-Semitism for centuries.

"Art is a part of life," he wrote. "Nor can one separate the musical content of a piece from its textual content."

In Amiran's view, the success of the Abu Ghosh festival was a "disgrace" that was symptomatic of "intellectual masochism," which in turn was evidence of a "deterioration in our spirit and a loss of our self-respect."

Without referring to Stadermann by name, Amiran criticized him by writing: "I can fully understand the spirit of a young conductor who is looking for a way of expressing his talent and is searching for an altar on which he can present the offerings of his artistry."

Amiran added, when describing the ambience at the Abu Ghosh Festival: "On every hill and under every fresh tree, the picnickers are drinking in the bright light of the shining figure on the hill (that is, the statue of the Madonna )." In summary, he declared that no explanation about the beauty of performing lofty music can drown out "the call of the people in Jerusalem who are shouting (as per the words of the Passion and those who champion it ): 'Crucify him.'"

Bitter disappointment

Most of the veteran members of the original Abu Ghosh festival choir that performed so many years ago were very familiar with the public and professional personae of Stadermann; many even visited his apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Ramat Gan (on Hamaapil Street ). It was apparently a modestly furnished place, appropriate for a confirmed bachelor who made his living as a music teacher at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts.

Stadermann's mother was Jewish and his father was German. He came to Palestine in 1939 but left the country bitterly disappointed in 1972, after the collapse of the festival. He settled in New York. He returned to Israel only once and this past July 21, died in New York at the age of 88.

In a conversation in her apartment in Tel Aviv, Gianna, a close friend of Stadermann's for 67 years (who prefers not to be identified by her surname ), relates how she first met him in the waning days of World War II.

"It was in 1944 in liberated Florence. British soldiers could be seen throughout the city. The British army had reached Florence en route from southern Italy. We were a group of young girls walking down the street. We noticed that some of the soldiers had patches that read 'Palestine' on their sleeve. These were Jews from Palestine and Sigi was one of them. He served in a unit that supplied water to the various forces.

"In Florence, on Via San Gallo, there was a nightclub-restaurant for soldiers. There was a piano and lively parties were held there. With his shock of blond hair and thanks to his command of the piano and the accordion, Sigi was the star at those parties. That is how I met him. He was 21 and I was 17; I was born and raised in Italy. Since my mother had come to Italy from Austria, I spoke German with Sigi; afterward, our conversations were conducted in Hebrew.

"At the nightclub, Sigi played with great gusto and that led couples to the dance floor. You could say that he restored a zest for life in the hearts of people who came to the club - the soldiers who had just been in battles in Africa and young girls who, after four years of war, had forgotten what it was like to hear a nice tune or to dance. Sometimes, a friend would take over from him, so that Sigi could also do some dancing. He was a marvelous dancer and continued to dance even in his later years, in New York. He had the ability to shine in a crowd; he always radiated something special, even when he was getting on in years."

Were you always just friends?

Gianna: "No, we were more than that. We were even planning to get married ... When the war ended, Sigi had not yet been discharged from the army and wanted to know what had happened to his parents. They had remained behind in Germany when he immigrated to Palestine, and he had received no information about them for four years. He went AWOL in Florence and traveled to Germany to search for them."

Ruth Rozovsky adds: "Sigi arrived in his hometown of Chemnitz and he returned to the house where he had lived. Lo and behold, his mother opens the door."

Gianna: "Sigi saw to it that his parents would leave immediately for Palestine. They settled in Nahariya and he returned to his unit in Italy. He was court martialed and spent a short while in a military jail. I arrived in Palestine before he did. In the end, we never got married, but always remained very close over the years - most of the time. There were ups and downs, but we had some wonderful times together. We would always say jokingly that if we had gotten married, it would have ended in divorce and we would have gone our separate ways. The fact that we never got married kept us together."

What was his attitude toward Germany and Germans?

Gianna: "He admired German culture and felt very good in Germany, when he would go back there on visits. He would travel there to see his brother, who had left Israel many years before and opened a dry-cleaning business in Muenster. Sigi went many times to the Bayreuth Wagner Festival."

Did you two ever talk about the Nazi period?

"Never. I realized this was taboo for him. Whenever I tried to raise the subject, I could see that he became really offended. I understood it would be a mistake to delve into the mixed feelings he might have toward Germany; it was simply too emotionally charged a subject."

Did he used to have heart-to-heart conversations on the subject with others, like his brother?

"No, never. I once asked him about that and he said, 'What, are you crazy?'"

What was his attitude toward religion?

"He was an atheist in principle. He kept his distance from any institutionalized religion."

Once he had been living for several years in America, he would categorically turn down any invitation to attend the REVIVED?? Abu Ghosh Festival. Do you know why he refused?

"I imagine the reason was that he felt very insulted. Another reason was the fact that the establishment in Israel never agreed to support his festival, and that the Supreme Court backed the state's position in 1971. Another reason was that, after 20 years, the new festival was launched once again - without him. He had the feeling he had not received the credit he deserved for his contribution to cultural life in Israel."

What did he do in the U.S. for more than half a decade?

"He taught a little - private lessons. He also tried to establish a choir but that didn't work out. To the best of my knowledge, in his later years, he received a U.S. Social Security allowance and payments from Germany."

In his latter years, Stadermann's closest friends in New York were Lois and Alfredo Darlington. She is a former cellist and currently teaches; he is a painter.

In a telephone conversation from New York, Lois Darlington related how they met Stadermann. It was November 1998, in the neighborhood where the Darlingtons live: Manhattan's Washington Heights. She and her husband saw a young man standing beside a car, one of whose doors had been removed . He was waiting for the police, and the couple slowed down. Then an elderly man, who turned out to be Stadermann, passed by and asked what had happened. The Darlingtons started talking to him, and Lois remembers he said the car should be photographed and that the photo should be sent to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Their conversation went on for over an hour and eventually the three of them became good friends.

According to Lois Darlington, Stadermann remained youthful in spirit and very athletic. He continued to ski cross-country even past the age of 80. About a year ago, she says, she and her husband literally saved Stadermann's life: He did not answer their phone calls so they went to his apartment and found him lying on the floor unconscious. He had suffered a mild stroke. After being hospitalized for a few days, he soon returned to a reasonably normal mental state. Asked if he had died in poverty, she replied that he never saw himself as someone who was impoverished. He felt he had everything he needed.

More information about the early years of the Abu Ghosh festival can be found on the website: