'Classical Music Is My Religion'

By launching such programs as screening short films before concerts and holding chamber performances in galleries, Ilan Rechtman hopes to draw young audiences to the Tel Aviv Museum's music series

The lights go down in the hall. Projected on a screen behind the stage is a short film about three young people - the members of the Jerusalem Trio: They are seen rehearsing, arguing, laughing, playing. Brief and colorful pictures from their lives, tastefully edited, are shown.

Tali Shani

Two minutes and the film is over. The lights come back on and onto the stage come the ensemble's three members, this time in flesh and blood. They are serious and concentrated the way classical musicians have to be, wearing tailored clothes as is customary - but the still-fresh memory of the film reminds the audience that these are human beings, young people just like any others. The barriers that perhaps existed between them and members of the audience, whose acquaintance with classical music usually begins and ends with a ceremonious experience in a hall, have fallen.

This is not the usual way to start a chamber concert of classical music - a ritual in which any change is considered almost revolutionary - but this is what is happening these days at the Tel Aviv Museum. And that's not all: After the trio took their seats, a moment before they started to play, the lights went down and the audience found itself in total darkness - in contrast to usual classical concerts, at which all the lights remain on. On the screen at the back, the name of the work being performed appeared along with that of the first movement.

"This way the audience isn't tied to a printed program in order to know what is being played, and which part of the work is being performed," says Ilan Rechtman, the director of the music program at the museum, who has introduced these changes and many others. "And this way they also aren't flipping through their programs all the time, minimizing disturbance and fidgeting, and allowing audience members to concentrate completely on the music. Like at a theater or dance performance, or at the movies."

In the second concert of the season on October 26, audience members were able to concentrate on works by Webern, Mozart, Ben Haim and Franck, performed by the Ariel Quartet with pianist Tal-Haim Samnon.

Since his appointment about two years ago, Rechtman has also introduced short clips as advertisements for future concerts, organized events in the museum's exhibition spaces amid the artwork, and distributed a semi-annual program instead of one for each concert, with a design that many perceive as provocative due to the rather sexy way the soloists are photographed.

"I have received lots of letters of complaint and threats to cancel subscriptions," admits Rechtman. "I have overheard conversations among audience members who are critical of me. And the clips ... People have also yelled at me."

What do you say to the people who are outraged?

Rechtman: "I ask the subscribers, 'Do you have young sons and daughters? Maybe grandchildren?' [They say] 'Yes.' 'And do they go to classical concerts?' - 'No.' 'And why not?' And when it takes them a long time to answer, I explain that the world has changed and that if we want to bring in more audiences and a more varied mixture of people - it's impossible to stick to a format that hasn't changed in more than 100 years. It's obsolete and if we want to attract a new audience, a young audience, one must speak to it in its own language.

"The audience here [in Israel] cares a lot. Everything is important to it, and it speaks up about what bothers it. And this connection between us is productive. In Brazil, where I directed a concert series earlier in the decade, the audience accepts everything gratefully and with tremendous enthusiasm - even though the [performance] level is much lower than what we hear in Israel. There, people don't complain ... Here, there is criticism - and this is very important. It makes me happy that now, after two years, I am beginning to hear compliments here and there. One time when something went wrong with the screening of the film and we had to do without it - subscribers admitted they missed it."

Brazil was Rechtman's last stop before returning to Israel after a 23-year absence, following a long, worldwide journey. He was born in 1963 in Tel Aviv to a musical family; his father was Mordechai Rechtman, a bassoonist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The musical demands of him as a child - he was a piano prodigy - were huge: "My father spoke to me only about music," says Rechtman.

"At the age of 9, I got my first review and it was a hatchet job, and when I was 11, as a soloist with the Philharmonic, they wrote that it wasn't a good idea to let a child play Mozart's Concerto in D Minor. They hid the review from me. Until not long ago I still had a recording from back then. Sadly, I've lost it. From time to time, I would listen to it, and know I will never be able to play the concerto the way I did in my childhood, with the reverence for every note and the concentration and the innocence."

Rechtman studied with many teachers: Ilona Vincze-Kraus, Pnina Salzman, Aryeh Vardi, Alexander Volkov and Yaheli Wagman. After four years of military service directing the air force band, he moved to the United States. His career then took off; he played with the London philharmonic and Petersburg Orchestras, among others, and with soloists like Yo-Yo Ma.

"I played thousands of concerts, in 37 countries - I counted them," he says, "but pretty quickly I started to produce and compose, also for television."

Today Rechtman continues to perform, both in chamber ensembles at the museum and during yearly concert tours in Japan and South Korea. From time to time he also composes. His scores have been published in Germany and the United States and, among other things, he achieved some publicity when an American gold-medal gymnast used one of his works for her exercise at the Beijing Olympics .

Rechtman: "In New York I produced concerts, and my specialty was small spaces like halls in hotels and in museums. Over the course of 11 years, I produced between 100 and 200 concerts annually. In New York there are hundreds of thousands of musicians, but during that period - the 1980s and the early 1990s - there were few venues. The musical community took [my] projects seriously, good performers came and the concerts were reviewed in the press."

Telenovela income

Rechtman tired of producing concerts and wanted to earn more money, and so in 2001 he moved to Brazil where he started composing music for telenovelas. "Anyone who wants to make money from music has to go into television," he says. His hit composition was for "Esperanza," a telenovela, which had an audience of 140 million viewers in Brazil and a half a billion in the rest of the world. His connections and his business efforts paid off, and he was appointed director of the Villa Lobos international piano competition.

"Despite my objection to competitions, I agreed. I thought I would be able to organize a 'clean' competition. That was a challenge. As a youngster I always felt discriminated against at competitions, in a small country rife with relationships and 'arrangements,'" he relates. "But the pressures on me mounted. They demanded I bring in certain jurors and accept certain competitors - and even determine the winners in advance. I fought back, and in the end I gave an interview to a newspaper and revealed all the corruption. There was a huge scandal in Brazil. All the newspapers wrote about it and word even got to The New York Times, [which printed it as] a cover story in the culture section."

Immediately after that his wife, cellist Iris Regev, was fired from her position with the Sao Paolo Philharmonic and various suits were filed against Rechtman. Since then things have been sorted out and the path to Brazil has opened up again - but at the time, he had to leave the country and the comfortable life he had there - "with three governesses, one for each child, a huge house by the sea, assistants and a chauffeur and a cook," he says.

Three years ago he returned to Israel, after his wife was offered a position with the IPO. For his part, Rechtman experienced a year of worries, family troubles and uncertainty regarding legal and financial matters in Brazil, until accepting the post at the Tel Aviv Museum.

"I have always loved the museum and the Recanati Auditorium, where I played for the first time at the age of 13, as a soloist with the Israel Chamber Orchestra," he notes. "I decided I had to do something good for the world: Classical music is my religion and its messiahs are Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. I saw this as a mission."

He says that since he came to the museum, the number of subscribers to the concert series has nearly doubled and now stands at more than 1,000. Other performers in the current concert season, beside the Jerusalem Trio and the Aviv Quartet, are the Jerusalem Quartet and cellists Zvi Plesser and Hillel Zori. There will also be guests, notably French violinist Arnaud Sussmann, as part of an international chamber ensemble of musicians from Israel and abroad, playing Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and Schubert's Octet.

Also scheduled are performances by leading musicians from local orchestras including the Camerata, the Philharmonic and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, plus a Baroque series featuring French conductor Patrick Cohen-Akenine and Israeli conductor Shalev Ad-El, with soloists such as Ye'ela Avital, David Feldman and Mor Biron, and ensembles including Barrocade and Academia Daniel. In addition to familiar classical works, the programs will feature new pieces by Israeli composers Shulamit Ran, Josef Bardanashvili, Uri Brener and Eyal Batt.

"In Brazil, at every concert there was a new work by a Brazilian composer - that's what the audience demanded," recalls Rechtman. "Here, however, Israeli compositions often put the audience off and lead to reduced ticket sales - but this has been checked."

Nonetheless, Rechtman admits that with young listeners, "we haven't succeeded yet, and it's a pity. Why does classical music have to be something people listen to in the last 10 years of their life - in order to accept death with philosophical serenity? Classical music is thrilling and dynamic. It can thrill young people. The changes [we are instituting here] might help do this. The musicians, at least most of them, are going along with me, as is the museum management."