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Chava Alberstein and the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra: A Missed Opportunity

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Chava Alberstein on stage. The main musical decoding that was supposed to take place in this performance was a rhythmic one.
Chava Alberstein on stage. The main musical decoding that was supposed to take place in this performance was a rhythmic one. Credit: Moti Milrod

The picture that will remain in my memory from the October 4 performance of Chava Alberstein with the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center is very specific.

One of the instrumentalists in the Orchestra plays a taqsim (an instrumental introduction by a single instrument, in the tradition of Arab music), all the other members of the orchestra are silent, and Alberstein stands at some distance from her microphone, watches the single musician who is playing, and is overcome, enchanted by the taqsim.

This scene was repeated four or five times during Alberstein’s performance with the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra, which was entitled Mishirey Eretz Ahavati (Songs of My Beloved Country). Once the soloist was oud player Elias Wakileh, once violinist Fadel Manna, once ney (Persian flute) player Tzahi Ventura.

They really played beautifully, and starting an Alberstein song with an oud or a ney is an unusual, and therefore interesting, sight.

And Alberstein, as she says repeatedly, loves music more than anything. She’s a sucker for beautiful playing. “Wherever there’s music, I rush in,” she said on Sunday toward the end of the performance, as a kind of explanation of her desire to perform with the Orchestra. During those wonderful moments of the taqsim, one could almost hear her heart swell. “Wow wow wow,” she murmured at the end of one of them.

But these moments were the exception. With all due respect to the taqsim selections, the heart of the performance was of course the encounter between the entire orchestra and Alberstein and her songs. And what happened when the orchestra played together with Alberstein did not cause my heart to swell and did not approach the realms of “Wow.”

Chava Alberstein performing with the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra.Credit: Moti Milrod

“This show was so… so...” said Tom Cohen, the orchestra’s conductor and musical director, finding it difficult to describe his feelings before one of the final songs. The word that jumped into my head was “a missed opportunity.” The hundreds of people who gave them a standing ovation at the end of the performance certainly won’t agree with me.

The encounter between the orchestra, whether the classical Western or classical Eastern one, and singers from the world of pop music, is always a challenging one. It’s not a natural combination. In the case of this performance, there was presumably the additional challenge of bridging between East (the orchestra) and West (Alberstein), or Mizrah (North Africa and Middle East) and Ashkenaz (northern Europe).

This distance exists more in theory than in practice (both because the orchestra is described as East-West and because reducing Alberstein to a representative of Ashkenaz is absurd), but there is still a certain distance – in rhythms, for example. The orchestra is accustomed to beats that differ from those of Alberstein’s canonical songs (and all the songs in the show were from her canonical repertoire, from the 1960s and ’70s).

The audience at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.Credit: Moti Milrod

The main musical decoding that was supposed to take place in this performance was a rhythmic one. The idea was to find the shared beat that illuminates the old songs in a new but delicate rhythm, one that is not artificial. I didn’t hear this beat being created. The required delicacy and depth were missing. In several instances the experiment was really forced – not to “easternize” Alberstein but to charge the songs with some optimistic energy of something new, maybe even a new, contemporary Israeliness.

A nice aspiration, but musically it didn’t work. Cohen did not exercise restraint, the orchestra often played too loudly and Alberstein tried to get used to the energetic beat and was not always successful. In certain instances it was really discordant, as in the song “Kemo Tzemah Bar,” for which Cohen for some reason chose a fast rhythm and danced on the stage. That was the encore, and the impression was that Cohen was trying by force to create an exciting crescendo, which had nothing at all to do with the song.

There were also successful or very successful renditions, whether coincidentally or not, of songs with a Spanish touch (“Chiuchim,” “Remez,” “Shir Ahava Yashan (Anita and Juan).” Alberstein said in the middle of the show that she wished that the composers of the songs, most of whom are no longer with us, could hear the orchestra’s new arrangements. But “Anita and Juan” is the only song about which I was sure that had the late composer Nahum Heiman been in the auditorium, he would have been very pleased.

Alberstein and the orchestra will repeat the performance in early January. We must hope that it will be more delicate and profound, and that we’ll be able to believe that even the composers Haim Barkany, Dafna Eilat, Mordechai Zeira, Moni Amarilio and Georges Moustaki would have enjoyed it.

Chava Alberstein and the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center 

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