I Am for My Beloved

Habib Shehadeh Hanna chose text from Song of Songs to describe Jerusalem, for his contribution to an international song cycle about eight walled cities - the centerpiece of this week’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival.

When “Trees, Walls and Cities” was first performed in London last year, listeners were surprised. Instead of a concert following the usual pattern of opening-concerto-symphony, they were treated to a single work that embarks on a varied journey: eight movements for a singer and string quartet, each movement by a different composer and in a different language.

One of those composers is Habib Shehadeh Hanna of Haifa, who used the text from Song of Songs to describe Jerusalem, one of the eight cities described in the song cycle, all of which have been divided by walls. Other cities include Berlin and the North Ireland city of Londonderry.

“I found that the text from Song of Songs suited me best,” says Hanna, who was born in the Galilee village of Rama in 1974. “The writing is fascinating, and erotic, not religious. And it brings out the question of the wall in a very visual way. The story is about a young woman searching for her beloved, and she comes across the soldiers who are stationed around the city to guard it. She isn’t afraid of them. She goes up to them and asks if they’ve seen her beloved.” Reading this text, it’s almost possible to picture modern-day Jerusalem.

The movement about Jerusalem concludes the cycle, which will have its Israeli premiere in that city’s YMCA Concert Hall on Wednesday at 8:30 P.M.

The eight songs, which are all performed by England’s acclaimed Brodsky Quartet, sung by British soprano Lore Lixenberg and strung together by musical passages by British composer Nigel Osborne, will also be performed in Eilat, at 5 P.M. Thursday.

The song cycle is the centerpiece of the ninth annual Eilat Chamber Music Festival, which began Monday. The festival, which takes place at Dan Hotel in Eilat, will play host to many international ensembles through Saturday.

Habib Shehadeh Hanna, who studied composition and theory at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, has made a name for himself on the local scene. He gained notice when he won the Ophir Prize (“the Israeli Oscar”) for the music he wrote for Eran Kolirin’s 2007 movie “The Band’s Visit,” about an Egyptian police band who find themselves lost in an Israeli town, and he has also composed music for other successful films, such as Eran Riklis’ 2008 “Lemon Tree,” about a Palestinian widow defending her lemon grove against an Israeli defense minister who moves in next to her.

Hanna also wrote the music for a play that’s been making some headlines lately: Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” about a massacre allegedly committed by Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian village of Tantura in 1948, due to be performed soon at Theater J in Washington. Right-wing activists have been trying to block the production and have succeeded in getting the number of performances reduced. Meanwhile, the Dramatists Guild of America has come out in support of the production.

In addition to composing music for productions about Jews and Arabs, Hanna is also active in Palestinian-Arab culture in Israel. He performs with musician Faraj Suleiman and actor Salim Daou in the program Sar Salim (“Healthy and Whole”) and runs a music school in Haifa called Al Mashal (“The Factory”), a private conservatory for children where the language of instruction is Arabic. He is also close to completing work on an Arabic dictionary of musical terms.

“From a musical standpoint, it wasn’t easy for the Brodsky Quartet to work on my piece,” he says. He describes his music, which blends East and West, as “a search for the justification of Western multivocal music within Arabic music; for the use of counterpoint, not in a harmonic circle but around the tonal centers of the maqam,” the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music.

“That’s something that everything I write, even when it’s in jazz style, has in common – it’s not really Western or Eastern,” adds Hanna.

“Cities, Walls and Trees” is just one of the events at the Eilat festival whose extraordinariness truly justifies their festival setting.

The festival has previously hosted actors like Roger Moore and John Malkovich, esteemed Baroque ensembles such as the Gabrieli Consort, the Red Priest early music group (which will perform again this year), and cellist Pieter Wispelwey, to name but a few. Many of these ensembles are known for transcending stylistic lines.

The Brodsky Quartet, for example, has played with Elvis Costello, Bjork and a number of other rock and pop artists; Red Priest will perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a multimedia concert (Vivaldi, who was a red-haired priest, is the group’s namesake); and conventional musical lines will also be crossed in a concert for cello and accordion.

The Eilat Festival, which has to continually fight for its audience, was founded by violinist, conductor and teacher Leonid Rosenberg, who through the years has shown great determination to keep putting on the festival despite the difficulties. As director of the local conservatory, Rosenberg is also an educator and a musical idealist, and as such he ensures that the festival includes master classes. This year they are for conductors, and will be led by Israeli conductor Lior Shambadal.

Tal Cohen