A Gifted Melodist and a Total Soul: Israeli Musician Arkadi Duchin Is Back

After a slack creative period, Duchin reminded us what a wonderful musician he is in a concert with the Israel Philharmonic.

Shlomi Pinto

One’s first instinct was to despise the radio commercial, like all the commercials that make use of first-rate artists who can’t refuse the sizable offers made to them by a bank or an insurance company. But in mid-commercial, when the singer Arkadi Duchin and the actor-comedian Dvir Bendak exchange sarcastic remarks penned for them by a witty copywriter, I found myself smiling with a certain pleasure, against my will. Not at the standard wittiness of the commercial; no, it was because of the quality of Duchin’s performance and the comparison with his work in the past few years.

An ad is commerce, a song is art, and never the twain shall meet. But still: the precision, the timing and the sense of proportion that Duchin displays in the commercial – I’m not sure we’ve heard those qualities in the songs he’s written and sung lately. Brutal as it may sound, I think the bank commercial is one of Duchin’s finest releases in recent years.

Obviously, then, his concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra earlier this month was going to be of crucial importance. It wasn’t just another concert in which pop songs get a respectable orchestral wrapping (as happens in most of the IPO’s concerts with pop singers). It was an event in which a great artist, who was going through a slack creative period that had gone on too long, was getting an opportunity to remind us what a wonderful musician he is and to symbollically erase the lean years, or at least to shunt them (including the bank commercial) into a far corner.

Duchin’s last good album, in my view, was “Adult Dreams,” which came out eight years ago. It was a relatively rock-based album that contained no great songs but released a kind of healthy energy, that of an artist who was agonizing, struggling, renewing. But since then, he’s been treading water. In 2007, he released “Point of View,” an album of covers, in which he tried to put his own stamp on Israeli songs he likes. The album, released by the label of the Aroma cafe chain, aimed for potent espresso but sounded more like decaf cappuccino, with anemic piano performances of songs that deserve more creative covers.

And even that was a good album compared to “September,” which documented the spiritual transformation Duchin underwent under the influence of a Kabbalah teacher. The texts sounded more like homework assignments than songs, but the major disappointment was provided by the listless music, which sounded like the opposite of growth. In concerts from this period – or at least in a concert I saw in 2010 – Duchin sounded quite subdued. An artist can definitely shift into lower gear in his late forties, but with Duchin it sounded grinding. Had one of the greatest musicians who sprang up here in the last 30 years – maybe the greatest of them – become a shadow of himself?

Last year, Duchin released a collection of love songs, which included two new songs. I remember thinking, the first (and last) time I listened to the kitschy “Always with You,” that it truly shamed Duchin’s magnificent repertoire of love songs. The second new song, which is a lot better, somehow slipped under my radar and I heard it for the first time in Duchin’s concert with the IPO this month. Maybe if I had heard it in real time, I would have moderated my negative opinion of Duchin’s work in recent years. On the other hand, my pleasure and surprise at the marvelous performance with the IPO would not have been as overwhelming.

Recharged batteries

The IPO, under the baton of Ilan Mochiach (who also arranged the songs), played gently and elegantly, providing Duchin with a platform of strings and wind instruments that suited both clean singing and free and unconventional phrasing. Duchin zigzagged between these two modes of expression and exploited them well. Indeed, this is one of the qualities that make him a unique artist: the fusion between a gifted melodist and a naked, total soul. It’s incandescent material borne on the wings of an extraordinarily expressive voice and flowing into a beautiful musical form. In that concert, for the first time in quite a few years, it was possible to feel fully and plunge delightedly into the full depth and breadth of that coursing stream.

There were a few snags in the concert, but they were dwarfed by the whole and rich portrait of Duchin that emerged from the songs he performed, and by the wonderful dance of life and death that is conjured up when songs that suggest suicidal tendencies are performed with joy and gusto. Duchin’s excellent rapport with the orchestra also produced some brilliant isolated moments. For example, “I Don’t Dance When I’m Sad” is a song I thoroughly dislike, but Mochiach did a Quincy Jones number on it, painting the strings in terrific shades of high-flying American soul music. The IPO never knew it had a neshama like that.

Apropos suicidal songs – this is the place to say a few words about Duchin’s second new song. Titled “The Ballad of Elisha and Neli,” it’s about the short and impossible love between a garbage man and a supermodel. During the concert Duchin noted that the song had failed in Israel but succeeded in Russia. It’s a spoken-story song filled with softness on the one hand and barbed irony on the other (“After the audition for Vogue she was heading for a brunch after-party, as a song by Adele and Snoop Doggy Dogg played slowly in a nonstandard format”). There’s a minimal melody, as is usually the case with spoken-story songs, so it’s impossible to know whether Duchin’s melody batteries have recharged after the weak years, but the engine of expressiveness and energy is working at full steam in this song, and that’s how it sounded in the concert, too.

This was also probably the first time the word kusit (“broad,” referring to a woman, from the Hebrew slang for “cunt”) was sung shamelessly on the stage of the Bronfman Auditorium. Within the dual context in which it was released into the hall – an ironic text that justifies its use and a venue that made it almost a disturbance of the public order – it sounded terrific.