Requiem for a Symphonic Orchestra

A mere collection of freelance musicians with no job security, the Herzliya Orchestra proved to be less than the sum of its parts, which led to its overnight elimination.

Noam Ben-Zeev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Noam Ben-Zeev

"It wasn't a permanent orchestra but a collection of freelancers who wander from one orchestra to another." This was one of the main arguments in defense of the overnight elimination of a classical orchestra that has been playing regularly for over 30 years. The Herzliya Orchestra, which has been disbanded by the municipality, reminded its fans and subscribers of its unique character in its farewell concert 10 days ago. More than anything else, this argument attests to the situation of orchestras in Israel, and to the ideology of employing workers in the public sector in general: musicians, each of whom is considered an expert in his field, are employed for decades as freelancers, and at best in a permanent work arrangement - 19 of the dozens of players were employed that way - but by calculating their salary based on effective work hours, and with a lack of tenure and a total absence of job security. This state of affairs not only caused anger, but absurdly even served as a justification for layoffs.

Whatever the case, a permanent job or a dismissal from one day to the next: What there was in Herzliya will no longer be there. And what about preserving the rights of the minority? It's true that concerts in the park can bring thousands of people to sit and listen to classical works, but art, as artist Marcel Duchamp illustrated so well at the dawn of the 20th century, is not only the works that it comprises, but also the context in which they are displayed. Beethoven's piano concerto in the park, free of charge, while the audience sprawls on the grass, with sounds borne on the breeze, among women, the elderly and children of all types and sizes and genders, is great fun - especially when before it you can enjoy an excellent medley of songs performed by a famous singer, and afterwards excellent encores. There is no substitute for that, and the Herzliya municipality deserves kudos for running those events - to which, according to municipality workers, many people object because they are "classical."

But there is also no substitute for a Beethoven concerto as part of a concert in a concert hall, where the attention and the silence are total; a concert that is itself part of a series that throughout the year builds up an encounter with the art of music in a historical, geographical and stylistic context; and in effect the encounter of man with himself in light of this art; and a series that is itself part of a slow, long-term process, in which the aesthetic sense is formed and sharpened and the intellect develops. True - there were not masses of subscribers attending the orchestra's subscription concerts. There were 350 of them, and at concerts the seats in the concert hall were filled by incidental ticket-buyers.

But these thousands of tickets throughout the year add up to an important mass. They are part of a cultural momentum in which not only the masses have rights; after all, democracy means preserving the rights of the minority, without it the decision of the majority becomes a dictatorship. The farewell concert, during which the mayor of Herzliya was received with catcalls by the audience, who consider her the main cause for the disbanding of its orchestra, was not the ringing of the bells at a requiem: For Mayor Yael German it should serve as a wake-up call. All the qualities of classical music were reflected in it: dedicated playing, tasteful conducting, a modest and professional presentation by conductor Harvey Bordovitz (who as usual explained the works ), the revelation of a new young artist, the excellent violist Matan Nusimovich; and the power of music - to comfort, to exalt, to tell a story, the story of the disbanding of the orchestra and of overcoming it by playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the brilliant victory movement in a major key that concludes it; and at the end a dirge for it, in spite of everything, in a sad encore by Elgar. So before the orchestra is replaced by a popular and perhaps even a populist group - there's still time for people to change their minds.

Music for all

How rare it is to encounter in the present era a music festival that is devoted to the thing itself - without gimmicks, without an attempt to be what it isn't, without endless winks and seductive hints and pressure on the audience. The Renaissance Festival in the National Park at Kibbutz Yehiam only presents itself to the audience - innocently, at least for the most part, and offers its artistic products to everyone, from children to adults, separately and together. For the inexpensive sum of NIS 35 - young children get in free - you can enter the castle complex at Yehiam and be brought back almost 40 years, as though an imaginary and invented picture of "the good old Land of Israel" is being reconstructed here. A hilly landscape covered with pine trees, quiet all around, a fair where one can buy all sorts of unnecessary items and eat a hotdog; and mainly the opportunity to walk around among the various concerts played for anyone who so desires, and all in the spirit of Renaissance and folk music.

This year (October 3-4, from the morning hours ), the Renaissance Festival in Yehiam is celebrating its 20th anniversary. As its name indicates, its spirit is that of the Renaissance, meaning it is largely invented, with costumes that have become identified as Renaissance-Baroque and a quasi-ancient and clearly non-technological atmosphere. But for the most part its program really is Renaissance-Baroque, with music and instruments from the period, and concerts of a high standard - for example by the Phoenix ensemble in fado songs from Portugal, music from Brazil, and ancient music with authentic instruments; and by Idit Shemer and Genevieve Balanchard in a repertoire for Baroque recorders.

Singer Bracha Kol with guitarist Oded Shoub in songs and arias from operas, the Kolot Nashim Naama ensemble in songs about women and by women from various periods, Reuvena Hod on recorders and Iris Eyal on an ancient harp in a program from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the countertenor Alon Harari with Myrna Herzog on viola da gamba: such concerts, which are only a small part of the two rich days of the festival, attest to the high level of its performers and its homogeneous style.

Anyone who so desires can also attend shows and concerts for which entry is charged, in the evening hours - including with Alona Daniel, Gil Shohat and Shlomi Shaban and a flamenco troupe; but the unique aspect of the festival is that it is open and free, like a big street performance that eliminates the barriers between performers and audience and fulfills the basic right of every person: to listen to good music at a high level, and at a reasonable price.

A ceremony was concealed among the concerts at the Israeli Music Celebration that just ended: the distribution of the Prime Minister's Prize for Composers, which in addition to honor and appreciation also awards its winners a grant equal to a teacher's salary for an entire year. Two female and four male composers received it: Hadas Goldschmidt-Halfon, Marina Geller, Yonatan Keren, Rami Schuler and Zohar Sharon; the oldest of them all, Menachem Wiesenberg, was also chosen to speak following the lofty words from government officials. As usual, Wiesenberg thanked those who awarded the prize and the panel of judges, as well as the Culture Ministry that supported the festival (there were few representatives from the ministry, and the minister herself was not present ); but then Wiesenberg diverged from the path set out for him:

"But to my regret, these prizes, festive ceremonies and joyous and emotional occasions do not reflect and do not express the attitude of Israeli society to the artist living in the country," he said, suddenly violating the ceremonious atmosphere. "The budgets allocated in Israel to artists, creators and performers, to performing groups and to festivals dealing with the various aspects of artistic music, are painfully meager. The steadily declining place of music in the school system illustrates the degeneration of the attitude towards the fine arts in general in this important network, in which the entire educational process is increasingly designed to be practical only, directed towards memorization and grades."

The empty seat of Minister Limor Livnat cried out. Not that those words would have changed anything, but it was a shame she wasn't there only so we could witness her momentary unease. "In every civilized nation, since the days of ancient Greece and China, a great emphasis was placed on musical education, out of a profound understanding that this education contributes very significantly to the shaping of a person both as an individual and as part of society," said Wiesenberg as he concluded his daring words, which were said simply, without defiance or blame. "Especially in a country living at the mouth of a volcano, a country suffused with tensions of various types, when the situation is so difficult, there is need for a change in the order of priorities, and for giving art and the artists who create it a more central place in its life. Not as an 'opiate for the masses' but as an additional and enriching aspect of life."

Performance at Renaissance Festival at Yehiam castle last year.Credit: Sarit Uziely
Herzliya Orchestra conductor Harvey Bordovitz. Credit: Eyal Toueg