Ringing Israeli Bells

A recent night at the La Scala opera and an encounter with a Jerusalem-born violin-maker in Italy raised the spirits of this music lover.

For an Israeli seeking refuge from Islamic Jihad rockets or the craziness of domestic politics, there is nothing like a long weekend in Milan. There, one finds delicious pasta at the Crispi restaurant, pleasantly smiling ice-cream sellers at the Grom gelateria - and, if one is an opera buff, the shrine of La Scala offers a perfect battery-charging for the weary.

A night at La Scala is a mind-boggling experience. In the foyer, on your way in to see "Aida," the busts of Rossini and Bellini greet you, seemingly grunting to each other: "See, another Verdi lover. But we were here first!" Then the old, red, breathtaking glamour of the hall sends you into a reverent mood. This is where history was made. Here the great soprano Renata Tebaldi reigned in the 1950s as the unsurpassed Aida, while in the wings a young and chubby understudy was waiting for her turn: Maria Callas.

Yael Rosenblum and her handiwork.
Uri Dromi

On this very stage the greatest conductor of this house, Arturo Toscanini, refused to let the orchestra play the "Giovinezza," hymn of the Italian National Fascist Party, in 1922. The musicians, obviously fearing the Maestro more than the Duce, obeyed. By contrast, in 2005 another great conductor, Riccardo Muti, faced a mutiny by a new generation of La Scala musicians - and left the house with a bang, never looking back. Nothing is more Italian than this place.

That is, until on "Aida" night, around a month ago, the young conductor who approached the podium turned out to be no other than Omer M. Welber, musical director of the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra. An Israeli bringing coals to Newcastle! He offered a wonderful "Aida," with the colorful set by Franco Zeffirelli - and with young Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka convincingly playing the title role, with the imperial mezzo Luciana D'Intino as her rival Amneris, and the powerful Radames (loved by both ) sung and played masterfully by tenor Stuart Neil.

I thought Welber did very well, and it seemed that the audience fully agreed, except that at the end, when he appeared on stage to take a bow, some apparently well-orchestrated boos spoiled the party. With an Israeli knee-jerk reaction I felt like rushing to rescue a compatriot, and shutting up the detractors with my bare hands, but Welber didn't need my help. He raised his eyes to the upper boxes, where the real opera mavens usually sit, and indeed, they rewarded him with a well-deserved thunder of applause, which flushed away the little political sacrilege.

The following night I went to see "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" ("The Woman Without a Shadow" ). Again, no Israeli can remain indifferent in this situation, because for years Richard Strauss' music has been banned in Israel. Indeed, Strauss despised the Nazis, or at least this is what he wrote privately to author Stefan Zweig. However, in 1933 he accepted the presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer (the office of "good German music" ) from the hands of Goebbels, and upon hearing this, Toscanini declared: "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again."

But one way or another, it was a stunning performance. Not always melodic, sometimes bordering on dissonance, the music was nevertheless mesmerizing. Based on a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, this is an opera about a woman who casts no shadow because she is childless. True love, we learn here, can be reached in marriage only when couples are blessed with offspring. The cast - Johan Botha, Emily Magee, Michaela Schuster, Falk Struckmann, Elena Pankratova - was impeccable. But it was the German conductor, Marc Albrecht, who took the orchestra to amazing peaks and was the unrivaled hero of the evening.

Another Israeli angle

"Die Frau" is a German opera, being performed in an Italian opera house in cooperation with London's Royal Opera House - and yet again, an Israeli angle emerges there, too. At one point in the performance, a beautiful solo for violin was played by Salvatore Quaranta. It turns out that his colleague, concertmaster of the theater orchestra of La Scala, Francesco Manara, bought his violin in Cremona, home of the glorious families of violin-makers of the 16th and 17th centuries: the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri. So, did Manara spend a fortune on an antique violin made by one of those founding families? Not at all. The first violinist at La Scala bought a new instrument for a reasonable price from a violin-maker who is not a native of Cremona and whose name doesn't ring an Italian bell at all: Yael Rosenblum.

Rosenblum, born in Jerusalem, arrived in this mecca of violin-making some 12 years ago. Since then, in her little studio on Via Ingenieri, she has been giving the old masters and their descendants a run for their money.

Thirty-two year-old Rosenblum, who started playing the violin at the age of 6, served in the Israel Chamber Orchestra, founded by Isaac Stern, and then came to Cremona to learn the art of violin-making at the noted Antonio Stradivari international school. After apprenticing and collaborating with leading musical instrument-restorers in New York, she settled in Cremona - a woman in a men's occupation, an Israeli among Italians. She looks frail, but isn't. Armed with a deep knowledge of her craft, firm hands and strong will, Rosenblum rented a studio, bought special wood that comes from the Balkans, boiled her own lac and worked nonstop. Slowly but surely, by word of mouth, musicians started to buy her instruments.

Maybe she missed the social unrest in Israel last summer, but in her own way she echoes the desire for a sort of "social justice" in her own field: "It's a disgrace to buy an antique violin at one million euros, just because of the name," she declares, "when a modern violin costs a fraction of this and sounds better."

Being a musician herself gives Rosenblum an edge over other violin-makers. She tries every instrument herself (and gave me a demo, by playing beautifully on a viola that she had just made ), and often follows a client to a concert, to evaluate the sound.

Ilya Konovalov, the concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic, tried one of her violins and told Noam Ben-Zeev of Haaretz that "usually I play on the orchestra's Stradivarius, and I didn't feel at all that Yael's violin was in any way inferior - generally, I don't like modern violins ... But here, the sound is not modern, not metallic, it has something old Italian in it, and besides, it's a pleasure to look at."

Furthermore, Zubin Mehta - who, on top of being the musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, is also directing the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the annual festival in Florence - has invited Rosenblum to meet him there in May, to see her work and perhaps discuss the possibility of purchasing a violin. She is making one especially for this meeting.

By the way she held the still-embryonic instrument and spoke about it, you could feel that despite her ambition to sell violins all over the world, Rosenblum's hope that one day one of her "children" will perhaps stir emotions in Israeli hearts in a concert hall back home is the sweetest of all.