Becoming Fully Human

4:45 A.M. at the cable-car station below the Mount of Temptation, which juts into the sky northwest of Jericho - that is where the devotees will meet this Friday, June 20. At the end of a lazy ascent in the car is the desert landscape of the Jordan Rift Valley. On this hilltop, according to Christian tradition, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights and did not yield to Satan's temptations to break his fast.

At 5 A.M., as first light appears, along with the birds awakening to a new day, an ensemble from a distant land will play Puccini's Cristantemi. The event will undoubtedly be an unusual adventure for the young members of the Meta4 String Quartet from Finland. From the glittering halls of Vienna and Moscow, where they won first prize in competitions, and from their concerts at Wigmore Hall in London, Verdi Hall in Milan and Carnegie Hall in New York - with their ancient violins, one of them a Stradivarius - it is not exactly a short and natural journey to play against the backdrop of a Palestinian sunrise.

And they are not alone. In the next three weeks, until July 5, another six ensembles like them, some of them highly acclaimed such as the Artis Quartet from Vienna, and dozens of other musicians from Germany, France, Israel, Austria and Switzerland, will play in the third Sounding Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival.

The festival, like its predecessors, will also resonate outside Jerusalem - concerts will be held in places like Jenin and its surrounding villages and the Ramallah Cultural Palace.

Jerusalem sites include the Jerusalem Music Center, YMCA, Museum of Italian Jewish Art, Austrian Hospice, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, and the Crusader Church in Abu Ghosh west of Jerusalem.

Plenty of Mozart and Romantic music will be played, but there will also be Bach and avant-garde, Nino Rota and Janacek, and contemporary Israeli works.

The sunrise concert near Jericho is much in demand among Israelis. "People call and don't know it is in Jericho," says the Austrian cellist Erich Oskar Huetter, the festival's founder and artistic director. "We have to explain to the Israeli public that as far as we are concerned everything is okay, because the concerts are intended for everyone and are free, and we would very much like to host them - but the army says no."

Huetter laughs with some bitterness.

"The absurd thing is that music itself is outside the whole argument and conflict, but nevertheless we are not successful in getting the two sides to meet. In music all the disparities that separate people - which in the end boil down to aspects of politics and society - are erased, because in the performance and in listening to it there is a certain innocence; the listener becomes his true self, becomes fully human," he says.

"I think that those who claim that we are deluding ourselves in this festival are wrong and are leading others astray. They want to persuade people that the illusion according to which there is no bridge or understanding or fraternity between Palestinians and Israelis is the reality - and everyone believes them. The truth is the opposite - that is what we believe."

Ignorance aplenty

Huetter, who is a member of chamber ensembles in Austria and the musical director of an Austrian festival, is young, full of energy and has a deep affinity for the two communities he is working with. He also has a keen understanding of the varied difficulties that arise. He maintains extensive ties with both sides, and the conflict seems to be channeled in him and reflect in his clear eyes.

What outrages him most is the ignorance on both sides, but especially among the Israelis. "The Israelis are afraid to enter the Old City of Jerusalem to attend a concert - you have to go to the gates and bring them from there," he says. "And then they are so surprised: 'What, you mean to tell me that the Arabs like classical music?'" Regarding the Palestinian organizers, he says, the problem is slowness and a lack of initiative.

"It is so easy to reject, to tag the other without knowing who he really is. You know, there is tremendous variety among the Palestinians - Westerners, Muslims, religious and secular, open and conservative. But all of them react the same way if you come to them with open arms. I view it like a marriage that has run into trouble. The two sides are together all the time but don't get along," he says.

And are the musicians afraid to appear in a region considered dangerous? "Not only considered," he says. "In the last festival we found ourselves in the midst of an area in Ramallah where shooting was going in. But still, the musicians continue to arrive, bearing their very expensive Guarneri violins. The festival lasts three weeks," he notes - it began on June 13.

"But there are long days of rest during that period, because we do not want the musicians rushing from one place to the next, as is the custom in America and Europe. There they spend a few free hours visiting famous sites, and other free time is taken up by ceremonies or dinners. No, our goal is to have them meet real people and get to know them and their lives. We have not come to make peace, we are not a social-aid organization or a development fund, nor have we come to satisfy our curiosity," he says. "We are out to create a human encounter."

The concerts are divided about half and half between West and East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and tickets - which have to be reserved even though they are free - are running out fast, Huetter says. Israeli artists such as percussionist Chen Zimbalista, pianist Arnon Erez and oud player Taiseer Elias are big draws. "But the aim is to extract from the festival more than musical excellence per se," Huetter notes. "I don't want just another nice event, but one that will stir, pinch and challenge."

The concluding concert, "Connecting Jerusalem," will bring together 30 Israeli, Palestinian and international brass musicians who will play on the rooftops of the Old City. "We would never have received authorization to play on the streets," Huetter laughs. "I didn't even try to ask. So we will go up to the roofs."