The Final Dose of Oxygen

Contrary to expectations, the Russians did not become life-savers for classical music in Israel. They just gave artificial respiration to a dying body.

They say that at the height of the Russian immigration to Israel in the mid-1990s, maestro Yevgeni Svetlanov of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow noted a serious decline in its musical standards. With the first chord, he showed his dismay. "Keep on playing as if the Jews haven't left," he pleaded with his musicians.

But the Jewish musicians had left, in droves, and come to Israel. The musical world of the former Soviet Union lost soloists, orchestral leaders and back-row musicians, as well as teachers, academics and composers.

The thousands of immigrant musicians doubled, even trebled, the ranks of their Israeli colleagues. Tens of thousands of true music-lovers landed in Israel and began to explore the local musical landscape for concerts, friends with whom to play music, and teachers for their children. It seemed that salvation had arrived: The multitudes of players and audiences, teachers and students, researchers and composers would surely breathe new life into the moribund musical scene. The hoped-for impetus for local culture and, above all, classical music, was approaching at last, and from an unexpected source.

But the cool reception that awaited the new immigrants was not what they had expected. It was not only an Israeli phenomenon; in the West in general, composers and classical musicians from the former Soviet Union were greeted with suspicion by their colleagues. The image of Russia as old-fashioned had been current as early as the 19th century. It was foreign and distant, and then, during the Soviet era, isolationist as well, creating the erroneous perception that behind the Iron Curtain everything - musical techniques, attitudes toward musical styles, certainly operatic singing - was lagging behind. The West, where the avant-garde had been born in the 1950s, and where the historical style of early music had developed, looked with disdain at a Russia where the operas of Mozart and Donizetti were still being sung in Russian, and Modernism was an underground movement. Russia would always be romantic, according to this view - which was itself romantic.

This was even more the case in Israel, where musicians spoke English and the ideal was the United States, not Europe; where violinists enrolled at Juilliard in New York (and almost never at the Paris Conservatoire, for example); and composers studied with George Crumb in Pennsylvania rather than Luciano Berio in Florence. In this environment, the classical Russian music culture became shadowy. There was an immediate dichotomy between "Israelis" and "Russians." Like all immigrants, the Russians too were received by the native sabras with some puzzlement and consigned directly to the melting pot, in order to shake off their "alien" aesthetic ideals.

In Israel, they like to compliment the Russian immigrants on being "unspoiled." And indeed the newcomers rolled up their sleeves, and with a single stroke changed the country's instrumental music map. Chamber ensembles on the brink of collapse pursued them: What could be better than quality musicians who arrive out of the blue, and are prepared to accept a simple workman's wage? New orchestras were formed in Ra'anana, Ashdod, Rehovot, Holon, Ramat Gan, Hadera, Ramat Hasharon and Tel Aviv. In the older orchestras of Be'er Sheva and Herzliya, and in the contemporary music ensembles as well, Russian became the dominant vernacular. Even the Israel Andalusian Orchestra, devoted to old Jewish-Arab music from Morocco, recruited Russian string musicians alongside the "Moroccans" playing Arab instruments.

Similarly, the teetering music conservatories hired excellent teachers at starvation wages, without tenure, promotion or social benefits, despite the fact that their education and experience were richer than that of their local colleagues. The music schools began to fill up with the children of immigrants. The musical landscape was transformed, education got a fresh profile, and the field of composition rang with new names: Josef Bardanashvili from Tbilisi, Benjamin Yusupov from Tajikistan, Irina Svetova, Dina Smorgonskaya, Zlata Razdolina. They and their hundreds of colleagues have created 3,500 compositions over the last decade, enriching the Israeli repertoire with fresh compositional ideas, expanding the stylistic range and stimulating renewed interest in what's going on in the field here today.

This is not about over-zealousness, and the question of "unspoiled" is not relevant. For the Russians, music is a vital necessity, like breathing air. The gap between them and native Israelis is cultural. The Israelis strive for the rarefied heights of excellence, in studies or performance, and if they fail to achieve it, they despair. The Russians are involved in music because of an inner passion, as an essential part of life. It is precisely for this reason that they are prepared to work for starvation wages - for love, rather than because they are unspoiled.

Today, almost 15 years later, it is clear that the Russian revolution was nothing more than a dose of oxygen to extend the life expectancy of a dying body. Orchestras are millions of shekels in debt and operating under threat of liquidation, and their musicians are happy just to be working and receive a salary at the end of the month. Nobody argues any more about the size of the salary (around the minimum wage) or the lack of appropriate social benefits.

And why are so many orchestras needed? True, the monopolistic approach was always more efficient than the pluralistic and multicultural one. "Unite and rule" was always the motto of those who controlled budgets. Everything would be simpler if the Philharmonic and the Israeli Opera alone remained active. It is like the joke about the efficiency expert who fired half an orchestra's violinists "because they all play the same thing anyway!"

The assimilation of the Russian musicians is now complete, but not for the better. Now the problem of classical music in Israel is their problem too, because the society turns its back on all musicians, and pushes them to the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to priorities. In sport the immigrants from the FSU have done well: they have proven that their excellence raises the general level of Israeli athletes rather than displacing them. When it comes to music, one can only hope for the same thing.