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Israel Society & Culture: Music in Israel

by Natan Mishori

In the early years of the state, some 13 years after the central "towers" of music in Israel were built - the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded in Tel Aviv in 1936 on the initiative of the Jewish violinist, Bronislav Huberman who brought the best Jewish players from Europe, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority Orchestra, which was founded in Jerusalem in the same year - every music loving citizen could travel to hear concerts performed, mainly by musicians from the "towers," and only seldom would he have to choose between two concerts on the same day. Today the situation is radically different. Anyone willing to devote an entire week to hearing the concerts given throughout Israel, could not manage it. Even hearing more than one concert a day, one could attend but a minuscule part of all the musical events in the country, which, geographically speaking, is one of the smallest among the countries of western musical culture, but one constantly expanding in breadth and depth.

For example, on a typical Friday morning, one could hear concerts with explanations given by the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra in the auditorium of the Israel Conservatory or a chamber-music concert at the Tel Aviv Museum. In the afternoon, one could choose between a symphonic concert performed by the Philharmonic in the Mann Auditorium, or a performance of the New Israel Opera in the Golda Meir Arts Centre, inaugurated in October, 1994. If music-lovers would rather hear Bach's B minor Mass, they could go to the Recanati Auditorium in the Tel Aviv Museum or drive to the church in Abu-Ghosh near Jerusalem. One could also attend a concert of Jewish and Israeli music, given in the Bnei Zion Auditorium of the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University. If the music lovers prefer to hear chamber music or a recital while sitting at a table with coffee and cake, they can drive to the Yuval Club in Ramat Hasharon in the evening, after the other concerts are finished. Or one could drive to Kibbutz Shefayim, not far from Tel Aviv, which regularly hosts the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra.

Those who are attracted to the various forms of Jewish religious music could attend one of the many synagogue services throughout Israel on Sabbath morning. Afterwards, they can choose one of the choral, orchestral, chamber, or solo concerts that regularly take place at the Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv, or in Beit Alon in the nearby town of Givatayim, or drive further afield.

After the Sabbath, music bursts forth at full volume. By way of example, on Saturday night, January 28, 1995, in the Tel Aviv area alone, one could have (1) listened to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky at the Mann Auditorium, presenting the premiere of a cello concerto by the Israeli composer (an immigrant from the USSR), Yan Freidelin, with the cellist Michael Haran, and works by Dvorcak and Shostakovich; or (2) Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" performed by Israeli and guest singers conducted by Steven Sloan, with unconventional scenery by the director, Dario Po in the Golda Meir Arts Centre, or (3) in the Tel Aviv Museum, a programme of lieder, chamber music, lectures and films in a concert dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the birth of the French composer Gabriel Faure; or (4) in the excellent new auditorium of the Israel Conservatory in Tel Aviv, the Campus Orchestra performed works by Haydn and Mozart conducted by Sam Zebba; or (5) in the Emmanuel Church, Jaffa, works of the baroque and the 20th century, played on an organ built by Gideon Shamir, accompanied by Kashtaniot Camerata from Ramat-Ha-Sharon, a group of women string players; or (6) in the Ramat Gan Theatre, the local chamber ensemble performing works by Schubert and Schumann; or (7) in the Bikurei Ha-Itim Centre in Tel Aviv, the composer Daniel Galai presenting several of his works.

Other concerts took place in Jerusalem, in Haifa and elsewhere. However, since not all the concerts that are given throughout the country are announced in the press, local music-lovers will miss many concerts, and tourists will have a problem to learn of their existence. Some 20 years ago, the American violinist Isaac Stern, with the assistance of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, established the "Concert Network," the purpose of which was to foster public performances of chamber music, especially in the kibbutzim. This institution has now become the music department of Omanut La'Am ("Art for the People,") a division of the Ministry of Culture. Its purpose is defined by its director, Vered Tsarfati, as "creating the possibility that everyone throughout Israel may enjoy as rich a selection of music as exists in Tel Aviv."

From Omanut La'Am, one may learn of the abundant musical activity taking place all over the country. A perusal of their booklet, Musika (1994), reveals both the quantity and the variety in their concerts. Briefly, there were: 27 recitalists, including 21 pianists, three guitarists and lutanists, two harpists and a percussionist; 39 duos; 19 trios; 12 quartets in many different vocal and instrumental combinations in addition to five string quartets, there were six others, including a vocal quartet and a saxophone quartet; "special ensembles" intended to perform specific works, especially contemporary Israeli and international music by the Ensemble Musica Nova, and music for wind bands performed by the wind players of the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, and even African music performed by the Calabash Ensemble; some 20 musicians and singers in various groups, concentrating on early music from the Renaissance and Baroque, of which the flautist Michael Meltzer is one of the leading participants; the Baroque String Orchestra, directed and conducted by David Shamir; eight adult choruses and five children's choruses, including one of immigrant children from Ethiopia several of which have won international prizes, the New Israel Opera, and finally, 14 orchestras.

Since the orchestras represent a central fulcrum of the development of music in Israel, we shall list the orchestras that take part in the activities of Omanut La'Am, with the dates of their establishment: The Israeli Philharmonic (1936); the Israel Broadcasting Authority/Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (1936); the Haifa Symphony Orchestra (1950); the Israel Chamber Orchestra (1968); the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra (1970); the Israel Sinfonietta of Beersheba (1976); the Young Philharmonic Orchestra (1984); the Rehovot Camerata Orchestra (1985); the Symphonic Orchestra of Rishon Le-Zion; the Symphonette Orchestra of Ra'anana (1991); Kashaniot Camerata (1991); the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra (1992); the Givatayim Chamber Ensemble (1993); the Aviv Orchestra (immigrant students at the Academy of Music and Tel Aviv University, 1994).

There are many more orchestras in Israel which do not appear under the aegis of Omanut La'Am. The following orchestras, most of which are new, do not exhaust the list, but they can serve as an indication that today almost every town aspires to have its own orchestra: the Herzliya Orchestra, the Yad-Harif Orchestra, the Atlas Orchestra, the Ashkelon Orchestra, the Ashdod Orchestra, Hed ("Echo") Orchestra of Yehud, the Promenade Orchestra of Eilat, the Academy Orchestras of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are also many other soloists and chamber groups aside from those mentioned. Consequently, the number of concerts given throughout the country, relative to the size of the population (about 5.3 million), is truly enormous. A significant example is the expansion of the audience of the New Israel Opera which grew nearly 400 percent from 1989 to 1994.

Omanut La'Am is connected to 46 regional councils, about 70 settlements, and about 150 community centres. The extent of their activity greatly helps to alleviate the problems of new immigrant professional musicians from the former Soviet Union.

The central cause for the expansion of musical activity in Israel to places outside the center, including in the Arab sector which already has 14 music centres, is this immigration from the former USSR, starting in the early 1990s. Some three percent of the more than 500,000 immigrants are artists, but 70 percent of the artists are musicians! This expansion is facilitated by the Centre for the Absorption Of Immigrant Artists of the Israel Culture Authority. Their activities are concentrated on assisting the absorption of immigrant musicians in existing orchestras, establishing immigrant orchestras with the cooperation of local councils, but avoiding the creation of immigrant " ghettos" by including young Israeli musicians after army service and musical studies; developing musical education to expose kindergarten and primary-school children to music and thus give employment to some 700 artist-teachers; providing grants for the repair of instruments and for purchasing new ones; the employment of immigrant musicians in other projects, such as singers in the New Israeli Opera, or playing in the hundreds of concerts given in schools throughout the country.

A happy 'embarrass de richesses' facing the Israeli music lover is the proliferation of music festivals, with performances by Israelis and guests from abroad. The oldest of these are the Ein-Gev Festival, the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, the Festival of Vocal Music in Abu-Ghosh, and the Zimriya Choral Festival. In the past decade this list has been expanded with Music in the Upper Galilee (instrumental and choral chamber music "Music Days" - at Kibbutz Kfar Blum), Musica da Camera in Tel Aviv, Classical Winter (liturgical music) in Jerusalem, Classical Spring in Tel Aviv. Other, newer festivals such as the Renaissance Festival in the crusader castle of Yehiam, Music in the Caves of Beit Govrin, Days of Music and Nature, Sounds in the Mountain, and others, take advantage of the geographical and archaeological attractions of the country. In March, 1996, a festival of international contemporary music will take place in Tel Aviv, with performances by some of the world's best musicians. As if this were not enough, large audiences are drawn to prestigious international competitions that take place in Israel including the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and the International Harp Competition; as well as many local competitions for young musicians, such as the Fracois Shapira competition, the Ben-Haim competition for the performance of Israeli music, competitions of the Broadcasting Authority for performers and composers, and more. Recently three new international competitions for conductors, singers and composers in honour of Leonard Bernstein were launched. Moreover, classical music is broadcast on Kol Israel's "Voice of Music" from six am. to midnight every day, and concerts and operas are often shown on television.

Although, because of budgetary problems, not all the goals have been achieved, first-grade children hear a selection from about 4,000 concerts given with explanations. The goal for primary schools, as defined by the chief music inspector, Ofer Turiel, is "that every child should learn to play an instrument, just like reading and writing." Today this goal is being achieved for 45,000 pupils in 57 Jewish settlements and 12 Arab towns, and the numbers are growing year by year. Another important development is taking place in high schools. Five years ago only 15 schools participated in the programme leading to matriculation examinations in music. Today, the number of schools has risen to 86, with 15 more joining each year, and some 400 students take the examination, performing a recital and writing a musical dissertation. This, of course, is in addition to the high schools for the arts, of which the foremost, the Thelma Yellin school in Givatayim, has already produced a formidable crop of musicians.

These developments have caused an increase in the number of music conservatories. Growing from an infinitesimal number in the early years of the state, there are now 37 conservatories (with 13,000 students, and 1,600 teachers), at least another 30 institutions which have not yet received official recognition, and many commercial schools and private teachers. Aside from the professional education of the pupils, emphasis is placed on the development of choruses, orchestras (some 100!) and chamber ensembles. For example, at the Israel Conservatory of Tel Aviv, directed by Daniella Rabinowitz, there are two choruses, three orchestras, and about 15 chamber ensembles, permitting some 3,000 pupils of the schools in south Tel Aviv (mostly of Sephardi background) to take part in musical activities as part of the general social environment. Master classes for talented young players are given at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Music Centre in Jerusalem by some of the greatest artists in the world. Benny Gilad, the director of the centre, and of the America-Israel Culture Foundation (which supports many projects and gives about 350 grants to young musicians), is one of those responsible for the fact that every year about 40 young people are accepted by the Israel Defense Forces. The army maintains not only the IDF Orchestra and the Air Force Orchestra, but also the Chamber Orchestra of the Education Corps, the Gadna Orchestra, and other ensembles. The IDF Orchestra maintains a musical college offering 2,800 hours of courses, permitting the musician recruits to become certified youth counsellors, orchestrators, and arrangers. By allowing these young people to concentrate on music, future stars are born.

The main places for nurturing future musical talent are the Rubin Academies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with approximately 1,000 students. Two years ago, the orchestra of the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, conducted by its director, Mendi Rodan, gave very successful performances of symphonic works by young Israeli composers to inaugurate the magnificent new concert hall in Beit Gabriel, which was recently built on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Students of the Rubin Academy at Tel Aviv University, upon the initiative of its director, the composer Professor Ami Ma'ayani, gave strikingly successful performances of works such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, conducted by Noam Sharif. This year, the 50th anniversary of the Academy, there are performances of Brahms Requiem and Bizet's Opera, Carmen. The pianists of the Academy are performing the 32 sonatas of Beethoven, and chamber ensembles from music academies in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, and Israel will give a festival of 35 concerts in honor of the anniversary. The Academy also gives an international course for pianists at Tel-Hai in Upper Galilee. The expansion of musical activity to the peripheral areas of the country and the efforts of the new orchestras to conquer the centre has confronted the veteran orchestras with serious competition. However, since the audience of music lovers has also grown, there seems to be room for all. For example, the Philharmonic now has 28,000 subscribers, and sells some 300,000 tickets annually. It gives some 134 concerts in Israel and another 40 abroad, thus serving as a cultural ambassador, and can be heard annually in Europe, North and South America, and this year also in India, China, and Japan. Music lovers in Europe and the United States can hear a minimum of another 80 concerts performed by the Jerusalem Symphony, the Haifa Symphony, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra of Rehovot, and the Symphony Orchestra of Rishon Le-Zion. The latter was founded by the composer and conductor Shimon Cohen and was developed by Noam Sharif who places emphasis on selecting young musicians on a high level and on a repertoire including much Israeli and international contemporary music.

The founding of the New Israel Opera in 1982 added renewed energy to operatic performances. This season, the opera and the city of Tel Aviv have been graced with the new Golda Meir Centre for the Performing Arts, with an auditorium seating 1,600, containing the most advanced stage machinery, lighting and sound equipment. This auditorium is capable of mounting theatrical and musical productions on the highest international level. The centre has already hosted important institutions from abroad: the State Opera of Hamburg, the ballet companies of Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, the International Youth Orchestra, and leading chamber ensembles from abroad. There have also been performances by the Israel Ballet, the Batsheva Dance Company, the Symphony orchestra of Rishon Le-Zion, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and others. Israel has always held an attraction for some of the world's leading musicians. A few recent visitors included the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, the International Orchestra of Schleswig-Holstein conducted by Justus Franz, the Dresden Philharmonic, and the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of Michael Pletnev, as well as the appearance of the Alban Berg, Carmina, Tokyo and Hagen string quartets, the singers Marianna Lipovetz and Peter Schreier, the pianist Ivo Pogorelich and the pianist Joanne Dornman, at an interntional opera workshop, arranged with the Metropolitan Opera Company, New York, whose teachers are amongst the best in the world.

In addition to the visitors who characterize the musical drawing power of Israel, a significant number of Israeli musicians are involved with important international orchestras. The conductors of some of the leading orchestras in the world are Israeli: Daniel Barenboim, the East Berlin opera, Asher Fisch, the Volksoper in Vienna, Daniel Oren, a leading conductor of Italian opera, and Gary Bertini who until recently, directed the Cologne Radio Orchestra and the Frankfurt opera. The violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinhas Zuckerman, Shlomo Mintz, Gil Shaham, Guy Braunstein, and others continue in the tradition of Sascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern. Many of the performers are managed by the impresario Ruth Shahar whose efforts have raised Israel to the level of a competitive musical exporting" nation.

Israeli musical exports include not only performers and teachers of master classes, but also composers. The house composer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Shulamit Ran. The composer Amnon Wollman is responsible for electronic music at the University of Chicago. The composer Yan Radzinski works at Yale University, and his works are performed by major orchestras. The composer and pianist Ron Yedidya was invited to edit, perform and record the works of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in New York. No fewer than 160 Israeli works were performed during a period of a few months in Iceland, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Korea and the United States. Yosef Tal's opera "Joseph" will have its Israeli premiere this year at the Golda Meir Centre. Other composers stich as Ben-Zion Orgad, Yehezkel Braun, Zvi Avni, Yardena Alotin, and Noam Sharif, as well as veteran immigrants such as Andre Hadju, Sergio Natra and Mark Kopytman have all received premieres abroad. Composers of the younger generation, including Oded Zehavi, Michael Wolpe, Tzipi Fleischer, Rachel Gal'in, Hagar Kadima, Yin'am Lif, Reuben Seroussi, Haim Permont, Ari Ben Shabtai, Menachem Weisenberg, Ron Weidberg, Eitan Steinberg and Dan Yuhas have been widely played abroad and have won many prizes.

These are only a few of our composers. At the end of the 1950s, the Israel Association of Composers had only 50 members, whereas today it has 200, of whom some 20 are new immigrants. The youngest of them, Benyamin Yosifov, has already won a prize. There exists in Israel, in addition to the Institute for Israeli Music (IMT), two other publishing institutes; IMP and the Israeli Music Centre. The number of works published already approaches 3,000, and the number of tape cassettes and CDs is constantly increasing. Festivals of Jewish and Israeli music have been given in Germany and Lithuania, and soon one will take place in Prague. The above survey of the state of music in Israel as we approach the end of the century shows that in the 21st century, the place of music in Israel is likely to be among the deepest, highest and broadest of any in the world.

Since the above article was first written, some significant developments have taken place in Israel’s musical life which deserve noting.

The Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra has ceased to exist, but its members, most of which are Russian-born, have joined other orchestras. Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv municipality has created two new music centres, called respectively, "Einav" and "Levin." These two centres present classical music accompanied by lectures, as well as local and international jazz and popular music. The Rehovot Camerata has become the Jerusalem Camerata, under the director of its founder, the conductor Avner Biron. In additon to the long-established music festival at Abu Ghosh, the well-known choral director, Avner Itai, has now organised a festival of Christian liturgical music in Nazareth.

The Israel Opera goes from strength to strength. This year, some eight operas will be performed before as many as 150,000 people, including over 16,000 subscribers. Special educational performances for children, soldiers and students are shown on large-screen videos in the main square of the Opera House. The Israel Opera has been invited to participate in festivals in Baden-Baden, Germany and Sabolina, Finland.

1996-7 marked the 60th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; an event that was marked by celebrations throughout the musical world. The orchestra’s premier concert in 1936, was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and some of the world’s greatest conductors have appeared with it. Its permanent conductor and "conductor-for-life" is Zubin Mehta. Perhaps Israel’s leading cultural ambassador, the IPO has brought joy to generations of audiences. Among the virtuosi who have performed with the orchestra are Artur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Pinhas Zuckerman, Ida Haendel, Shlomo Mintz, and many more.

The IPO sees an important part of its work in developing and nurturing young and gifted musicians. This it does through scholarships, through support of the "Young Philharmonic Orchestra" and the subscribers club, for whom there is a special programme of youth concerts with explanations and narration.

The above survey of the state of music in Israel as we approach the end of the century shows that in the 21st century, the place of music in Israel is likely to be among the deepest, highest and broadest of any in the world.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry