By Sigurd Neubauer
For the past 26 years, Israel’s largest classical music festival takes place between the Jewish New Year of Rosh HaShanah and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The Israel Music Fest, which is solely dedicated to performing music composed by Israelis – both contemporary and historic – was established in 1998 to celebrate the Jewish state’s 50th anniversary. It started as a one-day event, which was initiated by the then Ministry of Education and Culture but now the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
“The idea was to provide the public with the best of Israeli concert music free-of-charge, but one needs to book in advance to secure seats. The festival has grown over the years,” explains Maestro Yuval Zorn who serves as its artistic director.
Zorn is one of Israel’s preeminent conductors, specializing in opera. From 2008-2012, he was the Kapellmeister at the Frankfurt Opera in Germany but worked freelance after his tenure came to an end before eventually becoming the festival’s Artistic Director in 2022. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Piano and Conducting where he currently teaches.
“The festival was initially held exclusively in Jerusalem but concerts are now held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba and Zikhron Yaakov,” he adds.
The festival takes place from September 18 through 22. Although it takes place between the Jewish High Holidays, the festival does not have any religious connotations to it, Zorn notes. Nonetheless, cantorial music as a genre could be included but is not programmed for this year. “Last year, we included Hebrew liturgical poems (פִּיּוּטִים) at our festival which was performed by the Jerusalem Orchestra East-West.”
The festival was initially held exclusively in Jerusalem but concerts are held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba and Zikhron Yaakov
For those unfamiliar with what Hebrew liturgical poems are, Britannica explains that they “have been incorporated into Jewish liturgy and have become virtually indistinguishable from the mandatory service, especially on the Sabbath and on Jewish religious festivals.”
The festival’s popularity is growing. Over five-thousand people participated in it last year.
“Last year, it almost met full capacity as 92 percent of all performances were full. This year, we’re expecting another good turnout. We’re working very hard to create a program that is uncompromising artistically but one that is as accessible as possible for our audiences,” the Maestro explains.
What makes the festival unique, he adds, “is the combination of our audiences’ curiosity, and our ability to mediate its content in an accessible manner; this creates the ‘buzz.’”
Programming for families and children
Children and families enjoy a special place at the festival, Zorn says and points specifically to the Ecoute Ensemble, which draws its artistic inspiration from Sephardic music. “Some of its members are of North African extraction,” he says, adding that it will perform a show entitled ‘From Side to Side.’
Another show for children and families is a collaboration between the festival and the Thelma Yellin High School where students can learn composition. “The youngsters will perform music that they have been composed for children, which are based on children’s games. The composers are in their late teens, but the composition has been made with guidance from their teachers at the high school,” Zorn reveals.
A diverse repertoire
While the Maestro is responsible for putting the festival program together, he’s actually not conducting any of the performances, he reveals. “Putting it together is a huge undertaking because a lot of the music that we select has often not been performed. To select the pieces, a lot of research must be done.”
Towards that end, Zorn examines hundreds of scores, some of which are historic, and others are sent directly to him by contemporary composers. “What the festival seeks to do is to provide a snapshot of the current state of affairs of Israeli music – what we call ‘concert music’ – as well as an historical account, which dates back an estimated 100 years in time.”
While Zorn goes through the scores by himself as he’s the ultimate decision-maker on what is to be programmed, he’s also closely collaborating with the Israeli Music Institute as it is the main publisher of the country’s concert music. “The institute helps me a lot. Its team knows whether the music has been performed or not.”
Responding to how long the planning process takes, the Maestro reveals that it takes approximately one year, adding that it begins immediately after the festival ends.
“The intense work takes a few months, which includes ensuring the performers – orchestras and musicians are available – and the second part is finding the music itself. This entire process takes time,” he reveals.
For the upcoming festival, he’s also done research at the Tel Aviv-based Beit Ariela Public Library And Cultural Center, which holds the archive of composer Verdina Shlonsky (1905-1990). Her work, Movement of the Air, will be performed by the Israel Contemporary Players. “She was one of the founders of Israeli music but has been a little neglected,” Zorn says.
The Artistic Director is also collaborating with the Israel Composers’ League – as well as with the composers themselves. He has provided them with guidelines on what type of musical genres the festival seeks to stage. This year, Firqat alnoor – which is an Israeli orchestra performing Arabic classical music – will also be performing.
“Firqat alnoor pays homage to the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Kol Israel Arab Orchestra,” Zorn says, pointing out that the historic orchestra – which no longer exists – had delighted audiences around the Arab World since its inception in the 1950s. “Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the music scene in Baghdad, Iraq, had largely been Jewish. Once Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel, many of its musicians and their colleagues from other Arab states joined the Kol Israel Arab Orchestra.”
Firqat Alnoor was established in 2013, is composed of 20 Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, and Druze musicians. Its director is Ariel Cohen. Following the Abraham Accords, the orchestra performed at the 2020 Expo in Dubai, UAE. The orchestra has also performed for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other dignitaries.
The history of classical music in Israel
Contemporary classical music in Israel is about 100 years old.
Israel’s most famous composer was Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) whose work will be performed at the festival.
“Ben-Haim was a post Romantic composer who fled Nazi-Germany during the 1930s but became influenced by the music that he heard once he arrived in Israel, which were of Middle Eastern themes. The environment in Mandatory Palestine was very different from what he was accustomed to in Germany,” Zorn explains.
This in turn, “fundamentally changed his approach to how he composed music, including the structuring of music. Ben-Haim became the founder of what is presently referred to in Israel as the ‘Mediterranean School;’ it merges elements of oriental Jewish and Arab music with modern European classical music.”
Mark Lavry (1903-1967), who also played a critical role in establishing the Mediterranean School, will also have some of his music performed at the festival. Lavry was a composer and conductor who had been a student of the legendary German-Jewish conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962)
Walter also fled Nazi-Germany for the U.S. where he reestablished a second career spearheading some of America’s top orchestras. Lavry, for his part, “was interested in the Middle Eastern influences in music which he heard once he immigrated. His style is very distinct,” Zorn says.
The Haifa Symphony Orchestra will perform Lavry’s Israeliana.
Alexander Uriyah Boskovich (1907-1964) is another historical composer but his music will not be performed at the 2023 festival.
“The composition style of Ben-Haim, Lavry, and Boskovich was for many years identified by musicologists as a new style of Israeli classical music. A lot has changed since then because Israeli composers come from a variety of backgrounds. The composition of contemporary Israeli composers are becoming less and less insular as we’re connected to the world where European Avant Garde has had a major influence,” the Maestro explains.
Yosef Tal’s (1910-2008) piano concerto will also be performed. “Tal became a revolutionary in electronic music,” Zorn points out.
The Chilean-born Israeli composer Leon Schidlowsky (1931-2022) will have two of his pieces performed,Chanson and Dedalus. “What makes Schidlowsky unique as a composer is that he developed many forms of graphic notations as his scores do not resemble normal music because of its big drawings,” Zorn says, then quips: “this leaves lots of room for the performer on how to interpret it.”
Israel’s contemporary music scene is also very lively, he reveals, “which is evident from the vast number of scores that I receive.”
But some artistic risk is inevitably involved. “Because we don’t sell tickets, we can take more risks by giving performances of music that would not necessarily make it to the programming of the Israel’s major orchestras.”
The Meirtar Ensemble, along with others, will perform contemporary music. The Ensemble plays a major role in the creative process of what Zorn describes as the country’s new musical life. A new opera by Tamar Shalit, Mei Tehom (Groundwater), will also be performed by the Ensemble.
“Adler is one of the most successful Israeli composers and has even performed with Maestro Daniel Barenboim and the London Proms,” Zorn reveals, describing his composition as a “unique voice.” Adler’s Hidden Light will be performed.
“The Great Gehenna Chorus is a group of musicians who are singers and composers. They co-create their music and perform it in open spaces. They create the music in dialogue within the environment in which they operate in it,” Zorn says, adding that their work is “outstanding.” The chorus performed during last year’s festival.
Among the youngest generation of composers whose work will be performed is Carmel Curiel; “she’s a standout,” Zorn declares with obvious enthusiasm.
The Maestro is also passionate about introducing classical music to new audiences. When it comes to the Great Gehenna Chorus, for instance, he points out that it draws “a different audience than the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. We place the Great Gehenna Chorus side-by-side with classical music so that the audiences can mix. We want our audiences to discuss music as a living thing and not experience it as a museum.”