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Cultural commitment: Elena Bashkirova performing at this year’s Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival (©Dan Porges/JICMF)



Arturo Toscanini, arriving in the Holy Land to conduct the philharmonic orchestra in 1936, was stalled on the road to Jerusalem by a Biblical downpour. Forced to wait until the storm eased, he sought shelter in a new kibbutz, a cluster of tents with a tall watchtower and a tin-roofed hut that served as meeting room and dining hall. With his host, the violinist Bronisław Huberman, Tocanini sipped tea in the makeshift canteen, rain pounding the roof above their heads.

Word of their presence flashed around the kibbutz. Farm workers, mostly new refugees from Hitler’s Germany, former doctors and lawyers, converged on the dining hall in khaki shorts and denim overalls. “Maestro,” cried one, “in the Eroica symphony, what tempo does Beethoven require in the finale?” “When does one require an e-flat clarinet?” asked another. Toscanini turned in wonderment to Huberman. “Amazing country,” he exclaimed. “Even the peasants here know music.”

The story, received at first hand, stuck in my mind because what Toscanini had unwittingly stumbled upon was what every musician seeks most, namely a public that is as passionate and knowledgeable as themselves. Pierre Boulez called it l’idéale audience, a listenership so avid it practically sucks the music out of artists. Most performers go through their entire lives without ever encountering an audience of this intensity. I think I may have found one a few miles up the road from Toscanini’s.

The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival took place for the 19th time last month in the first fortnight of September, a short window when the summer festivals are over and the autumn season has yet to kick off. Most musicians hit the beach. The audience-seekers head for Jerusalem.

The first thing they encounter is silence. In four days of concerts, twice a day, I did not hear a single cough. “The best concentration anywhere,” says Elena Bashkirova, the festival’s artistic director. Programmes are unyieldingly highbrow. Concerts contain at least five major works and last two-and-a- half hours. There are no encores. The public leaves the premises deep in thought. “The quality of the public is unique,” says Bashkirova. “If I put on something difficult, Boulez or Carter, they don’t complain. On the contrary, people come to me and say, ‘Please keep doing this, we want to learn’.”

No need to look far to find the cause of audience commitment. Jerusalem feels abandoned by the arts. Split between Arabs and Jews and, among Jews, between westernised and fundamentalist communities, the cultural and intellectual sectors are fleeing to Tel Aviv, a city that never sleeps and embraces diversity. Jerusalem, says Bashkirova, is “isolated, like an orphan”.  Her festival is the city’s sole window on world-class performance. The audience is self-selecting, the atmosphere almost one of siege.

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