Keep Calm And Carry On Playing

A performance of a modern Israeli classic in a run-down German city put the world’s woes in perspective

Norman Lebrecht

In the thick of the biggest European migration since the 1940s, with nuclear powers playing Russian roulette in Syrian skies, a Labour leader who wants to drop our defences and a Europe that is rebuilding its borders, the act of writing about music can seem futile, if not positively escapist. What benefit is there in contemplating the work of composers, the merits of interpreters and the putative meaning of black notes that fly in and above five stave lines like crows at the dawn of Armageddon?

In times of crisis we are enjoined to keep calm and carry on. But carrying on is the hardest thing to do when there is no correlation between the overriding abnormality and our concentrated preoccupation with very small things. What, in a word, is the point?

I am writing this paragraph in Germany, a land wary of abnormality, in a Ruhr town that has lost its coal, steel, and lately its car production. I am here for the 80th birthday concerts of an Israeli composer, Noam Sheriff, and the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli relations, itself a courageous act by two states to address past abnormality with civil discourse. The town of Bochum, pop. 365,000 and falling, is an unlikely place to celebrate anything. Depression clouds streets of discount shops and kebab houses.

The Ruhr University of Bochum is a showcase of 1960s concrete brutalism that makes London’s South Bank look positively Palladian; it is said to have the nation’s highest student suicide rate. The university concert hall is decked out in a vomitorium shade of Agent Orange crossed with Hare Krishna, and acoustics to match. Bochum, at first sight, has nothing to commend it.

Apart, that is, from a symphony orchestra of the highest quality, led by the Lucerne Festival concertmaster Raphael Christ and conducted for the past 20 years by Steven Sloane, formerly music director of Opera North, in Leeds. Identifying the orchestra as a source of pride, Bochum, nearly bankrupt, has grasped music as a means of salvation. Sloane, the orchestra’s executive director as well as its chief conductor, persuaded the town to let him build a new concert hall and then called on its citizens to help. Out of a budget of €35 million, half has been donated by individuals, in gifts from €5 upwards. 

The hall is being constructed around a mid-19th-century church, its deconsecrated nave offering a long corridor of light in ambient gloom. Every gifted euro cent, every inch of space, is being made to count. Teaching and rehearsal studios occupy the peripheral rooms. When it opens next summer, there will be music in the hall from morning to night, all year round. The contrast with Simon Rattle’s half-baked plan for a half-billion pound vanity hall in the City of London could hardly be more pronounced. As London looks to its bankers, Bochum looks to its bootstraps. No question which has a better understanding of the value of music in an age of uncertainty.

Uncertainty, anxiety, call it what you will: that age has been the lifespan of Noam Sheriff, a composer born into a land without music and a language that was being reinvented from scripture. Mother-tongue is the primary resource of every writer and musician; Sheriff is of a generation whose language is not maternal but sui generis

In the land of his birth there was no radio, few gramophones and scarce opportunity to hear music. That had to be invented from scratch, against a querulous, ever-intrusive backdrop. Politically, Arab-Jewish tensions led to wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and on through the course of the composer’s life. Creatively, he was pressured on the Right to reflect national symbols and on the Left to write music of social and educational utility. Stylistically, he was squeezed by the contrary demands of traditionalist and progressive forces. Existentially, he lived in a communitarian cell. There is no refuge in Israel from situational awareness. Bulletins blare hourly through open windows.

To maintain one’s head in perpetual crisis, when every 55 minutes brings bad news and ears are strained to catch the names of victims in the latest outrage, is an achievement for any creative person. Noam Sheriff has achieved eight decades as a composer in Israel, by common consent its most successful and influential musician.

Aside from writing music, Sheriff founded a symphony orchestra, conducted several others and taught, term after term, musicians in many genres, all of whom owe something to his hard-won skill of transcendence — his ability to surmount a state of crisis by the act of musical creation. The audience in Bochum understood that priority without my having to explain it.

They, and I, had gathered to hear a rare performance of Mechaye Hameitim — Reviver of the Dead — a synoptic musical history of the Jews in northern Europe, from ghetto to enlightenment, from Holocaust to exodus. The oratorio, for two soloists, choirs and orchestra, is a tour d’horizon of a dispersed culture, massively emotional and flirting dangerously with the perils of literalism, avoiding cliché here and there by the thinness of a ram’s horn.

What saves the work from its archival mass is Sheriff’s ability to transform well-worn materials into ethereal novelties, a process he effects in part by ingenious harmonies and instrumentation, and in part by means of a natural genius for making us hear things as if for the first time. The parallels that spring to mind are Britten’s folk-tune quotations in Peter Grimes and Bernstein’s in Chichester Psalms, where the melody strikes us not for what it is, but for what it might become.

The response of the Bochum audience was ecstatic. The effect on musicians was greater still. Boys in an angelic Dortmund choir burst their lungs in hallelujahs. A Japanese bassist played her solo as if it were the première of Mahler’s First Symphony. The collective effort was quite without restraint.

For an hour or so, the present world and its woes seemed altogether trivial. The experience of great art shows up the ephemerality of lesser things. A reminder of mortality, it serves as a corrective both to those in power and to those who strive for a better tomorrow. What’s the point? That’ll do.

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