Jerusalem The Golden Venue

A unique festival brings great musicians working for nothing to a city increasingly starved of culture

Norman Lebrecht

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.

The venue, the YMCA, is an island of tolerance, where skull-capped Orthodox Jews mingle with unbelievers, Christian Arab couples pose for wedding photographs and fitness freaks use the gym. Contradictions abound. The concert hall, domed like a mosque, has a perfect acoustic for small ensembles. A rooftop carillon, played by a professor of clinical psychology, summons the faithful 20 minutes before the start of concerts.

The origins of the festival go back 60 years, to the day a girl called Dorit had to share her school desk with a new kid, Daniel, from South America. Dorit Beinisch went on to become president of the Israeli Supreme Court—“our Lord Denning,” lawyers call her—the last recourse against illegal acts by the government and armed forces. Dorit’s lawyer husband, Yeheskell Beinisch, is a former orchestral trombonist who played in Klemperer’s last Mahler Ninth. Her schoolmate was Daniel Barenboim. He married a Russian pianist, Elena, daughter of the formidable pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov. When the two couples, Barenboim and Beinisch, got together for dinner in Jerusalem, someone suggested they should start an informal summer gathering in a small theatre where musicians could play for the fun of it, unpaid and out of the limelight. Overwhelmed by audience demand in the tiny Khan theatre, it grew into a festival at the YMCA. Musicians are still unpaid, unconcerned with status. International stars clamour to be included. Elena and Yeheskell Beinisch are co-directors.

The opening concert this year packed three Beethoven works between a Shostakovich quartet and a Schubert trio. The second recital conjoined trios by Shostakovich and Galina Ustvolskaya to a set of Mahler songs and a Bruckner quintet. Rainer Honeck, the Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster, led the Bruckner. When the Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner called in sick for a song cycle, he was replaced at an hour’s notice by the outstanding Kirill Gerstein. Beside the fierce concentration, there is a languid informality about the festival that allows musicians to drop in and out without penalty.

New talent is blooded. Edgar Moreau, Pablo Fernandez and István Várdai gave a stunning foretaste of future cello virtuosity. There was a first chance to hear the Queen Elisabeth winner Plamena Mangova, a radiant pianist from Bulgaria. András Schiff, Matthias Goerne, Menahem Pressler, Baiba Skride and Alexander Sitkovetsky were among the headline acts. I overcame an aversion to Max Reger in a performance of his lyrical and even humorous string trio. Another anniversarist, Ferruccio Busoni, was heard more in Jerusalem than at the BBC Proms.

The unanswered question, and it has been ringing between my ears ever since I left, is: why can’t music always be like this? Why can’t it be at this level of seriousness? Why have audiences lost the capacity to sit in a concert without shuffling their feet, clearing their throats, fiddling with their mobiles and wishing they were elsewhere? What happened to our ability to listen?

Bashkirova thinks her ideal audience arises from a particular Jerusalem tension which drives the rest of the world to distraction. She may well be right. But I can’t help blaming a music industry that reduced the art to ubiquity. We are never more than an arm’s length away from a masterpiece, on record or online. We are never more than a short flight away from any piece we might wish to hear. Music has lost value. We have forgotten the effort that it requires, as performer and listener. I found it again in Jerusalem.

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