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When Michael Levine reads a story, he can hear musical rhythms in the text. This may sound strange, but it explains how he came to be a founding member of the Israel Stage Orchestra, a group that not only performs concerts, but also acts them out.
Togeth er with charismatic conductor/composer Roni Porat, the South African-born Levine set up the Yad Harif Stage Orchestra and developed a new stage language he calls "concert theater." The musicians not only play the music, but wear costumes, deliver lines o f text and move around the stage. Levine says the idea began as a way of holding audience interest.
"They [the audience] see musicians in their penguin suits, with no expression," he said. "The musicians also deserve to be recognized as artists."
Levi ne believes his is the only group in the world to take musical theater in this direction. Since its creation in 1992, the orchestra has been prominent in music education. Even during regular concerts, the conductors - the orchestra is the only one in Isra el with two female conductors - talk to the audience, explaining how the performance pertains to our lives. They also provide background information about the music.
The performances, which are geared toward children, take place all over the country. Since being adopted by Holon, the orchestra performs for thousands of third- and fourth-grade students in that town. The shows include a collection of excerpts from classical works.
The orchestra has done three shows for adults. In 1999, it participated in the Israel Festival with a show called "Fantasy for Chimpanzee and Orchestra," based on Kafka's short story "Report to the Academy," about the trials of a simian-like creature brought to a big city. In 2004, they performed "Last Melody," a show dealing wi th an age in which only digital music is permitted, and a musician who tries to preserve the last melody. They also performed "Sophia and Friends," which gave the audience a chance to meet the group's mainly Russian members as they told stories from their childhood.
Levine's own background is in dance. After making aliya at the age of 17 from Durban, he completed his studies and served in the IDF. He worked for 15 years with the Kibbutz Gaaton dance company and its mixed modern and classical repertoire.
In 1986, after leaving the dance company, Levine joined Kibbutz Tzora near Jerusalem and, three years later, helped establish the Yad Harif Regional Arts Center, which today serves over 2,000 area residents with a wide range of cultural events including dance, music, painting, sculpture and theater.
Over the years, Levine and Porat's children's concerts have become an Israeli institution. Levine explains that the concerts use music "as a means to promote social values by using cooperation and listening."
The Israel Stage Orchestra opens a new season of children's concerts tomorrow at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with "The Joys of Differences," featuring leading percussionist Chen Zimbalista conducting music from around the world. Further details at (02) 990-8676.d8