There’s nothing like a good old song to raise the spirits. Add some comedy to the performance proceedings, and you’ve got yourself a comprehensive entertainment mix.
Just such a mix will be on offer at this year’s Yemei Zemer (Song Days) festival, which is due to take place for the 22nd year under the auspices of the Holon Theater. The perennial home base venue, however, will not host the shows this time around – April 12 to 15 – as the theater building is being renovated. Instead, veteran singers such as Nitza Shaul, Sassi Keshet and Shulamit Aharon, seasoned rockers Beri Sakharoff, Tislam and Si Hi-man, vocalists from the Israeli Opera and comic Tuvia Tzafir will strut their polished stuff at the Steinberg Music Center, five minutes’ drive to the south.
Rony Weiss has been endeavoring to cover most entertainment bases for the past four and a half decades.
The youthful-looking 63-year-old instrumentalist-vocalist, composer, conductor, producer and arranger got an early start to his career.
“I was still at school, back in 1970, when a song of mine was accepted for a song festival,” he recalls, neatly sidestepping my inquiry as to the identity of the song and the competition.
“That’s not important,” he chuckles. “What is important is that I was very excited.”
It was a life changer.
“I’d always played music, but I always thought I’d be a doctor or an engineer when I grew up,” says Weiss. “That’s what I was taught to think.”
The career choice line of thought was further enhanced by the family’s financial situation.
“I started playing the accordion at the age of four. The accordion is not an Israeli folk music instrument as it is presented. It’s an instrument for people who don’t have the money to buy a piano. I only got a piano when I was 12,” he says.
That was around the time that Weiss graduated from the local music conservatory and began taking lessons with legendary New York-born musicologist Zvi Koren.
High-level tutoring notwithstanding, teenage Weiss was still not heading for a career in the entertainment industry.
“I thought I’d be a doctor because that’s what I wanted to be, or an engineer because my father had an engineering company and the idea was for me to take over at some stage,” he recounts.
But Weiss had truly caught the music bug, and his artistic continuum was sturdily maintained when he began his army service.
“I was the first soldier to be made musical director of an army band,” he says. The young conscript was on a meteoric trail to fame and fortune.
“I met Shimon Yisraeli, who was a big star. He was the director of the army troupe, and he asked me to write the music for a one-man show called Tsiporim Barosh (Birds in the Mind) and asked me to accompany him. In my first year in the army I found myself appearing 28 times with Shimon Yisraeli, which had a very beneficial effect on my financial situation,” he recounts.
The offers came flooding in and, for all intents and purposes, Weiss’s army service was over.
“I was given tons of work by the IBA.
Moshe Vilensky [iconic songwriter and IBA music department chief] asked me to do lots of arrangements. I worked with ensembles of 15 to 30 instrumentalists. After I finished my basic training, I stopped wearing army uniform,” he says.
It was a priceless on-the-job training phase for the youngster. That meant spending most of the working week writing arrangements for Kol Israel ensembles.
“When I was 18-19 I gained experience writing arrangements that no 50-year-old musician today has a chance of getting. If you go into the Kol Israel library, you’ll seeing recordings (with Weiss’s arrangements) of Shabbat songs, Ladino songs, Yiddish songs and Eastern music,” he adds.
Weiss must have been born under a particularly bright star. His career development path continued to gain momentum. Towards the end of his military service, he was contacted by Motti Kirschenbaum, then a 30something Israeli TV executive who had been instrumental in setting up the state’s first television station.
Kirschenbaum had spent several years in California during the halcyon 1960s and came back to Israel with some fresh ideas for the still young state. His most telling project was Nikui Rosh, a satirical TV show which ran from 1974 to 1976 that poked fun at just about everything and slaughtered sacred cows with gay abandon.
“In 1974, Motti rang me and asked me if I wanted to be the music director and composer of Nikui Rosh.
That was huge for me,” he says.
In the meantime, Weiss had augmented his street level experience with university music studies.
Over the years, Weiss has written and arranged hits for some of the local pop industry’s biggest names, such as Isolier Band, Cheri and Ofra Haza. The latter shot to international stardom when she won the 1989 Tokyo Festival in Japan with “Im Ninalu,” arranged and conducted by Weiss.
Shortly after that, Weiss decided to try his luck in the big wide world and relocated to London. During his five years there, he got to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall and put in appearances at various other glittering London venues, including the Barbican and Wembley.
Over the years here, Weiss has produced material for numerous TV shows, Hebrew versions of Disney movies, musicals, music festivals and the preliminary stage of the Eurovision Song Contest, often seasoning his scores with a liberal dose of humor.
Weiss’s Yamei Zemer slot, which takes place on April 13 (10 p.m.), goes by the title Zeh Ha’rega Le’nikui Rosh, referencing one of Weiss’s 1970s hits “Zeh Ha’rega Le’ehov” (Time for Love), as well as the aforementioned groundbreaking satirical TV show. It promises to be a fun blast from the past time for one and all.
The Yemei Zemer festival takes place April 12 to 15 at the Steinberg Music Center in Holon. For tickets and more information: (03) 502-3001 and www.hth.co.il