Famous for its sun, sea and getting-away-from-it-all vibe, Eilat is slowly but surely turning into an Israeli cultural center, with the country's biggest jazz festival, an annual Yemenite music festival and a four-year-old film festival among the resort city's growing list of regular arts events.
Foremost among those events is the Red Sea International Music Festival, the largest classical music event in Israel. "People come to Eilat and combine the festival with a vacation," says festival producer Pinhas Postel. "It's a nice idea to stay at a hotel and to catch some classical concerts while you're there."
Since its inception six years ago, the festival has showcased the conducting capabilities of Valery Gergiev, who also serves as the festival's artistic director and has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and the acclaimed Mariinksy Theater opera and ballet company in St. Petersburg.
"Valery isn't playing it safe," Postel says of the musical selections at this year's festival, which runs between January 4 and 6. "The three major concerts at the festival include performances of Rimsky Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel opera and Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. They are very rarely performed."
The festival, whose three-day program also features Verdi's Requiem and eight chamber music concerts, will take place at three of Eilat's premier hotels, with the main concerts to be held in a hangar at the Port of Eilat.
Gergiev will not occupy the conductor's podium at all the concerts, nor will his ensemble from the Mariinksy Theater serve as the only musicians on duty over the three days. On January 5, Mariinsky chorus master Andrei Petrenko will conduct the theater's orchestra and soloists in a performance of Mozart's Requiem, while January 6 will feature a performance by the St. Petersburg group of a program including Handel's Passacaglia, Paganini's Carnival in Venice and Beethoven's Sextet for Two Horns and String Quartet.
"We want to turn Eilat into a major cultural center," says Eilat tourism director Yossi Ani. "I think people enjoy combining leisure and culture, especially with a festival that offers such high quality entertainment. We're also putting on a major festival of chamber music in February.
"There's a lot more to Eilat than just sunbathing. We're also looking to bring tourists in from Europe to the festivals here," he continues. "They have big classical music festivals in Berlin and other places but they don't have the weather we have in the winter. That's a big advantage which the Europeans don't have."
Ani says Gergiev plays an important role in the festival that goes beyond selecting and conducting the music. "Gergiev is a world renowned conductor. We get some serious fans of classical music at the festival [because he is here]," Ani says. For his part, he says, Gergiev "likes Eilat very much and enjoys his time here."