The Jerusalem International Oud Festival, now in its sixth year, has grown from a small series of concerts into one of the main cultural events of the capital's concert season. Organized by Confederation House and sponsored by a conglomeration of governmental bodies and private local and international groups, this year's festival once again offers innovative programming featuring local and international artists whose work runs the gamut from Turkish Sufi to classical Arabic to specially commissioned pieces and multicultural musical interactions.
Jerusalem's history is well suited to a festival dedicated to the oud (a Middle Eastern lute - see box), an instrument used throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This year's audience will hear music from and influenced by the traditions of the Arab world, Turkey, Armenia, various strains of Jewish/Israeli religious song and European art music. All these cultures have been intimately involved in making Jerusalem the city we know today - even the guest artist from India wields considerable influence, as so many young Israelis are traveling to India and getting exposed to its culture and music.
We often think of the great nations that have left their imprint on Jerusalem as actors in the realms of warfare, religion, politics and commerce, but this festival is a chance to feel those nations' influence in the more sublime context of music. Indeed, this year the festival features an abundance of Jews, Muslims and Christians of various nationalities playing beautiful music together - something that the various leaders and politicians seem incapable of doing. In this sense, the Jerusalem International Oud Festival reminds us not only of what Jerusalem was and is, but what it could be.
In Tribute to the Masters
The festival opens with a concert dedicated to the great Egyptian artist Riad Al-Sombati (1911-1977), one of the most prolific and beloved composers of the twentieth century. During the course of his career he composed over 1,000 songs and wrote pieces for Um Kalthoum, Leila Murad, Farid-al-Atrache and many other artists from the golden age of Arabic song. Oud maestro Taiser Elias leads an eight-piece ensemble through some of Al-Sombati's best loved compositions and poems at 9 p.m. on Monday, November 14 in Sherover Hall at the Jerusalem Theater. Elias is an internationally renowned artist, and the premier oud player/educator in Israel. He has taught an entire generation of Israelis the oud and Arab music through his appointment as head of the Oriental Music department at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance of The Hebrew University.
Mounir Bashir was a virtuosic oud master from Iraq who in the mid-late twentieth century revitalized the playing style with his technical prowess and passionate improvisations. His influence on the instrument is pervasive, and he is credited by many with bringing the oud back to centerstage as a solo instrument. Oudist Wisam Gibran is a young composer and educator from Nazareth who has achieved success on the world stage, and he presents his tribute to Bashir at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 24 at the Confederation House.
Afterwards, a quick stroll around the block will enable one to catch Amal Murkus in her ode to the influential Lebanese singer Fairuz (b. 1935), which takes place on the same evening at 9 p.m. at Beit Shmuel. Fairuz, who has been the reigning diva of the Arabic world for a generation, is a phenomenal talent who has retained great popularity over her many decades while remaining artistically adventurous.From the Galilee, Amal Murkus is considered one of Israel's finest voices, and will sing well-known and not-so-known works by Fairuz, accompanied by a seven-piece ensemble.
Many leading musicians playing Middle-Eastern music in Israel have spent time studying in Istanbul. Percussionist and composer Yinon Muallem has been living there for several years now, where he studies oud and performs with a variety of ensembles locally and in European venues. Appearing at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Thursday, November 17, at 9:30 p.m., he will perform an intimate selection of Turkish classical pieces and original works in a duet with his teacher, Yurdal Tokcan, the young lion of Turkish oud.
At 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 19, the Henry Crown Hall will host Istanbul Saz Endeleri, Muallem's ensemble in Turkey, consisting of the finest conservatory trained musicians in Istanbul. For their concert they present an evening of Turkish Sufi music, classical instrumental pieces and original compositions. Joining them is special guest singer and nai (reed flute) player Imam Hafiz Halil Necipoglu of the Tofhane Mosque in Istanbul.
Piyutim are Jewish religious songs, and their mainstream popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon in Israel. Perhaps because of this trend, the organizers of the festival are able to give voice to the lesser-known Algerian tradition of sacred Hebrew song, which has its roots in the synthesis of Andalusian melodies from the golden age of Spain with the indigenous music of the Maghreb (north Africa). Rabbi Eliahu Zini, members of the Amselli family, Moroccan-born oudist Armand Sabah and other musicians and singers bring this rarely heard tradition to Confederation House on Tuesday, November 15, at 9 p.m.
The following evening at 9 p.m. at the same venue, Eviatar Banai and Yonathan Razel present their vision of modern Israeli piyutim and original songs in one of the less-traditional presentations of the festival. These talented scions of Jerusalemite musical dynasties accompany themselves on guitar and keyboards and are backed by veteran rhythm section Noar Carmi on bass and Assaf Zamir on drums, with Yinon Tayeb-Talmor on woodwinds.
The Arab-Jewish Ensemble, founded in 1999 under the auspices of the Israel Philharmonic, is dedicated to the concept of multicultural musicianship as a way to educate and facilitate dialogue between Jews and Arabs. Recently completing a series of concerts in the US, the ensemble has developed a unique repertory of contemporary and classic pieces from both Western and Eastern composers. They will perform at Confederation House on Thursday, November 17 at 7 p.m.
In a rare chance to see a true master of classic guitar, US artist David Starobin will play at 12 noon on Friday, November 18, at Confederation House. This exceptionally dedicated guitarist has been nominated for 11 Grammy awards, has had over 300 works composed for him, and was chairman of the guitar department at the Manhattan School of Music for nine years. In this concert he will present a program of works that feature folk melody influences on the European art music tradition, including pieces by Mauro Giuliani and Fernando Sor.
From the Holy Land
Performing on Sunday, November 20, at 9 p.m. at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Jewish-Arab Youth Orchestra features 20 gifted musicians ranging in age from 13 to 23. Conducted by Wisam Gibran, the orchestra has developed into a strong ensemble with innovative arrangements of traditional Arab and classical music. Joining them for this concert is the Israel Andalus Orchestra soloist Lior Elmalich, who will sing a variety of piyutim from Morocco, Israel, Syria and Turkey.
Long-term musical partners George Sam'an (oud, violin, saz and vocals) and Salem Darwish (percussion and vocals) capture the essence of the Galilee with their hypnotic interpretations of old and new folksongs and Lebanese classics. For this concert at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, November 22, at Beit Shmuel, they are joined by Oved Efrat on bass, and by their old and famous friend Ehud Banai on vocals and guitar.
In another noontime Friday concert, the Taiser Elias Trio will perform on November 25 at Confederation House, his second performance in the festival.
Joining him in an interpretation of Arabic and Turkish classical works from the 19th and 20th centuries is grand master percussionist Zohar Fresco and up-and-coming violinist/teacher Sami Khashibon.
Compositions and Combinations
Israeli composer/pianist Yitzhak Yedid, along with bassist Ora Boasson and oudist Mikhail Maroun, presents his small group composition for oud, bass and piano trio in five movements. This work combines oriental music, jazz and chamber music, and has performed at festivals throughout the US and Europe, but you can see it in Jerusalem on Monday, November 21, at Confederation House at 9 p.m.
Yair Dalal is Israel's best-known oud player, and one of the country's major exports to the international music circuit. For his concert on Wednesday, November 23, at Beit Shmuel, he collaborates with vichitra vina maestro Dr. Mustafa Raza from India. The vichitra vina is a plucked string instrument of great antiquity whose pitch is changed by sliding a smooth stone on the strings, not unlike a slide guitar. Both of these master musicians express a deep spirituality and tranquility with their music, and are accompanied by Erez Mounk (taba and percussion), Yotam Haimovich (sitar) and Liora Itzhak (vocals).
For the final concert of the festival, the Henry Crown Hall will host Armenian-American oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9 p.m. on Saturday, November 26.
Dinkjian, whose ensemble Night Ark has been at the forefront of East-West fusion since the Eighties, is a formidable oudist, composer and multi-instrumentalist who has achieved popularity in Europe and the Middle East while remaining relatively unknown in the States. For this performance he collaborates with Zohar Fresco and pianist Adi Rennert to present a selection of his own works which blend his Armenian heritage with the influences of the West.