When the music swings

Young Israeli students of jazz follow a well-worn path to Boston to hone their skills at Berklee.

Gili Hirsch  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gili Hirsch
(photo credit: Courtesy)
BOSTON - Gili Hirsch has a passion for singing Stephen Sondheim. But before this summer, the musical theater devotee did not know how to swing. For five weeks in July and August, the 21-year-old Hirsch, along with six other Israeli students, immersed herself in the world of jazz, studying, singing, jamming and performing at the Berklee College of Music, the world-renowned school that honed the skills and launched the careers of some of Israel's top jazz musicians - including tenor saxophonist Eli Degibri, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and clarinetist Anat Cohen. In addition to Hirsch, who grew up in Hod Hasharon, the six other Israelis and one Palestinian student who attended Berklee's five-week Summer Program included singers Faustina Sokolov and Aliza Abramowitz Silverman, tenor saxophonist Daniel Rotem, as well as guitarist Omri Colton. The delegation was part of the 928 students enrolled in this year's program from 50 different countries. By making Boston their summer musical home, the students, who did not know each other, traveled what has become a well-worn path connecting Israel with Berklee. The decades-long bond between Berklee and Israel has paid off, according to Larry Monroe, Berklee's vicepresident for academic affairs/international programs. For the last dozen years, Monroe has traveled to Israel, personally auditioning students who hope to qualify for scholarships. "I learned very early on that the level [of musicianship] is very high, particularly for young students," Monroe told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation earlier this summer. Berklee auditions students from all over Israel, including the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well as from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. "I've been saying this for years. If I have 48 hours to find an outstanding 18-year-old [jazz musician] of the highest level, I'd go to Tel Aviv," Monroe asserts. One explanation for the strong ties is Berklee's partnership with the Rimon School, established by Israeli Amikam Kimelman, along with several other Berklee graduates. There was no equivalent in Israel during his student days, Kimelman recalled in a phone conversation. Jazz enthusiasts traveled to the US to study. Suddenly, there was a flow of jazz musicians returning to Israel. "We decided to make a school we would love to study in," Kimelman explains. Monroe and Kimelman agree that the partnership with Ramat Hasharon's Rimon stands out among the approximately 20 international programs Berklee has with other schools of music. There are always at least 20 Israeli students enrolled during the regular academic year, Monroe notes, a large percentage compared to other countries, given Israel's size. "It's a remarkable statistic and it's consistent," Monroe asserts. Berklee and Rimon faculty also collaborate on a music clinic at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, which is held annually in mid-August, attracting students from all over Israel. Graduates of Rimon's two-year degree program are able to directly transfer their credits toward a fouryear degree from Berklee, the first international program to qualify for this arrangement with Berklee. The model program presents a tremendous opportunity for Israeli students, according to Anat Cohen, who says that the two schools share a similar approach to music. The Israeli consulate in New England welcomes the dozens of students who arrive at Berklee each year, Udi Urman wrote in an e-mail. "Our goal is to promote Israel beyond the conflict, and music is one of the best tools to achieve this goal," observed Urman, who directs cultural affairs for the consulate. BERKLEE'S FIVE-week summer program, geared mainly for high school students and young adults, has served as a stepping stone to full matriculation for some Israeli students, including recent graduate trumpeter Niv Toar, according to Monroe. At the end of this year's program, Faustina Sokolov, who graduated from high school last spring, was delighted to learn that she qualified for a coveted scholarship to attend Berklee. In an email to the Post, Sokolov wrote that she hoped to begin her studies this fall. Sokolov grew up in a musical family. While she won a children's competition for performance of a pop song when she was 12, it was the jazz CDs her mother gave her that ignited her passion for jazz. "I heard Ella's [Fitzgerald] voice and Dana Washington and I was so impressed. I fell in love with it completely," she recalls. She credits two high school teachers, Erez Branoy and Amos Hoffman, with encouraging her to pursue her musical talents. Sokolov, who won a previous Berklee scholarship for a program in Italy, most appreciates the opportunities offered by the school, noting that she was scheduled to sing a Fats Waller tune at a special vocal night concert at the Berklee Performance Center. "A big part of the learning comes from the other players," says 16-year old Omri Coltin, who attends high school near Haifa, echoing the views of the others. He credits Israel's music education with fostering a high interest in jazz. Daniel Rotem, a 17-year-old who just graduated with honors from Thelma Yellin, was able to use his studies at Berklee to record with his jazz ensembles. Coltin and Rotem both hope to return to Berklee at some point as full time students. Singer Aliza Abramowitz-Silverman, an American who lives with her family on Kibbutz Ketura, admitted that it was her love of rock 'n roll that attracted her to Berklee, where she performed with two ensembles. Abramowitz-Silverman said she was most excited by the differences in people from all over the world, and the ready acceptance of those differences. OVER A plate of felafel at Café Jaffa, an Israeli-owned restaurant located near Berklee, Hirsch was eager to describe the role of music in her life and her experience at Berklee. Initially, studying the methods of jazz and scat singing was a challenge for Hirsch, who was accustomed to straight musical theater style of singing. With her teachers' encouragement and the experience of jamming with others, Hirsch embraced the improvisational techniques and added libretto into her singing. In Israel, where Hirsch studies with Brynie Furstenberg and has performed in many musical theater productions, singing provides an emotional release from tension and anxiety associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fighting with Lebanon, where her older brother served in the army. "When I sing here, I feel safe and better… People see into me through my music and not my nationality or any background conflicts, and I have a chance to connect with them on a deeper level," Hirsch wrote in an e-mail. It's a sentiment echoed by Cohen, who observes that jazz encourages interaction and respect for others and acceptance of the individual. Cohen, whose new CD, Notes From the Village, will be released this September, explains that "In jazz, there is a lot of space for different personalities, being different is not bad." In Israel, she says, communication is not always easy. Jazz allows conversation in the moment. " You can leave a message with your music. When the music swings, it's an awesome feeling."