Impressionist artists, of both the visual and sonic variety, reveled in the wide open spaces of the countryside. Dr. Michael Wolpe is of a similar sentiment. He is the founder and perennial artistic director of the Tzlilim Bamidbar (Desert Sounds) Festival, which takes place at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev, for the 18th year, December 10-13.
Wolpe is a venerated composer and conductor who produces and oversees a wide range of works, and that eclecticism shines through the festival program. The lineup incorporates pop and rock music, Western classical and Eastern works, Latin numbers, jazz-oriented endeavor and some good old Israeli folk music. The latter, in itself, feeds off a wide array of cultural influences, as reflected in the work of Ashkenazi composers some of whom, after making aliya, began taking on board some of the local music, including Beduin tunes.
It is something with which Gideon Efrati happily identifies, both as a conductor, composer, singer and pianist, and as someone who grew up with the requisite sociocultural baggage.
“This festival is about wide expanses, bucolic domains, landscapes and nature,” he says.
Efrati’s slot at Sde Boker, on the first evening of the festival (8:30 p.m.), forms part of a tribute to Matityahu Shalem who died 40 years ago. Shalem was an iconic songwriter who was born in Poland and came to pre-state Palestine in the early 1920s. He eventually settled on Ramat Yohanan, a kibbutz in the Western Galilee, and worked as a shepherd. It is said that he drew his artistic inspiration from the meditative shifts he put in with the flock, and he became known for the Jewish holiday-related material he wrote.
Efrati will appear at the helm of the Ramat Hanegev Singers ensemble, alongside the Jazzert jazz band, and the show lineup also features the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra conducted by Wolpe, and vocalists Victoria Hana, Yasmin Gamliel and Yair Epstein.
Besides their love of all kinds of musical intent, Wolpe and Efrati do their utmost to keep the artistic flag flying high and proud in the further flung regions of the country. Efrati’s work with the choral ensemble is a prime example.
“The choir includes all kinds of people who are generally not professional musicians,” he says. “They work in the field, in offices and all kinds of jobs, and devote a large part of their spare time to singing in the choir. It is not just about culling singers from an expansive physical domain.”
Efrati and his choristers tackle all kinds of vocal material.
“We sing the classic Israeli stuff, but we also have gospel and music from all over the world. We put a lot of effort into producing vocal work of the best possible quality. The singers also work on the songs at home. That’s not something I take for granted.”
Efrati feels that the choir’s variegated ethos fits the Shalem bill.
“Matityahu Shalem wrote all those lovely folksy songs that we all know, but he often introduced some surprising improvisatory element into his style.”
“Pana Hageshem” (The Rain Turned), is a rhythmic case in point.
“All the versions of that song are in 78 [rpm] tempo, but that’s not what Matityahu wanted at all,” Efrati continues. “He wanted to convey a sense of a relaxed transition between the Jewish holidays. We went for a very classical kind of orchestration, and we allowed for a wide harmonic presentation.”
The latter element is somewhat extraneous, but not overly antithetical to the Shalem approach.
“Matityahu didn’t really aim for that to begin with, but I’m sure he wouldn’t object to that,” he muses. “He loved the melodic simplicity of music played, for example, on the flute, on a shepherd’s flute and that sort of thing.”
The Ramat Hanegev Singers will close their spot with a medley of seven popular Shalem numbers, such as “Havu Lanu Yayin” (Bring Us Wine) and “Shir Habotzrim” (The Grape Harvesters’ Song) – performed across a range of styles and genres.
“We will do a mix between a basic folksy style and a more artistic style,” he explains. “I think that the beauty of the songs comes from that, from harnessing the vocal qualities of the singers and imbuing the songs with exactly the elements they require.”
Efrati says he is delighted to have the opportunity to perform Shalem’s work on a kibbutz surrounding by the unlimited vistas of the Negev Desert.
“There is something in the wide open spaces away from the cities which, I feel, brings something purer to the music. I don’t, for one minute, disrespect concerts in the Center of the country, but, for me, when I come to the endless landscapes of the countryside something inside me opens up. Matityahu Shalem’s music was a part of my childhood and formative years, and it is a pleasure and an honor to perform his works at Sde Boker.”
Tzlilim Bamidbar is an important vehicle for promoting locally created music and this year’s standouts include the Here and There in the Land of Israel – Premieres, Part One show that features new works by young Israeli composers, a high energy show with rock violinist Michael Greilsammer and the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, and the In Good Company slot with Shem-Tov Levi once again joining forces with jazz trombonist Avi Lebovich’s Orchestra. Rock and pop veterans Alon Olearchik and Ephraim Shamir are also in the desert lineup, as is seasoned singer Rivka Zohar, who will perform alongside the much younger guitarist-singer Liron Lev.
The last day of the festival opens with the voluminous Anim Zemirot show, which features 55 vocalists, while the third day includes the wholesome family-oriented Puss in Boots show.
For tickets and more information: (08) 646-4115 and www.tzlilimbamidbar.co.il