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(photo credit: Courtesy, Keren Hamusika)
Music must rank as the highest of the fine arts - as the one which, more than any other, ministers to human welfare
- Herbert Spencer
Even if you were deaf and could not hear them, the very sight would amaze you. There is something awe-inspiring about upward of 500 musicians - young musicians, at that - seated together on one stage, arranged to form an enormous symphony orchestra. The outdoor stage itself is so vast that you can barely see the faces of the timpani, tuba and trombone players grouped at the orchestra's farthermost rim.
Under a velvet black sky and a moderate breeze, the conductor taps his baton and the music thunders forth - mostly light classical and lively and popular pieces like Leroy Anderson's "Bugler's Holiday" and Tchaikovsky's crowd-pleasing 1812 Overture. And as for the crowd, there are reported to be no fewer than an estimated 20,000 people here, occupying every available plastic chair and standing wherever there is room to stand. Not your usual symphony audience, they arrive pushing baby carriages and carrying small children on their shoulders; they eat homemade food out of plastic bags and Tupperware containers; they wave and shout greetings to one another, sometimes across several sections of seats; a few of them, mostly elderly, are waltzing in the aisles to the music. A bright moon rises as the night breeze becomes stronger and more chill, the colossal young orchestra plays mightily on, and everyone is having a marvelous time.
This is not the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing an outdoor concert in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. This is the Israeli Festival of Youth Orchestras, performing in an outdoor plaza in Kfar Saba, as it has every May for the past two decades. The Festival marked its 20th anniversary between May 3-5, with three consecutive evenings of concerts, indoor and outdoor, featuring dozens of youth orchestras from all over Israel. The first evening was dedicated to symphony and percussion orchestras from conservatories and music centers throughout the country, and featured a special "all-Israel" symphonic youth orchestra. The second day saw a "marathon" of youth orchestras playing at Kfar Saba's Cultural Center, followed by a jazz combo marathon around the fountain at Arim Mall. The festival closed on May 5 with the 500-member orchestra, delighting their 20,000 member audience with a concert that verged upon spectacle, replete with cannon blasts and fireworks.
Surprisingly enough, the Israeli Festival of Youth Orchestras was not the brainchild of a musician, but of a doctor, Dr. Shmuel Franco, who conceived and established the event in 1989 and continues to be its driving force. "Everybody calls me Shmulik!" he said with a smile as Metro caught up with him a couple of hours before the final concert. Indeed, almost "everybody" in Kfar Saba did, as the popular pediatrician exchanged waves and greetings that evening from scores of friends and acquaintances gathered over a lifetime of growing up, living and working in this small city. Aside from the army and his years studying medicine - first in Italy and then in Haifa - Franco, 63, has spent almost all his life in Kfar Saba.
And it was in Kfar Saba that Franco first had the dream, more than 25 years ago, of placing a musical instrument in every child's hands and teaching him or her to play. Is he himself a musician? "No!" is Franco's emphatic answer. "My father was in the British Army during the Second World War. When he came back, he schlepped home an accordion. He bought it in Italy. So I learned to play that accordion when I was a boy. Later, when I was 33, I learned to play the piano, and then when I was 44, I learned the saxophone. But a great player I'm not."
Franco is a pediatrician, however, with 20 years of service as a senior physician at Meir Hospital under his belt, followed by 16 years of continuing private practice. And it was as a specialist in children's health that Franco discovered the power of music. His moment of epiphany came in 1983, during a trip to Delft, Holland, and a visit with noted music teacher Pierre van Hauwe. "I learned from him the connection between music and the growing child. I realized for the first time how important music can be to child development," Franco recalls.
From that point on, Franco was determined to create a youth orchestra in Kfar Saba. After several failed attempts, both on his own and as a member of the city council, Franco founded the Kfar Saba Music Foundation in 1986 in order to "penetrate" the school system and create elementary school orchestras.
"Since then," he says, "we have caused a revolution in music education in Kfar Saba. In every school we have an orchestra, and programs for the first three grades. When the children enter fourth grade, they have a chance to join the orchestra. We give them the instruments and we organize their studies. So, in every elementary school in Kfar Saba there are two orchestras, one for beginners and one for advanced players. When they finish elementary school, they have an opportunity to enter the conservatory. Of course, not everybody finishes, but you can walk around Kfar Saba and hear a trumpet from here, a clarinet from there. The idea of the Festival came naturally three years later, because we had so many people playing instruments."
While the 23-year labors of the Kfar Saba Music Foundation, and 20 years of youth orchestra festivals have made Kfar Saba's residents proud of their "musical city," Franco says, "We don't expect, or even want, all of these children to grow up to be professional musicians. It's just too hard to succeed in that world. But we discover talents. Many of the people who have grown up here have gone on to be famous on television and abroad. What we really want is for all of the children to learn the language of music."
Indeed, for Franco, music has always been mostly a means to an end. "I believe in music education," he says. "In just the first few years, you can influence the personality of a child and have a major impact on their life. We have many good things today in Israel, but one major thing that is lacking is discipline. A wonderful part of music is that it provides discipline. Every child on stage must listen carefully and pay 100 percent attention to the other musicians. He must listen to what is going on, and he must follow the lead of the conductor. He learns that by playing his instrument, he is performing a specialization within a larger system, just like in life."
And it's not just about discipline, Franco believes. "Music gives a child an appreciation for many other things. And this is if a child plays even the triangle. What is a triangle? It's the cheapest instrument there is. But in an orchestra, it's a specialization commanding the same respect as a tuba or first clarinet. This teaches mutual respect. Also, through music, we have had much success with children suffering from attention deficit disorder - ADD or ADHD. Some of the children changed completely - without Ritalin. All the excess energy went into the tuba. Other children, with low self esteem, through the music developed different personalities."
Franco suggests that music education can have broader social implications, as well. "Young people now have too many things to do. They've got television, and all the programs and rubbish. So when you put a child into music activities, you are taking him away from the TV. In fact, you're taking some of them from the streets. And you're giving them some positive activity. This is very important from the point of view of management of society." Franco pauses, smiles and says, "It's like a kaleidoscope - the many faces of music education."
One of those faces, the annual Israeli Festival of Youth Orchestras, has become a major social and cultural event in its host city of Kfar Saba. Franco explains: "Many people here never go to the concert hall. So we bring the music to the street. We attract people who normally have little exposure to a musical orchestra. We play special music. We cannot play heavy classical concertos. We play that at other events. But for this, we play music that makes them feel good; that makes them feel connected to the place. And they are very proud that Kfar Saba can achieve such a level of activity."
Franco's pride in Kfar Saba is evident. He smiles and says, "I want you to realize what a special place Kfar Saba is. There is no place like it in all of Israel. Where else could guys like me penetrate the schools and make a revolution in education?" Asked, "guys like what?" Franco immediately replies, "Meshugganers!"
Rising from his seat to attend to some last-minute details before the start of the concert, Franco carefully scans the neat rows of thousands upon thousands of empty white plastic chairs. As he hurries off, he stops just long enough to say over his shoulder, "In the early years, I was the one who put out all the plastic chairs."
The Kfar Saba Music Foundation, or Keren Hamusika, is a non-profit foundation devoted to music education. To learn more, visit www.kerenhamusika.com; Tel. 09-742-1805; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.