'Anything that's Israeli, displays talent and is of a high standard is welcome to my festival," says composer Michael Wolpe, artistic director of the Music in the Desert festival. The ninth annual festival starts December 14 at Negev Kibbutz Sde Boker and will last for three days. Late at night, speaking by phone from his native kibbutz, Wolpe, a true champion and a real warrior for local art, sounds tired. "For me, the opening evening is the most important event of the festival. That's when we will present an homage to the composers who perished in the Terezin ghetto. Simfonietta (Beer Sheva) will world premiere the symphonic version of Victor Ullman's last work. Along with my students, I worked on the orchestration for an entire year." Click for upcoming events calendar! He adds bitterly: "You can write that I easily identify with the perished composers. Because they are seeking to destroy us. Not physically, of course, but spiritually. The situation of culture in Israel is getting worse year by year. Budgets are cut, everything that is not commercial is underestimated, and works of art with even a touch of elitism are mocked." That said, the festival is alive and kicking, with some events already sold out. This is not surprising, given the impressive roster of names on the three-day program. These include legendary clarinetist Giora Feidman, singer/songwriter/pianist Matti Kaspi, cellist Hillel Tzori, composers Menahem Wiesenberg, Tzippi Fleischer, Avia Koppelman and Oded Zehavi, and Gersh Geller's ensemble of saxophones. A brief glance at the festival program leads one to the conclusion that "Israeli" and "talented" are the key words that keep the events together. The music is classical, hassidic, klezmer, rock, avant-garde jazz, Israeli songs, 40 world premieres written by living composers from different generations, alongside homage concerts dedicated to Shoshana Damari or to the murdered musicians such as Ben-Zion Orgad. This approach has become the festival's trademark. The festival takes place at the Ben-Gurion Center at Kibbutz Sde Boker. Entrance fees are reasonable, with some performances free. Here's a great way to combine cultural programs with nature trips through the picturesque Negev Desert. For more information and reservations, call (08) 656-4143 or click on ww.rng.org.