Bach in sandals

The chamber music festival in Kfar Blum gives audiences the chance to sit in on rehearsals, as well as attend a myriad of concerts.

There is an element of time travel in attending the Upper Galilee chamber music festival in Kfar Blum, which ended last week. It feels as if it were taking place in a country that, for the most part, no longer exists. So for us veteran Israelis, the annual festival is much more than a week of music and drama. It is an escape to a more innocent era, a journey back into the friendly, cultured and tolerant environment of former years. For more than a week, there are concerts and performances twice nightly and sometimes during the day as well. But the real excitement comes from attending the open rehearsals, where you can eavesdrop on the informally dressed musicians, both Israeli and guest artists from abroad. Dressed in T-shirts, tank tops, shorts and sandals, the pianists, violinists, cellists, clarinetists, flautists and singers perform and argue, start and stop, joke and laugh. Sometimes they share their disputes with the audience. Often a musician will break off to deliver an impromptu lecture on some aspect of the piece being rehearsed. For festival-goers there are two basic alternatives: You can attend a rehearsal of a work, observe its development and subsequently see its culmination at the actual performance, or you can hear rehearsals of one piece and attend the performance of a different work, in effect getting two concerts for the price of one. Everyone has his own routine. Ours is roughly as follows: a brisk walk before breakfast before the heat becomes intense; morning rehearsals; back to our kibbutz room around noon for a snack, a swim, and a siesta; then a late afternoon or evening concert. Inserted into the evening program is dinner at one of the delightful open-air restaurants that line the tributaries of the Jordan River. The definition of chamber music has certainly been stretched at the Galilee event. Starting out as a classic festival of Baroque and chamber music, it has over the years included opera, jazz, dance, drama, poetry and a wide range of experimental performances. In the early evenings, a café concert has attracted listeners to light works, enjoyed while consuming coffee and cake al fresco. Late-night classical jam sessions are sell-outs, despite the feast of music that has been available during the preceding 14 hours. After pianist Idit Zvi, the festival's founder, retired 12 years ago, the festival went through several incarnations. The first innovations, such as jazz performances, were a great success. But a couple of years followed when the festival's new director added a disproportionate number of avant-garde works in various fields. Since then, the organization and running of the program have been taken over by flautist Michael Meltzer, one of Israel's most versatile musicians. In his hands, the festival has returned to its glory days, with just the right mix of original creativity and classical chamber masterpieces. Among his innovations are an exploration of early music rarely heard in other venues, and modern chamber operas, including one this year by an Israeli composer. The Upper Galilee festival is veritably a musical "trip." During a few summer days you become high on Mozart, intoxicated by Bach, besotted with Brahms, sated with Schumann, exhilarated by Verdi, and scintillated by modern composers. You emerge with your senses reeling and the music reverberating in your head.