Extending the musical boundaries

This year, the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival puts a special emphasis on works by Russian composers.

Pianist Elena Bashkirova (photo credit: Courtesy: ICMF)
Pianist Elena Bashkirova
(photo credit: Courtesy: ICMF)
The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival kicks off on September 1 at its regular berth, the YMCA, for the 15th time. Between September 1 and 15, audiences will be treated to a rich and varied selection of works, culled from a range of cultures, epochs and styles.
It can’t be easy keeping a cultural event going for 15 years, but founder and artistic director, pianist Elena Bashkirova, says she has had a helping hand or two along the way.
“We are very lucky because all the musicians play for free,” she notes happily.
How are on earth did she manage that? There have been plenty of world-famous performers at the festival over the years, and this year’s roster includes the likes of Korean-born New York-based cellist Timothy Park, Hungarian-born British pianist Andras Schiff and Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer.
Bashkirova, herself an internationally acclaimed pianist and musical director, will also be performing at the festival, including in the program’s opening slot of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes together with clarinetist Yevgeny Yehudin and the Jerusalem Quartet; Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione & Piano in A Minor alongside American cellist Alisa Weilerstein; and the Piano Quintet by 20th-century Soviet-German composer Alfred Schnittke, together with violinists Kremer, Kathrin Rabus, viola player Danil Grishin and cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite.
Part of the trick of getting big names over here gratis, says the artistic director, lies in getting the show on the road in the first place.
“You know, you get some famous artists in your festival and then others think, ‘If they played there, I can too.’” Of course, it helps to set the event somewhere like the evocative auditorium at the YMCA.
“We are so lucky to have such a wonderful concert hall,” says Bashkirova. “It sounds good and looks good, and it has this special Oriental atmosphere, and it is in Jerusalem.”
Bashkirova has pulled out all the stops to offer local audiences as wide a range of chamber works as one could hope to get anywhere. The emphasis this year is on Russian works, with pieces by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Shostakovich, as well songs by Mikhail Glinka, the so-called father of Russian classical music.
But there are also some surprises on the program, with slots devoted to works by 20th-century Russian composer Alexander Mosolov, nonconformist composer Edison Denisov, who died in 1996, and the world premiere of The Tale of Tales, or Yesterday’s Tomorrow by Azerbaijan-born composer Faradj Karaev. The work was especially commissioned by the festival and will be performed by soprano Hila Baggio, flutist Guy Eshed and clarinetist Shirley Brill, with Nir Cohen on the conductor’s podium.
Bashkirova evidently does her best to keep her audiences engaged and fresh, and she endeavors to introduce the public to lesser-known works and composers.
“I realized there is a huge chunk of the Russian repertoire that we have never done,” she says. “A lot of the pieces [in this year’s festival lineup] are totally unknown, and there are composers that people may know by name but don’t really know their pieces.”
Karaev, presumably, can be placed in the latter category.
“We have had world premieres at all the festivals since 2004,” continues the artistic director. “I think it is very important for the festival to champion contemporary music. Some of the works we commission are better than others, but we are building up a library of works that were especially written for us.
Faradj is one of the main composers in Russia today. He did an arrangement of a Schoenberg work for us a few years ago. I am very much looking forward to the concert.”
While some of the works in this year’s lineup may challenge the patrons to venture outside their classical music comfort zone, Bashkirova says she has no qualms about stepping into left-field territory in Jerusalem.
“I love our audiences at the festival, and I have great respect and admiration for them,” she declares. “We have people of all ages, including some quite elderly, and they are so open. Over the years the festival has grown with them, and they have grown with us. I have happily presented all kinds of contemporary music to them in such a way that it was not too heavy for them. A few years ago I presented a work by [contemporary French composer Pierre] Boulez, which was an hour long. After the concert, some members of the audience came up to me and said it was very tough for them, but they asked me to continue presenting that kind of work at the festival. People want to learn, and that is fantastic and makes my job easier.”
Bashkirova does not go along with the popularly held view that we tend to get more stuck in our ways over the years.
“I find that people over a certain age are so open,” she observes. “It was the best compliment I ever got in my life when those members of the audience said they wanted me to go on challenging them. And that has happened many times at the festival. They know that what we are doing is good, and that is the real test of the music.”
She also attaches great importance to promoting local artistic endeavors. This year’s festival program includes a composition by 44-year-old Jerusalem-born Ayal Adler, the composer-in-residence of Ensemble Meitar, which will perform Adler’s At the Gate of Darkness with conductor Daniel Cohen.
“There are some excellent composers in Israel today, and I am very happy to present their work at the festival,” says Bashkirova, As a veteran performer and musical director, Bashkirova knows many of the artists lined up for the festival well, although possibly none better than 26- year-old violinist Michael Barenboim, who is her son.
“I am proud of Michael. He is very independent and has his own career, and he never chose the easy way out,” says his mother, alluding to the fact that he chose to keep his family name, despite the public’s natural tendency to automatically associate him with his stellar pianist-conductor father, Daniel Barenboim.
“I think Michael has stepped out of the shadow [of his father]. No one considers him the ‘son of’’ or anything like that. I respect Michael very much for that,” she says.
Michael Barenboim will play several works at the festival, including Prokofiev’s Sonata for 2 Violins and Brahms’s Horn Trio in E Flat Major, as well as in the Karaev premiere.
Bashkirova says she is eagerly anticipating the festival and looking forward to performing there herself.
“I have finished putting together the program and now, thank goodness, I can concentrate on playing,” she says.

For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival: (02) 625-0444 or www.jcmf.org.il