'In Russia, I was regarded as Jewish, and this was not good. In Yugoslavia, where I moved after marrying a foreign girl, I was seen as a Russian - quite bad, too. In Paris they thought I was Yugoslavian and in Italy, where I created a most successful chamber music festival in Portogruaro, which I ran for 25 years, they hinted that there were too many 'foreigners' - that is, Jews, among the participants. So I have decided to make a new festival where nobody will tell me that there are too many Jews - in Israel," smiles Pavel Vernikov, an internationally acclaimed soloist and sought-after violin professor who is also the new artistic director of the Eilat International Chamber Music Festival (which runs from February 22 to March 1). Vernikov feels at home in Israel anyway, as he bears an Israeli passport, has family in Netanya and owns an apartment in Tel Aviv - though he lives in Vienna. Vernikov received his musical training in Moscow under the legendary David Oistrach. In 1979, he won the Munich International Competition and was awarded the Vittorio Gui grand prize in Florence. For 30 years, he has been performing with the Tchaikovsky Trio as well as playing in the major concert halls of Europe and America. He was a violin professor at the conservatories of Zagreb and Lyon and since 2004 has held the same position at the Conservatory of Wien. Born in Odessa, Vernikov speaks with the joviality characteristic of natives of the city often dubbed the Russian Marseilles. He plays the famous Pietro Guarneri violin known as "Baron Knoff" (Venice, 1740). And despite taking the reins of the festival from Leonid Rozenberg, he does not purport to steal the fame from the soft-spoken musician and teacher. Rozenberg almost single-handedly created an excellent three-day music feast in the Red Sea resort city, showcasing both infallible music taste and amazing management skills. Yet Vernikov, whom Rozenberg invited to join the festival after seeing him joking around on a Russian-Israeli TV talk show, will give the event a powerful boost. In its fourth edition, the festival will span a week and the roster of participants includes violinists Julian Rachlin, Maxim Vengerov, Pavel Vernikov, Boris Kushnir and Andres Mustonen; cellist Natalia Gutman; pianists Itamar Golan and Pavel Giliov; soprano Maria Christina Kiehr; and early-music ensemble Il Fondamento, among many others. Special guest, actor Sir Roger Moore, and Georgian composer Giya Kancheli will be on hand as well. The program also features master classes, with the students coming from as far as the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Last but not least, the concerts will be held at the central Herod's Hotel this year, a change from the beautiful and acoustically fine but out-of-the-way Eilat Theater, which should hopefully solve the major problem: audience. "'STARS WITH a human face' is the motto of the festival. I bring people with whom playing music is a sheer pleasure; those who are liable to say 'I am more famous than that guy' are simply not welcome. The musicians know that this festival is not a place where they will make a lot of money - they come out of love of Israel and the lovely city of Eilat." The festival program is most variegated: "I do not believe we should pamper the audience, offering it only familiar and overplayed repertoires, but rather present new or less familiar music. I believe that any dish prepared by a master chef is tasty." As a result, the program features pieces by Mozart, Bach, Ravel, Brahms and Shostakovitch, but also an Israeli premiere of the Concerto for Two Violins by the 2007 Wolf Prize recipient, Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. "They say sometimes that those who cannot play a real violin play a baroque instrument," smiles Vernikov. "Of course, this is not true; Kancheli wrote a kind of dialogue for regular and baroque violins." The Israeli premiere will be presented by Vernikov, together with Estonian violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, a renowned specialist in baroque music. "As the artistic director of the event, I try not to play too much," explains Vernikov. "I do not want people say: 'Pavel has founded a festival and plays there alone,'" he laughs again. "But still, I will play in The Carnival of Animals, with Julian Rachlin as the second violin and Sir Roger Moore as the narrator, and I will participate in several chamber music programs. But above all, I want to present my friends, who never or rarely perform in Israel." Since many of the participants are also established music teachers, the festival program includes master classes for violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano, flute, clarinet, brass and percussion. "As far as I know, master classes of such scale, coupled with a festival, have never been held in Israel," adds Vernikov. The students, coming from abroad and from Israel, will join the Virtuosi Festival Orchestra, while the best of them will appear in chamber music programs together with the established artists. Serious and top-quality as it is, the festival program keeps a special corner for musical jokes, presented by two friends, violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo. And there is also a special interview program. "I am afraid - but I think this is my invention, too: I did it at my Portogruaro Festival - the musicians onstage speak about themselves and play music. The presenter asks them 'uncomfortable' questions, and so does the audience. The 'gods' come closer to the people and everybody enjoys!" sums up Vernikov. For more details visit www.eilat-festival.co.il. For reservations call (03) 521-5200, (08) 637-1637 or *2274.