Anniversary: Y Music

Jerusalem Music Centre director Hed Sella looks back on the veteran institution’s last four decades.

German countertenor Andreas Scholl 521 (photo credit: James McMillan/Decc)
German countertenor Andreas Scholl 521
(photo credit: James McMillan/Decc)
For a cultural institution in this part of the world, hanging around for four decades is nothing to sneeze at, and the Jerusalem Music Centre in Mishkenot Sha’ananim is aptly celebrating its 40th anniversary season with a glittering array of classical music talent.
The series goes by the name of “Music at the Y” – since the concerts will take place at the YMCA – and kicks off on October 3 with Germany’s Kuss Quartet performing a program of works by Haydn, Britten and Schubert. On November 7, there will be a concert of works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and 20th-century Jewish Austrian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, performed by six string instrument players from the acclaimed Delft Chamber Music Festival ensemble – two violinists, two viola players and a brace of cellists.
Hed Sella knows more about the Jerusalem Music Centre than most; he has served as its director for eight years, and prior to that spent seven years as program director. In fact, the 53-year-old Sella’s connection with the institution started much earlier.
“I became acquainted with the center at the age of 18 or 19 – back then I played clarinet and recorder – when I took an interest in various master classes going on there,” he recalls. “They had master classes in early music, which was an area in which I was very interested.”
He is, naturally, delighted to be a part of the festivities surrounding the center’s milestone birthday.
“Forty years is certainly a significant period of time,” he says, recalling that when legendary violinist Isaac Stern founded the center in 1973, the institution temporarily lacked a base of operations.
“The building was being renovated and adapted for the center’s needs,” he explains. “In the first years, the activities went on at all sorts of places in the vicinity, and quite a lot took place at the Khan Theater, which is close by.”
The thinking behind the incipient institution was to offer budding classical musicians some added value that they could not get anywhere else in the country.
“The idea was to provide the brightest talents with opportunities and artistic domains which did not exist in the regular national music education system,” explains Sella. “That involved master classes and sporadic projects run by some of the world’s leading practitioners. We’re talking about the biggest names in the classical music world of the 20th century.”
Those names included feted pianist Arthur Rubinstein, Jewish American conductor, pianist and composer Leonard Bernstein, and Polish-born violinist Henryk Szeryng.
Having someone of Stern’s stature at the helm certainly helped pave the way to getting some of the profession’s global luminaries on board.
“The center was dedicated by Stern and [Spanish cellist] Pablo Casals – it was just a few months before he [Casals] died [at the age of 96].”
The dedication ceremony was a gala affair with an impressive who’s-who guest list. “[Former prime minister] Golda [Meir] was there and, of course, [Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek, and I think [the country’s first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion, too. Lady Dorothy de Rothschild, who was the main sponsor [of the center] was also there. Yad Hanadiv [the Rothschild-supported philanthropic organization] is, to this day, the center’s main patron.”
After a while, the center’s captains realized that a change of mind-set was necessary to cement the institution’s place in the national and international classical music itinerary, and ensure the continued development of the local scene.
“They found that while it was fine to have master classes and special projects, they needed to have something structured,” continues Sella. “They had to nurture the talents of young people, say, from the age of 12 or 14 through to their 20s. To do that, it was not sufficient to provide the odd highlight during the course of the year. That might be inspiring, but it does not engender continuity. So a special program was instituted, which exists to this day and is now called the David Goldman Program for Outstanding Young Musicians, after we received a very generous donation from the Goldman family.”
That program helps cultivate the incipient talents of 50 of the country’s most promising young string players between the ages of 14 and 18, as well as 35 wind players and 12 to 15 pianists in the same age group. The program, which is designed to enrich and complement their individual training, focuses on chamber music – a genre choice that was not coincidental.
“Many people believe that chamber music is the pinnacle of classical music expertise,” says Sella. “It is challenging, deep and intimate music, and that in itself is a good enough reason for focusing on this area.”
But there are also educational and social motives for the chamber music orientation.
“Playing chamber music places the emphasis on working in unison, as opposed to developing starring solo roles,” the music center director continues. “The late 20th-century and early 21st-century ethos is individualism, which, in fact, is a capitalist approach that has been around since the Industrial Revolution [in the late 18th century]. Robinson Crusoe [the title character in Daniel Defoe’s classic early 18th-century novel] was the first capitalist, who took a black slave and, with his own two hands, survived on a desert island and industrialized it. To this day, the American film industry puts out a thousand bad movies every year in which a single figure saves the whole world.
That ethos also finds its way into the arts and into music – individual achievement, competitiveness and winning the prize.”
While he says he is not against competition per se, it has its downside.
“Competing against one another can spawn excellence, and that can be good, but the situation in which the spotlight is focused solely on one star performer might not be the healthiest thing.”
There are certainly plenty of stars lined up for the center’s forthcoming milestone season, spotlight or no. Among the visitors during the season, which closes on June 19, are the Belcea Quartet from the United Kingdom, the Artemis Quartet from Germany, and the Manderling Quartet from Germany, which will perform Haydn’s String Quartet in C major and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor.
Israeli pianist Tomer Lev will join them for a rendition of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor.
Having sought-after British pianist Angela Hewitt in the new season lineup is also a feather in the center’s cap, as is the January 9 appearance of German countertenor Andreas Scholl. Hewitt will perform works by Bach and Beethoven at her December 19 concert, while Scholl will join forces with Israeli pianist Tamar Halperin in the German Lied program of songs written by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms.
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