Music hath charms

Sitting down with Alexander Tamir, an engaging musical legend who now heads the Eden-Tamir Center in Ein Kerem.

Alexander Tamir enjoys a glass of homemade plum liquor. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Alexander Tamir enjoys a glass of homemade plum liquor.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
It is tempting to say that Prof. Alexander Tamir has led a charmed life.
Spending an hour or two with the genial 84-year-old at his delightful abode in Ein Kerem is like a breath of the sweetest non-urban air you could hope to find.
Looking around his kitchen, one spots plenty of tangible nutrition. Tamir produces a bottle of homemade plum liquor, which proves to be a delight to the palate while not threatening to get your driver’s license withdrawn for being inebriated while in possession of a steering wheel.
Tamir has gained a reputation for some fine broths, but it is neither his tipples nor soups for which he is best known.
The soft-spoken, pony-tailed musician runs the Eden-Tamir Music Center near Mary’s Spring, where, legend has it, Jesus’s mother once slaked her thirst around two millennia ago.
The first part of the institute’s double-barreled moniker clearly fits the ambiance bill; as you walk through wrought iron gates, you step into a verdant oasis of calm. Flowers, trees and bushes of every hue abound as you make your way up the stepped pathway to the old two-story building wherein lie the auditorium, a recording studio and Tamir’s home.
In fact, the titular opener refers to Bracha Eden who, together with Tamir, for over 40 years formed one of the most successful classical piano duos in the world. “When I met Bracha she was married with a six-year-old child. It was at the new music conservatory in Jerusalem,” recalls Tamir. “She had a piano and I had a piano.”
Tamir, who was three years Eden’s junior, was at a different stage of life.
“I lived in all kinds of student apartments, so my piano was at her place, squeezed in between the kitchen and Bracha’s kid’s bedroom,” he recalls. “We used to practice there before concerts and tours.”
While the two of them were already top-notch performers, their long hours of ivory tickling did not always go down well with their neighbors. “They couldn’t take us anymore,” says Tamir with a twinkle in his eye.
One of the locals could have made serious trouble for Tamir and Eden, had he wished to flex his political muscles. Eden’s downstairs neighbor then was Gideon Hausner, who served as attorney-general, was later an MK and minister without portfolio, and is best known as chief prosecutor in the 1961 Eichmann trial. “We were on good terms, and we used to meet from time to time, but when we practiced, after a while he’d take a broomstick and hammer on the ceiling,” Tamir adds, chuckling.
The twosome soon had to come to terms with their growing success, as they began to become a popular fixture on the global classical music circuit, in addition to frequent performances all over Israel, and it was time to scout for more generously proportioned premises.
That was in 1967, just before the Six Day War, when the municipality was willing and able to support the local cultural community. “[Then-mayor] Teddy Kollek had just come up with the idea of turning Ein Kerem into an artists’ colony. That didn’t work too well, but that’s how we ended up with this building.”
Tamir and Eden started out with modest plans for their new musical home. “We just needed a studio so we could practice,” notes Tamir. “When we started renovating and fixing the place up, we realized it was just a ‘little bigger’ than a studio space,” he laughs.
TAMIR STARTED OUT on his musical road in very different circumstances. He was born Alexander Wolkovsky in Vilnius, then part of Poland. His father was a doctor and the Wolkovsky lived comfortably before the Holocaust.
By the time he was 11, Tamir found himself incarcerated in the Vilna ghetto along with the other members of his family. He displayed a talent for music from an early age and first set his fingers on a piano keyboard at the age of five. Despite showing early promise, and gaining public recognition – albeit from a Nazi-limited public – of his talent, Tamir does not feel comfortable with the wunderkind label I proffered.
“I think you’ll find that any professional musician began early. Some started at five, or at seven or eight, and gave their first public recital when they were small,” he counters.
Even so, he is happy to relate the events surrounding his first taste of public kudos. “I was 11 when I won a music competition in the ghetto, in the middle of the war. You know, there was quite a lot of cultural life in ghettos during the Holocaust. It was a way to maintain our sanity, and it was also a way of saying to the Nazis, ‘We are here.’” Trying conditions notwithstanding, Tamir says there were benefits to having so many Jews cooped up together. Life was much more intense there than in normal life. There was a theater and a choir, and an orchestra and a dance troupe, and also a music conservatory. Before the war, the head of the conservatory was the head of the conservatory, but in the ghetto she was my teacher. My history teacher was a professor form the university, as was my French teacher.”
For his spot in the competition, Tamir played music he wrote to the lyrics of Ponar, written by Shmerke Kaczerginski, which was to become a regular feature of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies. “That win in the contest turned me into a ‘wunderkind’, and I am identified with that song to this day.”
That fleeting glow of success was soon replaced by the horrors of a series of concentration camps and labor camps, during which Tamir lost members of his immediate family, including his father. He was liberated in 1945 when French forces made their way to the Dautmergen concentration camp in southern Germany.
Tamir was only 14 at the end of the war, and he says his youth, and that of fellow teenage inmate Avraham Karmi, who later became a senior member of the education system here, helped them get out of Germany and to Palestine. “The de Gaulle soldiers saw a couple of kids and helped us get across the border into Switzerland, and from there we made it to Palestine.”
Karmi, who is three years older than Tamir, may have become a prominent educationalist, including serving as principal of the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school and youth village, but he was given an invaluable lesson by his Holocaust survivor pal.
“Many years later he told me I’d saved his life,” recalls Tamir. “He reminded me that, after we were liberated, we found ourselves in a cellar of a house in Stuttgart where there was a load of smoked meat. The others pounced on the food and began to gorge themselves, and I warned Avraham that, in our emaciated state, eating the meat could kill us.” That was amazing insight for someone so young. “I was the son of a doctor, wasn’t I?” Tamir chuckles.
AFTER THE war a new life began for Tamir. He quickly found he had numerous members of his extended family dotted around the country, and his mother had also survived the Holocaust and made her way to Palestine in 1947.
As Tamir became adjusted to life here and learned Hebrew, he also rediscovered his love of music and returned to the piano. Even after all they’d been through, separately, and not knowing if each other was alive, Tamir’s mother gradually resumed her maternal role and was determined that her son should have a “kosher” profession, and exhorted the budding musician to follow in his late father’s footsteps. She pulled strings to get Tamir a place at a prestigious medical school in the United States, but the young man was just as determined to stick to his musical path.
“I’d applied for a scholarship to the new music conservatory in Jerusalem – it was a scholarship in the name of a reporter from The Jerusalem Post. It was a full study and living expenses scholarship. I told my mother that I’d study music if I got the scholarship, and if I didn’t get it, I’d go to the US to become a doctor. She’d gotten in touch with all sorts of Jews from Vilna and got me accepted to Johns Hopkins [School of Medicine in Baltimore].”
Tamir duly won the music scholarship, in 1950, and the rest really is history, even if the start was not exactly smooth.
“I met Bracha Eden there; she was also a student at the conservatory,” says Tamir. “We had to play chamber music together and neither of us liked that. Bracha was a couple of years older than me and she’d already taken her first steps as a concert pianist. She’d toured South Africa, and I’d played with the Israel Philharmonic a couple of times. We each wanted to play piano, but not together.” It sounds like there was an undercurrent of competition between the two. “I wouldn’t say we competed with each other, but there was a lack of empathy,” laughs Tamir.
Despite their mutual unease, Eden and Tamir clearly enjoyed a rare musical bond, and they were soon given challenging works to play at the conservatory. After about a year of struggling with a musical synergy that had been forced on them, the pair got a gentle shove in the right direction from composer, pianist and IBA radio show producer Aryeh Zaks.
“We owe him a lot,” declares Tamir. “He arranged for Bracha and me to play on a radio program and he said we’d see how things pan out after that.” The broadcast went well. “He said it had been good and that in a few months’ time we’d play a Bach concerto with the IBA orchestra. That’s how things started for Bracha and me. Then there really was chemistry between us.”
The Eden-Tamir duo received a significant upgrade in 1955 when the two were sent to Aspen Music School in the US. They were part of a contingent of young Israeli musicians who had received scholarships to the prestigious music center, and it was quite a feather in the cap of the still-young State of Israel. Prior to their departure, the youngsters were given a stately audience with thenprime minister Moshe Sharett.
Tamir not only got to meet the head of the government, he also left the event with a new name, even if the Hebraized appendage was conferred in farcical, and somewhat undignified, circumstances. “Sharett spoke to all of us and, when he got to our row, Bracha told him I was going with her to play music in America,” explains Tamir. Eden had already been given the prime ministerial seal of approval when he learned of her family stock, and that a relative of hers was the first lawyer in pre-state Palestine to conduct himself in the courtroom in Hebrew.
Sharett was less endeared with the idea of someone called Wolkovsky representing the country on the other side of the pond.
“He said to me: ‘You are going to America with the name of an American football player?’ – back then American footballers were mostly of Polish origin,” says Tamir.
Disaster soon struck. “Sharett was leaning on my chair when it suddenly toppled over, and the prime minister and I fell on the floor. I felt really stupid. Everyone was staring at us. While Sharett was still on the floor he said: ‘You can’t go to America with that name. From now on you’re Tamir!’ I said: ‘No problem. I agree.’ I was the first Tamir in Israel.”
The Eden-Tamir pairing was a success and the two pianists gained valuable exposure on American TV in 1958, when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show together with the 13-year-old Itzhak Perlman – who was to become a global superstar.
The two began to play all over the world, to rave reviews. The walls of Tamir’s house are plastered with facsimiles of posters from concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, all over Europe and North America.
During the course of a half-century of shared endeavor, Eden and Tamir recorded works by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Schubert and Schumann, and were the first to perform and record the piano duet version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. They also gave valuable airings to lesser-known works for two pianos, including works by late 18th century-early 19th century composers Clementi, Dussek and Hummel.
Meanwhile, the music center in Ein Kerem went from strength to strength, and has been hosting concerts by instrumentalists and vocalists since 1967.
Last Friday’s noon concert featured six young sopranos from the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Singers troupe, including Efrat Vulfsons, Nofar Yacobi and Tal Ganor, with Israeli Opera conductor and pianist Ethan Schmeisser providing the instrumental accompaniment for a wide range of operatic arias and numbers from musicals.
The opera house’s artistic administrator, Michael Ajzenstadt, served as moderator. It was an impressive lineup for the geographical backwater center, and reflects the esteem in which Tamir and his musical power base are held. The concert was also recorded on the center’s bulky, but highly functional, old analog equipment, for broadcast on the Voice of Music.
Next week, Tamir and the Eden-Tamir Duo will be feted at the Psanterim (Pianos) Festival, taking place at the Jerusalem Theater on December 23-25. The tribute, on the first evening of the festival, will feature works by Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart and Schubert, performed by a string of top musicians, including the highly successful sibling pianist pairing of Shir and Dror Semmel.
While Tamir, Eden and the long procession of guest artists have made sweet music, Tamir’s garden also continued to flourish.
“There was nothing here when we came in 1967, just bare earth,” says the evergreen octogenarian. “I never knew I had green thumbs.”
Typically, Tamir does not take all the credit for the lush Shangri-La around his house and the center.
“They say music does special things. Maybe it does that to nature, too.”
For more information about the Eden-Tamir Music Center: (02) 641-4250 and