American 19th-century essayist, naturalist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once commented on the palliative properties of the sonic arts. “When I hear music, I fear no danger,” he said. “I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.” All of the above, including the latter temporal reference, apply to this year’s Voice of Music Festival, which kicks off on Tuesday at Kfar Blum, in the Upper Galilee.
The program, assembled by artistic director and celebrated pianist Ofra Yitzhaki, is basically an open invitation to take a small step or two away from our comfort zones, without relinquishing our hold on the familiar.
Over the years, the world of classical music has struggled to bring in new audiences. Concert organizers have, by and large, been wary of straying too far from the established golden oldies. It is hard to find a program that does not feature at least one work by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and their celebrated ilk. But Yitzhaki is not afraid to mix things up a bit.
“When I took the job I had a few agendas. One of them was to expand the programmatic reach of the festival. I have nothing against the great classic works. But I think if that is all you hear, ultimately they wither, or there is a sense of becoming flat if you don’t hear them in new contexts, or in new formats.”Ofra Yitzchaki
That much is abundantly clear from the five-day roster of concerts, rehearsals and talks which traverses cultural and geographic boundaries, and dips into compositions across a broad sweep of eras, styles and genres.
Do more than just listen: feel
But Yitzhaki, who took over the festival position last year, would like us to not only give ear to the performances but also open up our hearts. Seemingly disparate selections, she says, can have common emotional denominators. “When I took the job I had a few agendas,” she admits. “One of them was to expand the programmatic reach of the festival. I have nothing against the great classic works. But I think if that is all you hear, ultimately they wither, or there is a sense of becoming flat if you don’t hear them in new contexts, or in new formats.”
The artistic director believes we need to relate to the world in which we live, with its contemporary energies, and here-and-now cultural and musical content. “I feel that you can’t have a concert without some element of new music. I find it hard to accept the idea that new music is a separate category. You have concerts of new music, and concerts of old music. I think it can all go together. You can combine it all.”
In the case of the forthcoming festival in the Upper Galilee, Yitzhaki has not only lined up a fair quantity of contemporary material for our aural pleasure, she has also gone to impressive geographical lengths to gently draw us away from our comfort zone. It is, she posits, not just a matter of dipping into foreign domains, it is also about discerning what we share with people and cultures we might ordinarily bypass.
The program includes a slot designed to shed light on the influence of Indian music on Western material. There is also a recital of Arabic music by famed oud player Wissam Joubran, which references how Middle Eastern sounds have filtered into the West. Meanwhile, clarinet player Gilad Harel will illuminate his audience with regard to traditional klezmer rhythms, and how creations, such as scores by the late celebrated Hungarian-born Jerusalemite musicologist and composer Andre Hajdu, introduced the Jewish-klezmer spirit to Western classical auditoria offerings.
THAT IS very much core to the thinking behind this year’s edition of the festival, and Yitzhaki’s choice of Hishtakfuyot (Reflections) as a titular and thematic banner. “The festival is definitely a classical music event in the Western sense of the word,” she notes before anyone gets the idea that they may be going to a New Age-inflected gathering. “However, as I chose the theme of Hishtakfuyot, I wanted to show that Western classical music does not exist in isolation, in some ivory tower, and nothing touches it. It is influenced by all sorts. For instance, Indian music. You can see it impacted on the work of various 20th century American composers who wrote music under the influence of Eastern philosophies, and that produced very beautiful and very interesting things.” Now, we can get some insight into the meeting of those worlds and how it left its imprint on Western works.
That will be imparted at the Hitragut (Relaxation) concert on the first day with ragas and traditional Indian folk songs, as well as Indian-influenced works by Western composers, such as American electro-acoustic music pioneer John Cage, Italian surrealist poet and composer Giacinto Scelsi, and American-born Lou Harrison who incorporated Javanese elements in his oeuvre. Yitzhaki feels we will not find it too difficult to go with the East-West flow. “There is a wonderful work for vibraphone by Cage called “Dream”, and the “Scelsi” composition is very beautiful and meditative.”
Naturally, there are plenty of the usual suspects in there, too, with works by Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Prokofiev, but also a merry ragtime score by Scott Joplin and one by 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc.
There will also be some local fare, particularly in the Hishtakfuyot – Bayit (Home) concert which offers concert arrangements of songs by the likes of preeminent songsmiths Naomi Shemer and Sasha Argov, and also takes a look at the output of 1970s seminal Israeli rock-pop band Kaveret.
Yitzhaki will also do her best to elucidate some of the dynamics and thinking behind milestone Jewish and Israeli compositions in a talk she will give ahead of the Wednesday evening slot, which features works by now 96 year old Jewish Hungarian composer György Kurtág and 20th century Israeli counterpart Mordechai Setter. Bach is prominent throughout the Hishtakfuyot – Hatchalah (Beginning) concert and, unsurprisingly, there are various references to the fugue.
Other local material gets rare airings, including by Moshe Zorman, who is celebrating his 70th birthday, and Michael Wolpe, who has a definitively eclectic take on the musical field. Other Israeli contributions to the festival proceedings include works by Roglit Ishai, Stella Lerner and haredit composer Emma Shifrin.
“I have tried to offer variety in the Israeli content of the festival,” says Yitzhaki. “There are classic Israeli songs and compositions that are influenced by songs, like ‘Hora He’achzut.’” The number was written in 1953 as a tribute to the Nahal Brigade of the IDF, and reprised by Kaveret 20 years later. “There is also a wonderful sonata by Josef Tal, for violin and piano, which hasn’t been played in Israel for around 70 years,” Yitzhaki adds.
Above all, she hopes the festival goers will let their heartstrings out at Kfar Blum. “There is, for example, a concert called “Hitpartzut” (Outpouring) with music by Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, Josef Tal and [20th century Argentine tango composer Astor] Piazzolla. They are seemingly very different compositions. But, when we strip them of the aesthetic shell of style, which is basically the aesthetics of the times, you can see they share a similar type of emotion. There is a sort of expressionism that erupts.”
A full 37 years after the Voice of Music appeared on our cultural horizon, the festival appears to be going from strength to strength.
For tickets and more information, visit: www.kol-hamusica.org.il