East meets West in 'cultural hotspot' Jerusalem

A new cross-cultural event takes a bow at Sultan’s Pool.

Singer Linet is going to join the orchestra at the festival. (photo credit: Dafna Talmon)
Singer Linet is going to join the orchestra at the festival.
(photo credit: Dafna Talmon)

There is, no longer, anything new about cross-cultural synergies, the novelty factor lost much of its marketing shine quite some time ago. World music ushered in all kinds of previously unimagined fusions between, say, Indian music and rock, or African rhythms and harmonies and the blues.

Then again, while east-west musical marriages gain increasing traction in our cultural calendars it is one thing for example, to admix traditionally-based numbers by late iconic Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza like Im Ninalu with electronic beats, achieving unprecedented global success in the process, and to roll out a full two-day program of charts that cull from Greek, Arabic, rock, pop, Turkish, and other sensibilities and sounds. 

“We pass through here and are sure we are making our mark. We all make a lot of noise about Jerusalem, and we are always trying to change things."

Maestro Tom Cohen

That is exactly what Tom Cohen is now proffering for our entertainment and, no doubt, emotional ingestion at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem early next week. On August 27 and 28, Cohen will preside over the two-day Jerusalem East West Festival, along with the Jerusalem Orchestra East West (TJO) he founded back in 2009. 

Cohen still serves as the ensemble’s head conductor and artistic director and continues to pump out the high-class goods around the year and across the globe. Thus far he has fronted performances by the TJO across Europe and in Morocco, to name just some of the ensemble’s ever-widening geographic purview.

Cohen is a man on a mission. He exudes bucketloads of energy and unbridled enthusiasm and not a little bonhomie. But, even taking his relentless pace and single-minded ethos into account, the Jerusalem Orchestra East West appears to represent an incremental leap in the TJO’s trajectory. Apparently, there is nothing new about that for Cohen.

 A GROUP photo of The Jerusalem Orchestra East and West. (credit: MICHAEL FAVIA)
A GROUP photo of The Jerusalem Orchestra East and West. (credit: MICHAEL FAVIA)

“There is something in my character, from childhood, which means that I am never satisfied with what I have,” he chuckles. That, naturally, impacts his efforts in his official capacities, and on the TJO. 

“Because of the significant role I play in the body I direct, the higher the pinnacles we attain, for me that means the starting line gets higher and higher, and the objectives stretch out even further. “I have never finished something with the feeling that we’ve made it. We can take some time out now. For me, it works exactly the other way round.” There is, he says, always new ground to cover and greater goals to be reeled in. “Every door you open leads onto so many opportunities, and so many adventures you can imagine.”

Having run the orchestra for so long now, Cohen, who “moonlights” with various ensembles around the world, has immersive and intimate knowledge of the way things work, the personal and interpersonal dynamics, and how much he can expect to get from his musicians. 

“I was just thinking about this as, in the past year, I had a lot of symphonic experiences across Europe. I realized that my relationship with the TJO players is far beyond words. They understand so well what I want to say and what I want to do.” 

That, he says, takes everyone along a constantly climbing qualitative curve. “It is as if they get so deeply what I want to do that they implement it far better than I could have imagined.” Not a bad position to be in. 

Over the years the orchestra has mixed with artists from an expansive range of genres and styles, including Israeli-Turkish diva Linet, veteran soulful rocker Ehud Banai, Arab vocalist Violet Salameh, and Andalusian-infused jazz pianist Omri Mor. Linet is in the cast of the first, more eastern-leaning evening, which also includes fabulous Greek singer Eleni Vitali, French-Israeli vocalist Ishtar, young Arab-Israeli singer Valerie Hamaty, and internationally renowned Ethiopian-Israeli soul, funk, Ethiojazz, and groove vocalist Ester Rada. That’s a roster to set even the most becalmed audience on fire. 

The second concert focuses on Western styles

The second concert moves decidedly westward, featuring singer-songwriters Asaf Avidan and Noga Erez, and up-and-coming sensation Tamir Grinberg who won the 2021 Rising Star reality show contest.Cohen’s sense of kinship with his instrumentalists helps to flex disciplinary and stylistic boundaries, and keeps things fresh and adventurous, as new creative vistas constantly appear.

“All I do is leave spaces for the players to improvise and add ornamentation, to bring their own input to the music,” he explains. 

He says it works like a dream and brings him kudos he does not necessarily fully deserve. “People come up to me after concerts and compliment me on the new arrangements. But, it’s not me!” he exclaims. It’s the orchestra.”

The TJO has performed many times here over the past decade and a half or so, playing one-time concerts and even diving into the odd series program. But establishing a festival which, Cohen hopes and expects, will become an annual event, looks like the enterprise is stepping up a gear or two. 

“The idea is that this is just the first edition of a permanent festival, of a new tradition,” he says, commending the TJO’s partners in musical and production endeavors en route. “We have wonderful support from the municipality, and [municipal cultural management company] Ariel and the producer, who are all determined to make this succeed. There is musical significance to this, but also something that goes far beyond that.”

The sonic fare in the Jerusalem program, says Cohen, takes local musical offerings to the next step. “This festival has added musical value that none of the other festivals bring to the city.” The conductor also highlights the broader picture and the across-the-board benefits to be had from such an initiative. 

“There is a message that transcends music. There is a message about the cultural layer that unites us with our neighbors and about the festival as a microcosm of what we could have in Jerusalem, as a microcosm of what could happen in the country as a whole, and what there could be in the whole world.”

Stirring words which, Cohen says, emanate from a classic example of a place where things can be extremely challenging, but also never fail to evoke emotion. 

“On the one hand, Jerusalem is the most complex city in the world, but it is also the city with which most people, from around the world, have fallen in love with. That’s the city.”

There’s no arguing with that, as any who has lived in the capital or just visited it can attest. And that’s without even noting the numerous armies that have traipsed through this part of the world across the millennia, looking to make the Holy City their own.

That multifarious backdrop, says Cohen, can provide rewards for one and all, including some of a remedial nature. “We intentionally don’t touch on areas that generate tension or conflict. We engage in that the whole time anyway. The two evenings we present offer a wide enough picture for all the populations of Jerusalem to find a home in the music. 

“It could be Arabs, religious Jews, hipsters from Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design] or Sephardim whose culture was ignored by the Israeli establishment for so long.”

Besides the pure entertainment value, Cohen says the festival is a homage to the three millennia- and-counting enduring capital city, citing a different field of artistic pursuit to underscore his point. 

“In one of his plays, Nissim Aloni likens Jaffa to a woman lying with her back to the sea. More and more conquerors pass by her. There is a war and then another, and more bloodshed. The woman stays there, calm, enjoying the sea breeze, and watches everyone passing through, with disdain.”

Cohen says we also come into that equation. 

“We pass through here and are sure we are making our mark. We all make a lot of noise about Jerusalem, and we are always trying to change things. At the end of the day, Jerusalem will remain and we will disappear. Everything passes through – through the air, the sea, and the music. No one owns those three things.”

Perhaps not, but at least for a couple of days and, hopefully, for years to come, we can enjoy a rich rollout of multilayered sounds in a unique location at the foot of the Old City walls. 

For tickets and more information, contact *2207 or visit https://2207.kupat.co.il