Bach in Jerusalem

The capital hosts its first International Bach Festival.

Joshua Rifkin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Rifkin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Music by Bach is the central axis in the life of any person who is occupied with music,” says Alon Schab of the Music Department of the University of Haifa. On March 21, Schab will preside over the international symposium on Bach’s music, which is part of the First International Bach Festival in Jerusalem (March 17 to 21).
“I think that was the idea behind the programming of the festival,” he says. “Granted, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra follows the concepts of historically informed performance, but the festival appeals to a wider array of music lovers, not only those who are interested in hearing what is called the authentic approach. As a result, the program also relates to piano not just the harpsichord, as well as various aspects of music making, such as the symposium, concerts, the exhibition, which was brought from Bach’s birthplace, and so forth. What I really like about the festival is that it looks at Bach from many points of view. It is quite simple to say, ‘Okay, we will perform Bach in a historically informed way on the instruments of the epoch and that’s it. But it is far more challenging and rewarding to try to present a broader picture. It’s clear that Jerusalem is not just another location, and Bach’s liturgical music sounds different here because the room of the Last Supper is situated within walking distance of the concert hall, where the Matthaus Passion is performed, not to mention the special overall Jerusalem atmosphere,” he says.
Schab stresses, “It is not difficult to find connections between Bach’s music and Jerusalem. Just look around.”
The musicologist has nothing but praise for the program, which is “variegated and heterogeneous in a positive sense of the word.” As such, it attracts a wide audience.
“This is not only liturgy. Take, for example, the intriguing program that Russian-born Berlin-based pianist and researcher Jascha Nemtsov brings to the festival. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are pieces of extreme importance in the life of any classical pianist. Several composers were influenced by this music form.
Nemtsov will perform Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich, which are well known. But that is not all. He also brings Preludes and Fugues by Zaderatsky, a Russian composer who spent years in the Gulag whose pieces – which today are regarded as among the pinnacles of 20th-century Russian music – were banned from performance.”
In regard to the symposium, Schab says, “David Shemer, the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the person behind the festival program, knows very well what authentic performance is about. It is also clear that performing a piece like Matthaus Passion demands preparation and research. And now look what is happening here. We offer a historically informed performance of the piece, we do our best to make it sound the way it did in the time of Bach. For that, we are bringing the world’s leading specialist, Joshua Rifkin, as the conductor. Yet we totally isolate the piece from its historical context. The texts, which were taken for granted in the 18th century, with all their anti-Semitism and intolerance, sound quite problematic not only to a Jewish ear but also to any person of the 21st century. Times have changed, and the world of today is not that of Bach’s time. And by the way, that was exactly what Mendelssohn, who rediscovered the Matthaus Passion, did in 1829 when he took a liturgical piece and brought it to a concert hall. So this paradox is definitely something to talk about: What happens with a piece like Matthaus Passion when it is disconnected from its historical context, especially performing it in Jerusalem,” he says.
The festival takes place in Jerusalem from March 17 to 21, with a few concerts performed in Tel Aviv and Zichron Ya’acov. The YMCA auditorium is the heart of the festival, with concerts at other venues in Jerusalem, such as the Eden Tamir Center in Ein Kerem and the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Music Center.
The Matthaus Passion, with leading Israeli and international soloists under Joshua Rifkin, in his version (i.e., with the soloists also performing the part of the choir) is arguably the highlight of the program (also performed at the Israeli Conservatory in Tel Aviv and Elma Hall in Zichron Ya’acov). The program also features music by Pergolesi and Hindemith, an organ music recital, a crossover evening with Gil Shohat and Omri Mor, who bring jazzy rhythms to classics, as well as free outdoor performances, musical walking tours, an exhibition and more. There are also vacation packages with discounts on hotel accommodation.
For the full program: For reservations:; *6226; YMCA (02) 625-0444; [email protected]