East West at its best: The opera house hosts a new four-part concert

The orchestra includes Muslim, Christian and Jewish musicians playing wind and string instruments, and a groove-oriented rhythm section.

The Jerusalem Orchestra East West (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jerusalem Orchestra East West
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For some time now, the Opera House in Tel Aviv has been hosting some pretty eclectic shows. Next up on the Opera House cultural crossover entertainment bill is a four-part series featuring the Jerusalem Orchestra East West under the aegis of musical director and head conductor Tom Cohen. The first slot, on October 24 (8 p.m.), goes by the name of Bon Chanson and proffers a slew of nuggets from the Great French Songbook worked through a multicultural prism that incorporates North African, Arabic and Turkish colors and seasoning.
Further down the line you can catch the Homage to Joe Amar (February 20); the Tribute to the Oran Bunch (April 23), with pop-rock megastars Berry Sacharoff and Amir Benayoun; and closing with the June 10 Oum Kulthoum Forever concert, with a program that doffs a derby to four of the icons of Egyptian music: the eponymous diva; singer-composer Mohammed Abd el-Wahab; composer, singer and oud player Farid el-Atrash; and singer Abdel Halim Hafez.
“We take chansons, but we do completely new arrangements. We take the French songs in the direction of North African, Arabic and Turkish music,” Cohen explains about Bon Chanson, adding that this is very much in fashion these days. “That, in fact, is the style of chansons that are now being written in France.”
Cohen has a wealth of experience in the field of reworking scores. And while, he notes, he had to bring his professionalism to bear for the current project, he says the raw material lent itself to the desired line of flexing thought.
“We needed to be creative, but it was not very complicated. We are talking classics here, which are naturally very malleable and allow for different approaches,” he says.
There would be no point, Cohen continues, in just churning out oneon- one renditions of the much-lauded and well-known source songs.
“This is the orchestra’s idiom. Why should we play this music comme il faut [as required], in the original form?” The roster of stellar root number performers includes the likes of Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel and French-Armenian crooner Charles Aznavour. While the latter has a connection with non-Western culture, the others were definitively Gallic artists.
“As far as I know, the others did not venture into other cultural areas,” says Cohen.
That, he adds, was not a deterrent. Au contraire.
“That is what is so exciting for us about this project. The songs take on a completely different form, which is nonetheless totally appropriate for them. It doesn’t sound alien or weird or unnatural,” he declares.
That surely goes for any nice melody, n’est-ce pas? For example, jazz musicians have, since the dawn of the definitively improvisational art form, taken a base tune and run with it in any which direction.
“I am wary of saying you can do that with any score,” Cohen asserts. “But I can say that this specific exercise has been a great success. What we do, as it were, brings out different aspects of the songs. The more recognizable parts of the songs may fade a little in our versions, but other things in the songs and different hooks become very significant. They also stay with you long after the concert.”
That is generally a good attribute to aim for, and Cohen believes the oldnew mix spawns oxymoronic benefits for all.
“Surprise is also part of the point of all this. You hear a melody which can develop into a sort of mysterious heavy Arabic direction, and you have no idea where it is all going, and then suddenly the vocalist appears and you say, ‘Ah! That’s what it is!’” It works both ways.
“You can have a song that starts out in a very classic way, just like the original version, and then it suddenly veers off somewhere, and it gets into a different tempo with all sorts of seasoning. That’s how we surprise the audience,” he smiles.
While one wouldn’t want to suggest anything as oneroussounding as a premeditated attempt to “educate the listener,” Cohen certainly wants his public to get to know and to embrace the ensemble’s ethos.
“This is the first concert of the series at the Opera House. It is much easier to introduce the Opera patrons to the sound of the orchestra and our language through material they know and like,” he explains.
That line of thinking dictated the chronological order of the series.
“If, for example, we opened the series with the Oum Kulthoum concert, it would probably be different for the audience,” he posits.
Cohen and the orchestra are very much of the border-leaping genre, and he says they are always looking to stay ahead of the game.
“We constantly ask ourselves questions about what is classic material, what is quality, what is high culture, and that sort of thing,” he notes. “With this series, we play around with these concepts. On the one hand, we are talking about old pop songs, while on the other hand, these are all classics, and they are in French. It is very much about checking out the boundary between classics and entertainment. We consider whether the two are natural bedfellows. For us the answer is clear, but I want the members of the audience to arrive at their own conclusion about that.”
In addition to Cohen and the orchestra, which includes Muslim, Christian and Jewish musicians playing wind and string instruments, and a groove-oriented rhythm section, Bon Chanson features some star turns. The concert features internationally renowned countertenor David D’Or, who will sing in Hebrew; young reality show star Ella Daniel, who will take care of the French lyrics; and the even younger, 18-year-old harmonica playing phenomenon, Ariel Bart.
Sounds like a powerful lineup patently designed to bring French song into the Israeli here and now and provide local patrons with more than a soupcon of classic musical France.
The Bon Chanson concert takes place on October 24 at 8 p.m. at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and http://www.israel-opera.co.il/ eng/?CategoryID=848