Israel festival review: East and West

Jerusalem Theater, May 31.

Piano (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The breaking down of musical boundaries, as in the concert entitled From East to West in the Israel Festival, is certainly a commendable effort. The question is only how to go about it.
The most serious attempt at merging Eastern and Western music elements was Mark Kopytman’s Voices of Menory (1981), featuring an authentic Yemenite-based song and singer (Yonit Shaked-Golan), with real Yemenite voice production, in the context of 20th century orchestral music. Kopytman wisely introduced the Yemenite-style singing when the orchestra was silent, or almost so, thus allowing each style its own space, without any forced attempt to merge the two or have them compete.
On a more popular level, Shaked-Golan presented songs from the repertoire of Yemen-born Shoshana Damari. She did so with a low, impressive voice that indeed evoked the memory of the unforgettable Damari. Included was, of course, “Kalaniyot” (“Anemones”), Damari’s signature tune, to the joy of the sentimental audience. Shaked took turns with singers Samia Ashkar and Dunia Darawshi who sang authentic songs in Arabic, appropriately accompanied by the kanun (Middle Eastern zither), and enhanced by their own personal charm. They received an enthusiastic ovation, making one believe peace had already broken out.
Master oud player Taiseer Elias presented a lukewarm introduction to none other than Mozart. Mozart’s Seraglio overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade were like displaced persons in this context. Without any connection whatsoever with real Eastern music, these are products of the purely 19th century European trend of Orientalism or Exoticism, manipulating foreign-sounding cliches and stereotypes to add a spice of the unfamiliar. This tendency, criticized by philosopher Edward Said as a “technique of colonialist Europe to dominate... the Orient,” was adopted by the period’s composers such as Saint Saens (Samson and Delilah), Bruch (Kol Nidrei), Puccini (Madame Butterfly, Turandot), Borodin (Prince Igor) and even Mozart (Seraglio, The Magic Flute).
It portrays the Orientals condescendingly as “noble savages,” like Monastatos in The Magic Flute who complains that the “black” is considered “ugly” and is finally defeated by the rays of the sun, and the Moroccan ruler Selim in Seraglio who is ridiculed by his European opponents.
Such works can hardly be presented as boundary-breaking fusions of East and West.
The orchestral part was provided by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Music Academy’s Mendi Rodan Orchestra, conducted by Eitan Globersohn and Michael Wolpe.