Music for the people

The annual Musethica festival brings international musicians to schools and special-needs institutions.

MUSETHICA MUSICIANS play in front of a group of children in Israel. (photo credit: ZVIKA ZOREF)
MUSETHICA MUSICIANS play in front of a group of children in Israel.
(photo credit: ZVIKA ZOREF)
‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” noted English Restoration period playwright William Congreve. That is, indeed, an incisive and encouraging observation, and many of us enjoy the benefits of some groove or the spirit of a work that help us to connect with a more relaxed, or energized and positive mindset. But is Western classical music able to work its magic on people who do not ordinarily listen to Beethoven and Mozart, et al? According to Avri Levithan the answer to that is an unequivocal yes.
Israeli violist Levithan is one of the founders of a definitively spiritual health-inducing venture that goes by the name of Musethica. It is a nonprofit organization which is currently active in eight countries, including Germany, Levithan’s country of residence, as well as Israel, Poland, Austria, France and China. It sparked into zestful life in Zaragoza, Spain in 2012, when Levithan joined forces with Prof. Carmen Marcuello, a lecturer in business management at the local university.
Levithan says things are going well for the professionally and emotionally gainful project.
“We are active in eight countries, and there are another eight that want to join us. That’s very exciting,” he says, although noting that success has its price. “It is also a bit worrying and a bit scary. It all started out as a modest venture, and it has really grown.”
It is a nice conundrum to have to cope with, and one which Levithan appears to be handling pretty well.
The next installment of Musethica will be proffered in this country October 26-28 with concerts taking place at the Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Leyada School next to the academy, and at the Israeli Conservatory of Music and Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv. While three of the aforementioned events are for the public at large, the principal focus of Musethica is to perform for a wide range of people of all ages, with a view to not only entertaining them but also bringing them some joie de vivre, while helping them to open their ears, eyes and heart.
The aural element, says Levithan, is quite a challenge.
“People don’t really know how to listen, and that includes musicians,” he states. “I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It is simply hard to listen. That is so important, too, for music teachers, and for all of us.”
That ethos brings Levithan and the young musicians he enlists for Musethica’s work around the globe into a special zone of work, and thought, and into contact with audiences who are not only fresh to the artistic field, they also force the musicians to dig deep and produce the goods.
The violist confesses to harboring an egotistical motive for the heartwarming concept.
“What I like about Musethica is that it stems from a genuine desire of musicians to play music. Real musicians attach great importance to the way they play, and Musethica offers something so special, a one-time thing, which you don’t find in other classical music settings.”
Levithan was referring to the fact that, among other Musethica audiences, he and his cohorts play, for example, to children with special needs. They can make for attentive, but equally demanding, bunch of listeners.
“We perform for children aged two or three. If you don’t play the music cleanly, and with emotion, and with the right intent, you’ll lose them within minutes. But if you play the music properly they will stay with you and listen to you all the way through.”
That has a mutual added value.
“That makes us musicians better at what we do,” Levithan observes. “The young musicians make such extraordinary progress. That’s why I say there is no great mystique about this. It is a professional interest. Quartets who came to play with us win prizes in competitions all over the world. A quartet of French female musicians, who did some Musethica concerts recently,” won an important competition three days later. After the competition, in an interview, “they said that because of the children they played for [as part of Musethica], and the way the kids listened to their performance, they changed the way they play. They said they understood what works, and what doesn’t work [with audiences]. And the Musethica musicians take on the best positions in orchestras, simply because they improved so much during their time with us.”
Looks like the proverbial win-win situation.
That is the only “ulterior motive” involved – improving one’s own musicianship. The performers do not get paid, so there is no “filthy lucre” consideration to get in the way of their intent. It is a matter of pure musicianship, and inward and outward listening.
“People who play with us know that the audiences we play for transmit a very direct response. It’s not like an audience at, say, Heichal Hatarbut [in Tel Aviv] which may or may not be attentive, and afterwards they say all sorts of [complimentary] things to you. With our special audiences we really see, and feel, the way the children and others respond to our playing.”
Over the years Levithan, and the many other musicians who have been involved in the project, from different countries, have also played to all sorts of listeners, including senior citizens and prison inmates. Their forthcoming schedule takes in community-oriented performances at special needs institutions, kindergartens and schools.
Levithan says he and his colleagues do not make “allowances” for first-time classical music listeners, or for anyone who, one may – erroneously – expect to find contemporary sounds overly challenging. In addition to works by the likes of Beethoven and Bach, the violist and the rest of the Musethica gang also proffer material written by 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Webern and Bartok. There is no dumbing down, or tailoring to make the program more “user friendly.”
It is, Levithan states, a matter of how you play, not what you play.
“There is no difference in the repertoire, as long as the standard of playing is good enough. That’s our conclusion after all these years of Musethica. If the playing’s not good enough, that’s when you need to explain things and joke around, and all sorts provocations. Children are the toughest audience. You have to be the real deal.”
That applies equally, both in concert situations and in everyday situations.
“When you play for people, especially for those who less fortunate than yourself, you hone in purely on the music – as they do,” says Levithan. “It’s a great lesson for all of us.”
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