Shouting for health’s sake: A Music Festival during a pandemic

This year’s Israeli Music Festival is nothing to sneeze at.

NIKA KUSHNIR. Her ‘The Ministry of Health Announces: Stay At Home’ will be performed this evening by soprano Niva Eshed, with Anastasia Sadomski-Ninyo accompanying on piano, with the text provided – albeit unwittingly – by former ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov. (photo credit: YOEL LEVY)
NIKA KUSHNIR. Her ‘The Ministry of Health Announces: Stay At Home’ will be performed this evening by soprano Niva Eshed, with Anastasia Sadomski-Ninyo accompanying on piano, with the text provided – albeit unwittingly – by former ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.
(photo credit: YOEL LEVY)
It is said that art reflects life and, possibly, vice versa. Artists feed off life around them and their personal emotional and cultural baggage. With that in mind, it is fascinating to consider how these times, these pandemic-minded times, are coloring the work of composers. How is the coronavirus-induced zeitgeist impacting on the efforts of composers across the globe and will, say, musicologists of future generations be able to identify scores created under the current (anti)social distancing conditions, smile-obscuring masks and the constant fear many palpably feel?
This year’s – delayed – Israeli Music Festival lineup certainly reflects all of the above. The agenda kicked off earlier this week, and is due to run through until tomorrow (Friday), with all the concerts available, gratis, online until the end of the month.
As artistic director, and lauded composer himself, Prof. Oded Zehavi notes, “This year’s festival is a social festival. The vast majority of the participants are independent artists who are the ones that have suffered more than anyone from the situation in which Israeli music finds itself, due to the coronavirus.”
The festival, which takes place under the auspices of the Culture Ministry, takes in dozens of concerts including operatic works, chamber music, vocal-based scores and material fueled by poetry, including a tribute to Natan Zach who passed away last month.
The accent of the festival, throughout its 23-year existence to date, has always been on airing contemporary creations, so one would naturally expect some of the pandemic-related stuff to find its way betwixt the musical warp and weft.
When it comes to one of young composer Nika Kushnir’s brace of works on this week’s bill that is conveyed in a blatant, even whimsically belligerent, manner. The score in question is called “The Ministry of Health Announces, Stay At Home,” and will be performed this evening by soprano Niva Eshed, with Anastasia Sadomski-Ninyo accompanying on piano, with the text provided – albeit unwittingly – by Moshe Bar Siman Tov. The latter was the director general of the Health Ministry when the COVID-19 business began and, as such, was responsible for issuing the purple badge directives.
“I read it on the Internet,” Kushnir recalls. “You know there was all this stuff about not leaving the house, except for in obligatory situations. There was no clear definition of ‘obligatory situations,’” she adds.
That left the composer more than a little nonplussed.
“I HAD NO idea what these ‘situations’ were.” Help was soon on its way, from a pal overseas who could identify strongly with Kushnir’s quandary.
“I have an Italian friend, she’s a writer, and I thought I would write some music and she’d provide the lyrics. I called and she told me there was a fire engine with a PA system driving around her village, and they were saying that people should leave the house ‘only if necessary.’”
Seems the confusion was not just a local issue.
“We had no idea what ‘necessary’ meant. If, for example, a mother wanted to see her daughter, was that ‘necessary?’ That raised all sorts of moral and practical questions.”
All of that, and more, comes across in “The Ministry of Health Announces, Stay At Home,” which also serves as Kushnir’s way to impart her displeasure with the ministerial dictates.
“This is a protest,” she exclaims. That, naturally, finds its way into the performance in terms of the sonic textures and levels of vocal expression. At one point in the performance, Eshed unleashes a feral note that leaves the listener fully cognizant of the composer’s feelings on the topic.
It is not just about the music either. There is a darkly comic visual side to the challenging delivery that complements and enhances the sonic execution.
“I wrote a very high, shrill, note that is even higher than the top note in the Queen of the Night aria [in Mozart’s Magic Flute opera].” The vocal peak in question is the preserve of only the most courageous sopranos out there. “That is, intentionally, on the word ‘eyn’ (not, or don’t). I think that conveys the protest side,” Kushnir adds a little superfluously. It certainly does.
There is plenty to latch onto in the parodic effort. Eshed starts out, before she opens her vocal account, wearing a mask. There is a sneeze worked into the chart, and singer and pianist leave the stage, at the end, separately.
“That’s about social distancing,” Kushnir chuckles. “And you don’t really know where they are going.”
Bar Siman Tov does not quite supply all the lyrics.
“I added the words ‘What are the situations?’” says Kushnir. The register at that point is also in stratospheric realms, thereby underscoring Kushnir’s confusion and concern over the official lack of clarity. “That was not at all clear from the Ministry of Health announcement. That’s ridiculous.”
Elsewhere on the Israeli Music Festival there are contemporary and intriguing works by the likes of Paul Ben-Haim, Menachem Tzur and Boaz Ben-Moshe.
For more information: israelmusicfest.co.il