Staging music

Israeli Stage Orchestra co-founder Mike Levin takes great pride in drawing children into the world of classical and orchestral music.

Mike Levin (photo credit: DANIEL KAMINISKI)
Mike Levin
(photo credit: DANIEL KAMINISKI)
Kids and, presumably, their parents and any other family members who care to join in will have lots of fun at the forthcoming new Israeli Stage Orchestra (ISO) series. The season kicks off on Saturday with two performances of Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling at the Tel Aviv Museum (11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.) and there are five more quintessentially child and family-designated productions lined up between now and May, including The Four Seasons and a Little Lamb, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Hersheleh Goes to the Orchestra.
As the ensemble’s name intimates, the idea behind the venture is to present musical works in an aurally and visually entertaining manner. The shows combine live renditions of classical and other scores with performances of the relevant storylines by actors, singers and dancers.
The ISO was founded in 1992 by South African-born Kibbutz Tzora member Mike Levin and composer- conductor and inveterate performer of youth-oriented entertainment Roni Porat. Today, the ISO’s onstage activities are supervised by conductor Talia Ilan with Levin continuing to oversee dayto- day operations.
Although Levin is not a classical musician himself he accrued plenty of artistic endeavor and training over the past half-century. After coming to Israel in 1965 he and four pals got a “boys’ band” together and, for a couple of years or so, did quite well for themselves.
“We had a group together back in South Africa and we sang African songs,” Levin explains. “We sang all over Israel between 1966 and 1968.”
These were pioneering times here.
“It was the beginning of Israeli TV, and we appeared on television and we were on the radio with [veteran presenter] Rivka Michaeli and lots of other funny things.”
Levin also had an interest in another performing art. For about 14 years he danced in, managed and was assistant artistic director of the Kibbutz Dance Company (KDC). He returned to Kibbutz Tzora in 1987 and immediately began developing a new artistic project.
“A great friend of mine and a member of the kibbutz, Moussa Harif, was killed in a car accident in 1982. He was a member of the Knesset and the secretary of the United Kibbutz Movement. At the time, Yoav Tibon, who was a member of the kibbutz, began collecting money to set up a regional arts center in Moussa’s name – Moussa was an artist, an architect and a sculptor. Moussa’s maiden speech in the Knesset was about regional integration, so we decided to open a center for the arts which would bring all the children of the area together.”
That fitted in nicely with Levin’s own professional trajectory.
“I finished dancing, and set up a regional dance school, here on Tzora, until the building of the arts center was completed and we moved in there,” he recalls.
The modus operandi was multidisciplinary from the outset.
“There was dance and there was music and there was art, and all sorts of things, and that’s when I started the orchestra, together with Roni Porat.”
The ensemble, naturally, set up home at the Yad Harif Regional Center for the Arts, setting out its conceptual stall as aiming “to explore new avenues of artistic expression by collaborating with other art forms, to bring the joy of music to children from economically challenged backgrounds, and to encourage young Israeli artists and afford them an opportunity to perform.”
“The regional council stopped its support of the center in 1995, and I somehow carried on, almost on my own, and I set up an amuta [NPO] in October 1997, and that’s what we’ve been since then.”
It was a pioneering venture, in more ways than one.
“We invented the name ‘concert theater,’” Levin declares. “We were the only orchestra doing programs of that nature, with actors, singers and dancers, for youth and for children. Today all the orchestras do that, and I am very happy that it caught on.”
Levin’s original orchestral idea spread into other artistic disciplines when he made contact with Porat.
“I brought Roni to be the music director of the arts center but he wasn’t all that keen,” Levin recalls. “He said he wasn’t a music director, and that he was a conductor and composer, and that his real passion was to create theater concerts for children and for youth.
“I said: ‘how can I convince you?’ And he said: ‘if you give me an orchestra then we’ll start doing that.’ We had auditions in August or September [1992] and founded the orchestra in November.”
In fact, the union between Levin and Porat was of the former’s making. Levin, in his benevolence, used to offer studio space, free of charge, to young dance groups from all over the country – groups which couldn’t find studios to work in, or simply couldn’t afford to pay the hourly rates charged by facilities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“I only used the place for the kids in the afternoons so it was available in the mornings,” Levin explains. “I sometime used to come to the studio in the morning, to look at what they were doing, and they’d sometimes come to see what was going on, and they’d ask my advice because I had a dance background.”
One morning Levin came along and was impressed with the dynamics of the session, and with what the pianist was playing.
“They were choreographing and I asked him if this was written music, and he told he was composing as the kids danced, and that they were creating together.
And I told him: ‘I want you to come and work here.’ That was Roni Porat. So that’s how it happened.”
Porat was on board until 2004, after which Talia Ilan took over the conductor’s reins.
Over the years the orchestra has put on all manner of show with the express purpose of drawing children into the world of classical and orchestral music, and to offer musicians a stage and, of course, to provide kids and their parents with entertainment and cultural value for their hard-earned cash. The ISO has also performed material for grownups too, including Fantasy for Chimpanzee and Orchestra – based on Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story A Report to an Academy, which was included in the Israel Festival 1999 lineup.
“It was with the actor-director Yehuda Almagor,” Levin recalls. “It was a bit ahead of its time. The musicians played while they walked around the stage, they spoke text and danced.”
Today, audiences – of all ages – have been accustomed to accommodating and enjoying such diverse visual and aural fare. Might have something to do with Levin and his crowd.
For more information about the Israeli Stage Orchestra : (02) 990-8676 or