Israeli music for all

The Israel Music Festival offers a host of free concerts around the country.

Uri Agnon [R] presents 'World Problems'   (photo credit: ITAY AKIROV/ YOAV TABAKMAN)
Uri Agnon [R] presents 'World Problems'
The Israel Music Festival sounds like something of a strangely generic undertaking. What, pray tell, in a nutshell, is “Israeli music”? Does it lie in the realms of, say, the works of 20th-century classical composer Paul Ben-Haim? What about the instantly recognizable velvety vocal output of iconic pop-rock singer Arik Einstein, or angst-leaning vocalist Shlomo Artzi? And what about the efforts of some of our talented jazzy guys and gals, or the output of Mizrahi musicians like Sarit Hadad or Shlomi Shabbat?
When the Israel Music Institute, the country’s first publicly owned music publishing house, which began life almost 60 years ago, instigated the said event, it talked about the festival in terms of a “celebration of Israeli music.”
Indeed, over the past 22 years, the festival, which takes place annually around the country, has proffered the glittering fruits of a wide range of composers, mostly pertaining to the contemporary classical ilk.
This year’s program, under the considered aegis of artistic director and composer Oded Zehavi, takes in a broad sweep of works, with 22 concerts lined up through October 7, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and Zichron Ya’acov. All concerts are free.
It must be said that the festival has done its bit to encourage the efforts of established and up-and-coming composers alike, and has been a stalwart champion of fresh contemporary classical input, with some more local and even more commercially leaning vibes thrown into the mix here and there. This year’s compositional roster includes works by such respected score creators as Sarah Shoham and Naama Zafran, and members of the younger generation such as 42-year-old Ziv Cojocaru and singer-songwriter Ayala Asherov.
Uri Agnon also pertains to the new breed of artists pushing the frontiers of musical expression in this country. His short opera, Word Problems, will be presented in Beersheba on October 3 (5:30 p.m.), with a second extra-festival showing at Hansen House in Jerusalem on October 5 (8:30 p.m.).
Word Problems is described as “fringe opera for four musicians-actors,” with the entire text taken from expressions and phrases found in Education Ministry-sanctioned school textbooks. Ilil Ben Canaan, herself a musician, directs.
AGNON, GREAT-GRANDSON of Nobel Prize laureate Shai Agnon, got himself a good grounding in music as a drummer, and soon entered the educational fray when he was doing his National Service. He quickly began composing and stepped into the world of theater and, subsequently, operatic domains.
Some years later he moderated a workshop based on textbooks for youth. At the same time, a friend gave him a language textbook which she had used at high school. That was an eye-opener for Agnon, and eventually led to Word Problems.
“There were syntax exercises, and there were four similar sentences relating to cause and effect,” he recalls. “The students were supposed to mark the causal word. It was a logical exercise.”
But something in the subtext caught Agnon’s eye. “The sentences were something along the lines of ‘Following Qassam rocket fire on Sderot, many children are suffering from anxiety.’ The text really interested me. There was a response to reality there, and it was also spelled out. Children suffering from anxiety could read the book, and children reading it would be infused with anxiety. The fact that this was a textbook of a seemingly apolitical subject, language, was what fired me up.”
His musician’s ear also bought into the text. “The structure and tone, the repetition, all interested me greatly from a musical standpoint, and I put that to music. After that I sat with textbooks for long hours, and assembled the texts of the opera.”
The schoolbook, for Agnon, offered far more than a means for high school students to gain good grades.
“The idea to turn the sentences into theater came from their performative nature,” he explains. “What is a textbook anyway, if not a play, which is performed countless times in classes all over the country, again and again and again?”
Agnon extrapolated from the original school material and ran with it, musically and operatically.
“The opera allows us to move away from the text, from the black on white, into a more animated and complex situation,” he notes. “The opera takes place in an abstract classroom setting, feeding off inspiration from the classroom but moving away from it. The four characters in it compose the system, with the singer as the teacher and the three instrumentalists acting as the framework within which she works.”
The composer says he is a fan of disciplinary cross-fertilization. “I really like it when musicians act as characters in the stage rather than being hidden away in the pit.”
Agnon notes he found some like-minded musicians who were happy to go along with his concept. “I am happy when the players in the opera are open to the idea. Ilil, the director, is a musician herself, and she knows how to work with the instrumentalists very well. She knows what should be naturally dramatic in the playing of each instrument, and also knows the limitations and advantages that came with the playing.”’
Agnon says he can’t wait for his slot in the festival. “We have performed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa but not yet in Beersheba, which is a special city.” There is a personal bond there, too. “By chance, my parents lived there as children. Performing in the Israel Music Festival is great fun.”
He also expresses some surprise and delight at being included in this year’s lineup. “Taking part in the festival is significant for me, personally, as a composer who mostly works outside the mainstream musical institutions, and also because I am young and also political.” Agnon is highly active on the left side of the political divide.
“I think that Oded Zehavi is making a concerted and creditable effort to introduce to the festival different voices and young composers of both genders. I hope that, during the rehearsal period, I will be able to hear as many of these voices as possible.”
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