Four score to the good for Nurit Hirsh

Perfomer extraordinaire and Israel Prize winner marks a special birthday with a series of concerts.

 NURIT HIRSH at 80: I only work with young musicians... I become infantile when I am with them. (photo credit: RAFI DALOUAH)
NURIT HIRSH at 80: I only work with young musicians... I become infantile when I am with them.
(photo credit: RAFI DALOUAH)

In these uncertain times, it’s good to know some things don’t change. Nurit Hirsh is a prime example of a constant in our lives, and in the country’s cultural and collective dynamic. Basically, it is hard to imagine an Israel without her, and vice versa.

Hirsh, songwriter and performer extraordinaire, and an Israel Prize winner to boot, has been doing her creative thing for over 70 years. Last Saturday she celebrated her 80th birthday and, naturally, lined up a string of concerts to mark the personal timeline milestone.

Epithets like “icon”, “household name” or “national symbol” get bandied about with reckless media abandon, especially when some music industry honcho has a vested financial interest in getting the artist in question’s material out to a potentially adoring public, with hopefully well-lined pockets. In Hirsh’s case the aforementioned descriptions, and any other in the way of superlative verbiage, are nothing less than apt and well-earned. 

“Who would have believed I’d get to 80? It is a revolting age,” she declares, somewhat tongue in cheek when we chat the other day. The number may be distasteful, but Hirsch shows no signs of slowing down and little in the way of joining the rest of us mortals in the natural aging process. When I visited her apartment, near the Tel Aviv beachfront a few years back, she looked at least 20 years younger than her seven-plus decades on terra firma. This time we only got to chat on the phone, but her voice continues to belie her chronological vintage, and she exudes energy and an alluring sense of bonhomie.

Since she started putting pen to music sheet – she had her first hit, with Perach Halilach (“The Lilac Flower”), almost six decades ago – Hirsch has unfurled what has not only become an integral part of our national soundtrack, she has had Jews the world over happily singing her songs too. How many of us olim knew, for instance, that the jaunty “Bashanah Haba’ah” was a Hirsch creation? And what about “Osseh Shalom Bimromav”? 

 A guitar lies across a piano. (credit: FLICKR) A guitar lies across a piano. (credit: FLICKR)

“Lots of people think it is a traditional melody or an ancient folk song,” she says. Considering its anthemic status, that’s perfectly understandable. 

Perhaps Hirsh’s longevity is down to the simple and enviable fact that she remains passionate about her work, even though she sidesteps that suggestion. “It is genetic. It is pure luck,” she exclaims. It might also be down to the company she keeps. “I only work with young musicians,” she notes. “They are so much younger than me. I become infantile when I am with them,” she laughs. 

That is surely a matter of personal generational perspective. It is hardly likely that twentysomethings consider their elders who are, say close to 40, as “young.” In recent years Hirsh has worked with the likes of 37-year-old internationally acclaimed rock-soul vocalist Ester Rada, but also with some of the few artists of her own vintage who are still around and doing the business, such as 82-year-old Israel Prize laureate crooner Yehoram Gaon. 

Hirsch's capabilities

HIRSCH IS self-effacing, almost to a fault, and is quick to sing the praise of her counterparts. “I sometimes do concerts on consecutive days. But only for a short while. But Yehoram performs every single day. He never stops. He’s a phenomenon!” 

There are not too many who would argue against attaching a similar epithet to Hirsh. It is left to her partner, Moishik Linden, to push the ego boat out a little. “In the past year, on several occasions, Nurit played two concerts on the same day,” he interjects. “That’s right,” says Hirsh, modesty set aside for a moment. 

“Do you know who Astrith Baltsan is?” she exclaims, referencing the celebrated 65-year-old classical pianist and educator. I do indeed, and had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago. “We did a series of 10 concerts three months ago – two concerts a day!” That wouldn’t be bad going for someone half her age.

Hirsh continues to keep up the pace. Her current 80-years-young-and-counting circuit has already taken in shows in Kiryat Motzkin and Petach Tikva – three gigs in just four days – with celebrated singer Isaac Sutton, her junior by around four decades, happily in tow. And there are plenty more lined up where that lot came from. On Saturday night, August 20, she will play an outdoor show in the piazza of the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv, with another slot lined up down the road at Tzavta on Friday, August 26.

And she won’t have any problem finding material to slip into her playlist. Her problem is more about how to cull around a dozen numbers from the gargantuan oeuvre of 1,600 songs she has composed. That is a scarcely credible amount, even for someone of such a “venerable” age.  

I tell her that, while I have merrily sung along to quite a few of her scores, it is simply impossible to know them all. “I have stopped counting,” she states without a hint of hubris. “That’s not important.” Once again it is left to Linden to drop in a kudo or two. “During the corona period, Nurit had no concerts. But, you know, she is incapable of sitting around doing nothing. So she wrote songs.” 

“Five hundred songs!” Hirsh enthuses, suddenly getting into the swing of things. 

Those hundreds of works span numerous styles and themes, and resonate different areas of life in these here parts. Brought up with western classical music, partly down to the fact that her father was a dab hand at operatic vocals, Hirsh gradually spread her wings and ventured into all sorts of musical areas.

Early in her career, she accompanied opera singers on piano, which she says she thoroughly enjoyed. After serving in an IDF band she enrolled at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, to study composition, where she came under the prestigious tutelage of such venerated Israeli composers as Mordechai Setter and Yehezkel Braun. She also got in some conducting lessons, and studied orchestration with world-renowned conductor, composer and arranger Noam Sheriff.

She furthered her education in the US, studying composition in New York, where she also frequented jazz venues, catching the likes of modern jazz pioneer pianist Thelonious Monk in live action, and she specialized in electronic music and movie music at UCLA. That eclectic approach, she says, informs her output to this day. 

“I wrote songs for a musical this year, for the centenary of Ein Harod. It was a fabulous show,” she bubbles. “And I have just written six songs for Yehoram Gaon which he has recorded.”

Hirsch is not averse to dipping into more “down and dirty” domains either, with some of the sounds and beats she imbibed during her stateside sojourn seasoning her work. “I wrote ‘Hashmal Zorem Bechapot Yadecha’ (“Electricity Flows through Your Hands”) [for rock singer Rutie Navon in 1973]. I am definitely influenced by rock music, but not too prominently. I am not really a rocker,” she laughs.

There have also been contributions made to pop-rock divas Yardena Arazi and the late Ofra Haza, highly fruitful synergies with the late iconic lyricist Ehud Manor, material for dance productions and movie soundtracks – including for Oscar-nominated Ephraim Kishon creation The Policeman – Eurovision entries and even a clutch of songs with English lyrics.

At this rate, the Hirsh show stands to go on for some time yet.