Sounds like the desert

The Tzlilim Bamidbar Festival at Sde Boker celebrates 22 years with a stellar lineup

THE MEITAR ENSEMBLE is one of the attractions at Tzlilim Bamidbar.  (photo credit: YUVAL AVITAL)
THE MEITAR ENSEMBLE is one of the attractions at Tzlilim Bamidbar.
(photo credit: YUVAL AVITAL)
Tzlilim Bamidbar (Sounds in the Desert) must be the best-kept secret on the entire national cultural calendar. Not that it lacks audiences, but it takes places annually – as it has for a full 22 years to date – far from the madding crowd and spotlights of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and any of the country’s other major urban centers.
The next edition of the festival runs December 25-28 down at Sde Boker in the Negev. That’s just about as far as you can get off the beaten track. But the fact of the matter is, the festival has been attracting people from all over the place from the get-go. Much of that is due to Prof. Michael Wolpe who founded the event and has served as its artistic director throughout.
Wolpe actually lives on Kibbutz Sde Boker, and when he’s not involved in Tzlilim Bamidbar, he keeps himself out of mischief teaching at various educational institutions, conducting, playing the piano and composing. Wolpe is a prime example of cultural egalitarianism. In his book there is no such thing as “high” or “low” culture, and that comes across loud and clear in all his lineups.
Even the most cursory of glances at his year’s program, for example, reveals his all-embracing ethos. And the country’s musical community clearly appreciates his approach, with many of its leading members happy to make the trip down South for the occasion. Next week’s roster includes the names of mega-star Mizrahi singer Sarit Hadad, Arabic-music fueled rock star Dudu Tasa, a tribute to iconic ‘60s pop entertainment troupe Hatarnogolim delivered by the ever-accommodating Revolution Orchestra, and there will be a slew of tribute shows to some of our departed greats, including preeminent songstress Naomi Shemer, pop singer-guitarist Uzi Hitman and rock-pop vocalist Meir Banai.
That’s even without mentioning the contributions by no less than three ensembles from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (JAMD). The festival curtain-raiser features the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra which will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 1 – in a nod to the upcoming 250th anniversary of the great composer’s birth. The opener also takes in Three Orchestral Moments by Haim Tukachinsky, an extremely gifted pianist and composer, whom Wolpe taught at the Jerusalem Academy, and who was tragically killed in a road accident last year at the age of 30.
The Jerusalem music school will also provide the Madrasa Andalusian music group that plays contemporary music from North Africa, while the institution’s big band will perform the Dance Party in Harlem show.
The Meitar Ensemble will be one of the biggest contributors to the four-day proceedings, performing a wide range of material, from rock-inflected numbers alongside Micha Shitreet, the aforementioned Shemer tribute and, most intriguingly, a concert based on scores written by young composers from the Negev. “Anything to do with promoting young male and female composers is one of the most important items on our agenda,” states Amit Dolberg, pianist and artistic director of Meitar.
The ensemble has plenty of “previous.” “For some years now, each year we run two projects at Tzlilim Bamidbar. One is with a local singer. This year it is Micha Shitreet. The other is a project with composers – children and youth – who write for us. Generally that means composers aged 12-18.”
Meitar also runs Tedarim, a specialized master’s degree program, at the JAMD, which focuses on the performance practices of solo, chamber and ensemble works form the 20th and 21st centuries. The students on the program, who come from all over the world, work on the repertoire with members of the Meitar ensemble.
There is also the annual CEME – Contemporary Encounter Meitar Ensemble – international new music festival which takes place in Tel Aviv, Netanya and Jerusalem that features such renowned creators as 84-year-old German composer Helmut Lachenmann and 60-year-old Canadian composer Philippe Leroux.
An internationally renowned ensemble, such as Meitar, playing a work written by a 12-year-old lad or lass sounds truly astounding. Without wanting to sound too ageist that really is surprising, although not if you put it in the context of a certain late 18th-century Austrian composer who began producing scores of artistic value at the age of five.
THEN AGAIN, Mozarts don’t come along too often. It seems the young talents also get a helping hand with their creations.
“There are some really gifted children here who work with very serious teachers,” Dolberg points out, adding that the festival honcho casts his eminent oar in the creative process.
“The main teacher here is Michael Wolpe. The kids are supremely talented, and they get guidance. They also sit with us, several times, ahead of the concert.”
Despite his years of experience, of working with Negev youngsters, Dolberg says he is always surprised by the quality of material the teenagers produce.
“Every single year there are works that make me happy, and are really good. We are in a really good place [in terms of our classical music compositional talent]. The new generation is amazing. And it is incredible how many there are.”
Dolberg does not adopt the avuncular stance of the all-knowing, well-seasoned professional casting a learned – not to say over-critical – eye over the offerings of the novice writers. I put it to him that it must be quite a boost for any budding composer to have his work actually see the light of day, and be heard by an audience. But Dolberg says it is very much a two-way street.
“Yes, of course it is encouraging for the composer, but it also encourages me. This is not a matter of our good-heartedness. It is also my dream to play their music. The encounter with them, with these incredibly serious children, who invested months upon months in their work, is amazing. We get very good music to perform. We feel blessed.”
The truth is that Dolberg and the rest of the Meitar gang are at the forefront of sparking composers here, and abroad, to put pen to paper – or settle down in front of their computer screen – to create sounds, textures and rhythms that feed off here and now energies and sensibilities. As far as Dolberg is concerned his, and his cohorts’ interest in the incipient creative efforts from Sde Boker’s own back yard is a given.
“We are a contemporary music ensemble,” he notes. “That is what we do. That means we are dependent on the composers no less than they need us. We need them. Without them there’s not much we can do. We have been working with children and youth composers for some years now. We give them a professional, supportive and very serious platform.”
Dolberg says he and his colleagues always look forward to the Negev event, and says it is an important fixture on the country’s cultural agenda.
“Tzlilim Bamidbar is a symbol, of a place where the public can be exposed to all kinds of music – classical, contemporary, popular.” He is equally enamored with the festival’s home base line of thought.
“They also give generous room for expression to local forces, and there are lots of them. That’s the real story here – not that Meitar is playing. This is a local festival that supports the promoting of its own community that is very unique. Well, what can you expect from people like Michael Wolpe and [festival producer] Eitan Peer? They have a vision and they run with it.”
In a virtual, globalized world, Tzlilim Bamidbar is a breath of fresh air, and a shot in the arm for people who love music, and those of a more creative bent who want to get the fruits of labors out there. It is a fair beat that people who attend Meitar’s concerts don’t spend too much of their spare cash on shows by pop giants such Shlomo Artzi or Rita. But Dolberg says he and other like-minded musicians are not looking to compete with anyone, nor do they think in terms of educating their listeners to adopt a more eclectic stance towards the sounds they hear.
“We are not opening a music academy with our concerts. That’s not our thing,” Dolberg states. “We don’t want to make life difficult for people. But we do look for people who are open, who also take a critical approach. I have absolutely no problem with that. If people are open it is not a matter of accommodating something, it is a matter of getting to know the music. That’s what it is all about.”
With entertainment and activities for children, and all the family, and hikes around the vicinity also in the festival lineup, Tzlilim Bamidbar really does offer something for everyone.
For tickets and more information: (08) 656-4115 and