Tom Cohen: Crossing the east-west lines, and back

The orchestra is also due to perform at the Jerusalem Theatre on November 11 (9 p.m.), as part of this year’s Pianos Festival.

 TOM COHEN, the founder-conductor of The Jerusalem East and West Orchestra. (photo credit: DANIEL KAMINSKY)
TOM COHEN, the founder-conductor of The Jerusalem East and West Orchestra.
(photo credit: DANIEL KAMINSKY)

Tom Cohen recently had himself a little weightlifting workout. Not that the 38-year-old founder-conductor of The Jerusalem East and West Orchestra (TJO) was planning on flexing his muscles too much on September 27. But then he got to take the stage at the annual Altin Objektif (Golden Lens) Awards of the Magazine Journalists Association, in Istanbul and was duly presented with a gold statuette for the orchestra’s ongoing endeavor to generate a sense of unity between people of different backgrounds and across seeming political divides.

This wasn’t the Oscar, which – lofty global pecking order ranking notwithstanding – comes in at a relatively puny 3.8 kg. “It weighs around 15 kilos!” Cohen exclaims. “I almost dropped it while I was making my acceptance speech.”

He says that representing an Israeli ensemble at an awards ceremony in Turkey – the first orchestra from here to achieve that – still hasn’t fully sunk in. “Even though I was there and I have watched it since on video, it stills feels like a hallucination,” he laughs. “I still don’t understand exactly what happened, and how it happened. And it’s hard to know how it will affect the future because it took place at a time when it is hard to assess its impact.”

The prestigious prize came TJO’s way in recognition of its “peace-oriented works,” and its role in helping to bridge gaps between different ethnic groups and religions. Cohen’s address in Istanbul spelled out the orchestra’s credo and the driving force behind its musical output.

“The new musical language my colleagues in the orchestra and I have created has given us much more than wonderful musical moments,” he explained to his audience. “It has taught me and my friends – virtuosic musicians from the three [main monotheistic] religions – important lessons: that we are far more alike than we think, that we must celebrate the differences between us because this variety generates riches and, most importantly, that together we can achieve wonderful and spectacular results.”

Stirring words indeed, which reflect the spirit and fervor that clearly flow through Cohen’s and all the musicians’ veins.

THAT PASSION will make its tangible presence felt in the TJO’s Queen from Turkey series, with concerts taking place up and down the country November 7-25. Sharing the spotlight with Cohen at the front of the stage will be Linet Menasheh – known professionally simply as Linet – an Israeli-born singer who enjoys great popularity in her parents’ country of birth, Turkey. One of the concert highlights will be a rendition of “Walls of Clay,” sung in Hebrew and Turkish, which played a part in bringing the TJO to the attention of culture consumers and the media in Turkey and helped pave the way to the aforementioned award.

Jerusalem Theatre (credit: Rebecca Crown Auditorium)Jerusalem Theatre (credit: Rebecca Crown Auditorium)

The orchestra is also due to perform at the Jerusalem Theatre on November 11 (9 p.m.), as part of this year’s Pianos Festival. The festival marks the 230th anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with the orchestra’s Mozart in the Levant production taking the fêted Austrian composer’s works out of imperial Austria and closer to this neck of the cultural woods. The concert is based on a fascinating concept and will feature four Mozart-inspired works, written by Guy Mintus, Nizar Elkhater and Prof. Michael Wolpe, with all three playing their own charts as solo pianists along with the ensemble. Wolpe is also the founding artistic director of the Pianos Festival.

The innovative form of musical communication Cohen noted at the Golden Lens Award ceremony has evolved over time, and now has its very own moniker. “In the past year it has become known as Levant Music,” he says, adding that suited the official pat on the back he and his ensemble received in Istanbul. “I mentioned in my speech that for an orchestra that plays Levant music, it was particularly moving to receive the prize in one of the most important Levantine cities in history.”

Cohen says he has long pondered the intercultural fusion and that it is largely down to the manifold cultural strands that are core to his home patch. “I was always looking to meld east and west, to utilize the amazing abilities of the people in the orchestra, and how to present the music to people in Israel where all the various musical traditions, regardless of whether they are from Arabic music or Viennese European music, live in Israel as in their natural habitat, and not as guests just passing through.”

His musings gradually took on sonic form, found their way into auditoria around the country and the globe. “Over the years a musical style developed whereby the Arabic maqam (place) [system] takes on western harmony, and eastern groove and rhythmics take on the form of a western rhythm section, which can even become American in places.”

THAT IS all well and good, and there are many professionals and fans alike who are happy to go along with the musical flow whither it takes them. But there are always the fervent guardians of the roots, the genre police who would not stand for what they considered extraneous incursions into cultural territories they hold dear and sacred.

Cohen was not immune to criticism for his broad-minded approach to creating hitherto inconceivable stylistic marriages. “For the first few years of my career that was considered scornful. There were those who said the music was not sufficiently authentic, that I was disrespectful of the source, or that I was commercializing the music.”

Undeterred, Cohen maintained his cross-cultural continuum and, eventually, got the thumbs up from the best possible quarters. “I got my seal of approval in 2016 when I was invited to Morocco to set up an orchestra there.” He was flattered by the offer, but also a little flustered. “I asked them ‘why me?’ I told them they already have numerous orchestras there. They said they don’t have anyone who performs our music the way that you do.” And so the Symphonyat orchestra came into delightful multilayered musical being.

Cohen’s various orchestral pursuits draw eclectic global fan bases. Their YouTube clips are getting millions of hits, including from Turkey.

In truth, with Polish and Iraqi familial roots, Cohen was always going to follow a bifurcated professional pathway. “When I was a kid it wasn’t considered cool to be Mizrahi and then, when I was a little older it wasn’t cool to be Ashkenazi,” he laughs. “I was lucky to grow up in a house where you could hear [French Romantic classical composer] Camille Saint-Saëns, [Egyptian diva] Oum Kulthoum and [French jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli in the same afternoon without saying one was high culture and the other was low. When I started out in the world of music I couldn’t grasp the stupid idea of hierarchy in music. It just didn’t make sense.”

Cohen and the TJO have been making sense to audiences of all cultural and musical stripes for some time now, and should summarily woo their audiences at the Pianos Festival and further down their new series line, with intriguing confluences lined up with the likes of ethnic rocker Ehud Banai and venerated singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein on the orchestra’s multifarious agenda.

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