Grande Dame

The Israel Festival marks its 50th anniversary.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 521 (photo credit: John Swannell)
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 521
(photo credit: John Swannell)
THIS MAY AND JUNE THE Israel Festival in Jerusalem marks its 50th anniversary with an array of some 50 international and Israeli performances encompassing music, dance and theater.
Fourteen of the works are world premieres.
While most of the performances are held in and around the Jerusalem Theater complex, some are held in Holon, Dimona, and other cities around the country, in an attempt to expand the buzz and experience of the festival.
“Our Jubilee year is an achievement that cannot be taken lightly,” says Yossi Tal-Gan, the festival’s CEO and program director, who notes that despite the country’s turbulent history, the Israel Festival has never been canceled and, with very few exceptions, international artists have all shown up.
The festival has attained a respectable spot in the pecking order of top international festivals.
“The Israel Festival,” wrote the “International Festival Association” magazine, “is an excellent example of the importance of cross-cultural dialogue beyond the borders of Europe.”
Over the years, dozens of new festivals have popped up in Israel. Today almost every city boasts at least one, most with a specific niche: Safed has its klezmer festival; Karmiel, a folk-dance festival; Eilat, the Red Sea Jazz Festival; Acre, a fringe theater festival.
“But Jerusalem’s remains the grande dame, the prestigious festival of festivals,” Tal-Gan tells The Jerusalem Report.
Traditionally, the festival opens each year with the world premiere of an Israeli work.
Nineteen years ago, the Batsheva Dance Company electrified audiences with Ohad Naharin’s “Anaphase,” which went on to become one of the company’s most celebrated works with over 2,000 performances in Israel and abroad. This year the company hopes to recreate the magic with the premier of a new work, “Sadeh21.”
Altogether, 19 countries are represented in this year’s festival. A concert by opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the celebrated New Zealand soprano, is expected to draw large crowds. And the modern dance Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform in Jerusalem for the last time before it disbands forever on December 31. Berlin’s Schaubühne Theater will present Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in which six actors play all the characters.
Russian movie and TV star Sergey Makovetsky will star in the title role of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”
THE ISRAEL FESTIVAL BEGAN IN 1961 as a modest classical music festival in two venues, Caesarea’s Roman amphitheater and Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium. No one seems to remember who performed at the inaugural event. Tal-Gan, who has been associated with the festival for 19 years, “more than anyone else around here,” searched the archives and has been able to come up with only two names, the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern – certainly, by any standards, a promising beginning.
In 1982, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, ever alert for opportunities to promote the city, convinced the government that the festival should be moved to Jerusalem. It was then that it morphed into a multidisciplinary, multicultured performing arts festival.
Among the highlights over the years was a death-defying tightrope walk between West and East Jerusalem over the Valley of Hinnom in 1986 by French high-wire artist Philippe Petit. Accompanied by music, Petit easily ambled on the high wire while some 20,000 people, among them Kollek, gawked from below.
Also in the 1980s, dancers of the Japanese butoh dance troupe, Sankai Juku, with their heads shaven and their bodies covered with white makeup, propelled head first in eerie mysteriousness down the walls of the Old City at the pace of a slow moving glacier.
On the controversial side, there was the 2001 encore by conductor Daniel Barenboim of a composition by Richard Wagner, whose works are not played in Israel because of their association with the Nazis. For a second encore Barenboim asked the audience if they would like to hear something by Wagner. A 30-minute discussion ensued with some members of the audience protesting loudly and banging doors as they left. The great majority stayed. Barenboim took full responsibility, saying that the festival management was not to blame.
There were years when terrorist bombings kept tourists away but the roster of artists who appeared still reads like the A-list of the performing arts world: Dizzy Gillespie, the Kirov Ballet, Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti, Joe Cocker, Bobby McFerrin, Carlos Jobim, Peter Brook, Jessye Norman, Joan Baez, Mikis Theodorakis, Leonard Bernstein and many more.
“Artists like to come here because they enjoy the atmosphere and they keep telling us that we have a very intelligent and warm public that knows how to appreciate a good performance,” says Tal-Gan.
A few weeks before the festival Tal-Gan ticks off a list of prayers: that no one will cancel, that more tickets will be sold, that there will be no embarrassing logistical mishaps, and that “please God, there be no political or security upheavals.”