Jerusalem's festival

The Israel Festival, held in Jerusalem, is considered one of the more prestigious multi-disciplinary festivals in the world.

Yoram Gaon, a living, breathing Israeli icon; (right) singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoram Gaon, a living, breathing Israeli icon; (right) singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WHEN YOSSI TAL-GAN decided to leave his post as CEO and artistic director of the Israel Festival after 22 years, he wanted the last festival under his baton to be special.
The seventh generation Jerusalem native decided that, this year, alongside a dazzling array of more than 40 international and Israeli performances, he would invite Jerusalem-born artists to come home and take center stage.
“I felt that I wanted closure by focusing on artists who were born in Jerusalem and, even if they are like birds that have flown all over the world, their art is still infused with the air and scents of this city,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Homegrown talent for the festival was not hard to find. “Luckily the city has been a fertile ground for performance artists some of whom have gone on to attain international status and they are excited to come home.
They were willing to compromise on reimbursements of expenses just to participate,” he relates.
No Israeli performer is more closely associated with Jerusalem than Israel Prize Laureate Yoram Gaon, a living, breathing Israeli icon with a long career as a singer, actor, director, radio, and TV host. “I never left Jerusalem,” says Gaon, who actually resides in Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv but still has an apartment in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, where a telescope is trained on his grandparents’ graves on the Mount of Olives.
With a voice that is immediately recognizable when he sings or speaks, Gaon symbolizes tradition and deep Jerusalem roots. In his performance at Binyanei Ha’uma on June 17 he will host another Israeli icon, singer Esther Ofarim, whose crystal clear voice resonates with Israeli nostalgia.
“It makes me very happy that this year they are honoring artists with a Jerusalem connection,” Gaon tells The Report. “So much of my work has been dedicated to this city. I love Jerusalem best. For me, Jerusalem borders on the mystical. Jerusalem is a part of me all my days.”
The Israel Festival will open on May 29 and close on June 19 with two Israeli performances that, like parentheses, frame two generations of Jerusalem talent.
The gala opening will take place at the Sultan’s Pool with a tribute by 15 Israeli performers to Yossi Banai, a singer, writer and actor and one of the more prominent members of the Banai family, which has produced several generations of performing artists.
Banai, who died in 2006, grew up in the Mahane Yehuda market neighborhood. “He was very close to Jerusalem,” says Tal-Gan. “He felt Jerusalem in his bones.”
Another Jerusalemite who will return home to open on the same night is choreographer Hofesh Shechter who will bring his eponymous dance company to Jerusalem from Great Britain. The company will stage the Israeli premier of its critically acclaimed creation “Political Mother,” which The London Times reviewed as “one angry piece, delivered like a roar of defiance in the face of an omnipotent, malevolent force. It’s visceral, painful and very, very exciting.”
Shechter, who got his start with the Batsheva Dance Company, was barely a blip on the radar until 2008 when he launched into the dance stratosphere in Great Britain with his own company, now in residence at the Brighton Dome Theater.
Tal-Gan met Shechter in England some six years ago, just about the time the young choreographer experienced his first success.
“We talked about his return to perform in Jerusalem one day and it’s lucky that all the pieces fell into place,” says Tal-Gan.
The Jerusalem native who will close the curtain on this year’s festival on June 19 ispotent, soulful, female-sounding voice, Avidan has been compared to a number of great female vocalists including Janice Joplin and Nina Simone. Avidan writes his songs in English and one them, “Reckoning,” went viral on YouTube in 2012 with more than 119 million views after a German producer gave it a clubby remix. Avidan tried unsuccessfully to get the version pulled, but gave up after it hit No. 1 in 14 countries.
As for foreign talent, this year’s festival will feature France’s Gerard Depardieu and Anouk Aimée, who will stage “Love Letters, a two-actor play. Artists from Italy, Georgia, Germany, Portugal, Great Britain, and the US will stage programs ranging from classical music to jazz, traditional theater to experimental, and ballet to modern dance.
IN RECENT years, the festival has broken out of the stuffy confines of concert halls and traditional theater venues to set its stage amid the ancient stones and ramparts of the city’s historic locations. Some of this year’s events will be held in the Sultan’s Pool, an ancient water source modernized by Suleiman the Magnificent; in a former 19th century train station; the Israel Museum; the exotic early 20th century Jerusalem International YMCA; and at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Festival organizers expect to sell between 40,000 to 50,000 tickets, with many programs scheduled for the weekend to enable out-of-town visitors to spend a few days at the festival.
Over the years, dozens of new festivals have popped up in Israel and almost every city boasts one, mostly with a specific niche – Safed has a Klezmer festival; Carmiel, a folk dance festival; Eilat, the Red Sea Jazz Festival, etc. But Jerusalem’s festival, the longest and only one that is multidisciplinary, maintains its position as the most prestigious. It holds a prominent place in the pecking order of international festivals, according to Slovenian clarinetist Darko Briek, president of the European Festival Association, which has more than 100 members.
“The Israel Festival is considered one of the more prestigious multidisciplinary festivals in the world,” he tells The Report. “It’s very important, not only for its high quality, but also for the cultural bridges it builds.
Jerusalem is so rich with so many different cultures and nationalities living together that it’s very important that this festival is held there.”
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 searched though the archives and found only two names, the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern, certainly, by any standards, a promising beginning.
In 1982, Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek, ever alert for opportunities to promote his city, convinced the government to move the festival to Jerusalem. It then morphed into a multidisciplinary, multicultural performing arts festival.
Among the highlights over the years was a death-defying tightrope walk between West and East Jerusalem over the Hinnom Valley in 1986 by French high-wire artist Philippe Petit. Also in the 1980s, dancers of the Japanese Butoh dance troupe, Sankai Juku, with their heads shaven and 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 due to their association with Nazi Germany. 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 banging doors as they left. Barenboim took full responsibility saying the festival management was not to blame.
There were years when terrorist bombings kept tourists away but, controversies aside, the roster of artists who have appeared reads like the A-list of the performing arts world: Dizzy Gillespie, The Kirov Ballet, the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Ricardo Muti, Joe Cocker, Bobby McFerrin, Carlos Jobim, Peter Brook, Jessye Norman, Joan Baez, Mikis Theodorakis, Leonard Bernstein, and many more.
Tal-Gan is proud that over the years the Israel Festival has helped launch the careers of up and coming young Israeli artists. “We don’t only aim to just bring the stars but also to find and expose young Israeli artists and give them their chance,” he says.
One such Israeli troupe is the Tel Avivbased Clipa Theater, which will appear this year for the seventh time in a site-specific avant-garde piece to be performed at the Israel Museum. “The exposure we got at the Israel Festival created the reputation of the group and our participation along the years has helped design our artistic agenda,” says Idit Herman, the theater’s artistic director.
In the long, covered entrance corridor to the museum with natural light streaming in, Clipa will present a “breathing exhibition,” on the fluid borderline between performance and visual art. The work “Forever/Never” offers six, two-minute sequences that will be repeated several times based on the connection between beauty and violence. The audience will be free to move around from one to the other.
This show is the latest in a series of site-specific events created by Clipa for the Israel Festival over the years. Past productions include “Deus Ex Machina,” which took place at the lake of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and the transformation of the Underground Prisoners Museum into a labyrinth of stories by Kafka.
“Each site carries behind it a huge wake of history,” says Herman, “just like the city itself.”