Jerusalem – A city of music and masques

After 45 years of enjoying the sophisticated London Arts scene, I was afraid that Jerusalem would turn out to be somewhat of a backwater.

Oxana Yablonskaya (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oxana Yablonskaya
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I first moved to Jerusalem in 2014, I waited for the withdrawal symptoms to begin. After 45 years of enjoying the sophisticated London Arts scene, I was afraid that Jerusalem would turn out to be somewhat of a backwater.
Within a few weeks of arriving here, I was proved wrong. I recall the excitement of receiving our first brochure from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra listing artists like Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Gustavo Dudamel, Evgeny Kissin, Joshua Bell and Daniil Trifinov. It is difficult not to be moved by the opening concert of the series when the entire audience stands and sings “Hatikvah” to the accompaniment of this world-renowned orchestra.
On two occasions the conductor was Zubin Mehta, the maestro himself. In our enthusiasm we signed up for at least six concerts. Our new immigrant status allowed us to take advantage of the generous discounts, and we soon found ourselves on a regular commute to the Jerusalem International Convention Center, where the orchestra performs.
The Jerusalem Conference Center is not quite the Royal Festival Hall or Lincoln Center, but its accessibility (15 minutes by bus), buzzy ambience and enthusiastic audience more than made up for the building’s rather dated appearance.
One of the advantages of living in Jerusalem is that it is a microcosm of cultural diversity. As such it draws on the intellectual richness of its inhabitants from every part of the globe. We soon discovered that there were countless other cultural delights to be savored in the capital. For classical music buffs, there is a year-round choice of extremely high standard concerts. Jerusalem boasts at least six classical music orchestras. Among the best and most talented is the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra, which began life in 1938 as the Palestine Broadcasting Service Orchestra and was renamed the Kol Israel Orchestra in 1948, is now housed in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater. There, audiences over the years have been able to enjoy the performances of virtuosi including Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Radu Lupu and Yefim Bronfman to name just a few.
One of the most moving concerts was the 80th birthday celebration in December of Russian pianist Oxana Yablonskaya, who received a standing ovation after she performed two grueling piano concertos by Chopin and Tchaikovsky under the baton of her son, conductor and cellist Dmitri Yablonsky.
The concert took place on the fourth night of Hanukkah, when the candles were kindled on stage by a kippah-wearing lead violinist before the concert began. The festival which celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from the yoke of tyranny was a fitting tribute to the pianist.
Yablonskaya, who achieved fame in the former Soviet Union for her brilliant performances, was later blacklisted and fired from her job for applying for an exit visa. It took at least four years and a petition signed by Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and many others before she was allowed to immigrate to the US. Following a glittering international career, she decided in 2015 to “come home,” and followed in the footsteps of many of her former Soviet compatriots by making aliyah.
The arrival of musicians in the 1980s and ’90s from the former Soviet Union has added to the city’s store of talent. Jerusalem has also become a hot house of nurturing new musical talent. The Rubin Academy, which began its existence as the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music in 1933, today houses 600 students who study music and dance.
Another outstanding example of the city’s role in nurturing young talent is Lena Nemirovsky’s Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna. This international prize-winning ensemble is comprised of students from multi-cultural backgrounds, religious and secular as well as children from the Russian, Ethiopian and Arab communities. Many of the children come from deprived backgrounds. At a JSO concert held on the night of Independence Day, 21-year-old soloist Avraham Tirfe, a young violinist and Hassadna graduate of Ethiopian origin, dazzled the audience with his skillful performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.
Yet another well-known group of musicians is David Shemer’s Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, which usually performs at the historic YMCA auditorium on King David Street. The iconic building was designed by architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, who was also responsible for New York’s Empire State Building.
Together with the rest of the YMCA campus, the magnificent 600-seat venue with its distinctive mix of Byzantine and Art Deco motifs was opened in 1933. The very first concert broadcasts of the Voice of Israel radio station were transmitted live from the auditorium soon after Israel became a state.
One unique aspect of the city’s musical offerings is the endeavor to explore and perform music that includes works of a distinctly Jewish nature. Last January the Baroque orchestra staged a thrilling concert titled “Glory of the Jewish Baroque,” featuring vocal and instrumental works specifically written by European composers for Jewish communities in the 18th century. A packed auditorium listened spell-bound to these never before heard liturgical compositions that were discovered in Amsterdam.
Throughout the year and especially during the Jewish festivals, the city plays host to many cantorial and choral concerts. There are also six choirs made up of men and women who take their music very seriously and perform both in Israel and abroad.
The Jerusalem Music Center is another landmark on the city’s musical map. Founded in 1973 by legendary violinist Isaac Stern, it nestles at the foot of the Montefiore Windmill in the picturesque neighborhood of Yemin Moshe. Here in a contemporary recording studio-like setting, one can not only listen to, but also learn about music. The extremely versatile Carmel Quartet, often led by Dr. Yoel Greenberg, regularly performs there. Greenberg, who has a PhD in Musicology, presents a series of programs in Hebrew and English that explore the lives and work of the great composers by dramatizing their stories and playing their music.
Another uniquely Jerusalem musical experience can be enjoyed on Sunday evenings at the Brigham Young University on the Mount of Olives, where locals and visitors attend free classical, jazz and folk music concerts. These one-hour concerts are held in the impressive wood- and glass-fronted auditorium with its breathtaking views of the Old City. Celebrated artists perform there, including soloists from the Israel Philharmonic and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras. At the end of each concert, those attending are invited to give a voluntary cash donation to the performers. In summer it is always a good idea to arrive early, take in the view and explore the stunning landscaped gardens.
Jerusalem’s premier outdoor musical venue is Sultan’s Pool. This dramatic location overlooked by Mount Zion and the walls of the Old City plays host to many prestigious performances featuring solo artists, opera and popular music. Leonard Cohen, Sting, Jean Michel Jarre, David Broza and Israeli megastar Rita have all performed there.
For those with traditional Jewish tastes, the Klezmer Festival has now become a permanent fixture of the music scene each summer. In August, Klezmer bands from around the world gather in Jerusalem. Many of the artists are not Jewish, nevertheless they come to play, teach and participate in this distinctly Jewish festival held in venues all over town.
One very impressive aspect of the Jerusalem Performing Arts culture is the proliferation of English-speaking theater in the city. To date there are 11 very active theater companies offering an eclectic range of entertainment, from straight plays to musicals.
Perhaps the most celebrated community theater company is Encore, founded by Robert Binder and first established in Jerusalem 12 years ago. Binder has collaborated with musical director Paul Salter and a host of talented individuals who volunteer their time as actors, musicians, choreographers, set designers and backstage hands.
Binder’s vision was to build a theater company that would involve all sectors of the local community. The result has been a successful series of Broadway shows including their recent revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which played to packed houses. Those attending the shows for the first time are often amazed at how professional are the productions, with the lead actors and their supporting casts delivering dazzling performances. One of the company’s rising stars is South African born Aviella Trapido, who effortlessly hit the high Cs in her recent portrayal of Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance.
Jerusalem far outranks Tel Aviv when it comes to English-speaking entertainment. Much has to do with the English-speaking aliyah over the last few decades from the USA, Canada the UK, South Africa and Australia.
Recently while researching this article, I met a young American immigrant, Marty Weisel, who opened his own performing arts studio called Jet Venues in the Givat Shaul neighborhood. He directed me to a website entitled Jerusalem English Theatre (JET) Community. The site shares the listings of no less than 11 theater companies that offer English-speaking audiences a broad range of dramatic entertainment, including Shakespeare. One such venture is Beth Steinberg’s Theater in the Rough, which specializes in the outdoor staging of Shakespearean classics.
In 2015, my wife and I attended a summer production of Macbeth in the park next to the King David Hotel. Using the surrounding natural habitat of trees and rocks to enhance the work’s menacing mood, British and American actors put on a riveting performance of the Bard’s Scottish Play. Their upcoming production of Measure for Measure at Bloomfield Park this summer promises to be equally engaging.
Other prominent theater establishments are Michael Berl’s Bet Hillel Workshop and Jeff Rosenschein’s Starcatcher company.
“All these theater groups have one thing in common,” Weisel, who has taken part in many of the shows, explained to me. “They strive to create theatrical experiences of the highest standards while at the same time building a tremendous close-knit community. Those who take part come from all walks of life, from different backgrounds, religious and non-religious, and from different age groups. Everyone volunteers their time and no one gets paid, yet expenses need to be covered.”
I asked my newly acquainted ‘millennial’ friend Marty what he thought about the future of Jerusalem’s performing arts scene. He answered confidently by telling me about his latest project:
“For my generation,” he explained, “there have been some major technological advances in the way people experience entertainment. We are soon hoping to hold live performances in the intimate Jet Venue space. These performances will be attended by about 15 or so people and will be live streamed to audiences across the globe and posted on social media.”
I could not help thinking about how the Palestine Broadcasting Orchestra, now the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, had gotten started in the YMCA auditorium in the 1930s with its live broadcasts. I pondered over the difference between those pioneering days and today. In 1938 on a single evening, performances could be broadcast to a few thousand people in a small country at a relatively high cost.
By contrast, my young friend’s new venture, started on a shoe string, has the potential to go viral and reach millions around the world from his small studio in Givat Shaul. The Performing Arts scene has definitely come a long way, and far from being a “backwater,” Israel’s capital definitely ranks as one of the most vibrant and creative in the world.