Facing the music

They have been threatened with closure many times. But the JSO's players believe the latest budget cuts may be the grand finale.

symphony 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
symphony 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On a mild summer evening, the Henry Crown Auditorium in the Jerusalem Theater was engulfed in melodies of Northern Europe. Arrayed in finest evening dress - the men in tuxedos, the women in sleek black gowns - the musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra ventured into the realms of Odin and Thor, of Vikings and Valkyries. The program, entitled Northern Lights and the latest of the JSO's Musical Discoveries Series, focused on works of the little known Scandinavian composers Sibelius, Nielsen and Berwald. Behind the musicians' unflappable demeanor, as they concentrated on their playing, lay the sure knowledge that unless funds are acquired by July 15 to compensate for a 60 percent budget cut, Northern Lights signified a cold end to an orchestra just shy of its 70th birthday. The choice of obscure composers was deliberate. "These are different pieces," says principal bassoonist Richard Paley. "Only we do things like this." Paley and his colleagues explain that rather than focusing their energies on popular pieces like Beethoven's Fifth, the JSO has considered it its mission to introduce lesser known pieces to the Israeli public and beyond. A radio orchestra, the JSO is broadcast all over Israel and on 250 stations in the United States. The JSO is also the only orchestra to focus on contemporary pieces by Israeli composers - many of whose work would otherwise not be played at all, let alone gain international exposure via the radio. "Without us there would be no library of Israeli music," concludes Paley. Gershon Dembinsky, head of the Musician's Committee and a clarinetist for the JSO, believes that as a state subsidized entity, a radio orchestra has a responsibility to represent artists' creativity rather than popular preferences. "A radio orchestra has a special identity in any country… it's not dependent on the tastes of the public; it should represent the creativity of artists bringing out new pieces… [and] should be more daring, go into contemporary music, be colorful," he says. Dembinsky, who has been playing with the JSO for 30 years, reveals that his friends who play in orchestras in Europe are surprised at the variety of the JSO's repertoire. Such an approach is "what pushes a culture forward," suggests Dembinsky. "When Beethoven wrote Eroica it wasn't accepted by the public at first because of its dissonance." The JSO's programming may have worked to its detriment, admits Paley. "If people aren't familiar with the names, they're afraid to take a chance on something we can give them," he told In Jerusalem. "These are pieces that the general public would love… not only experts would appreciate this music." Paley describes the Scandinavian works of last week's performance as "big, beefy, romantic music" that echo the tradition of popular romantic composers such as Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. Players in the JSO range from young fledglings to musicians who have been with the orchestra for decades. Many are Russian immigrants, while others hail from places such as Romania, Germany, South Africa, the Czech Republic, the United States and Israel. A handful of the older players wear kippot, interspersed among them are seductively dressed female players. "The orchestra is a microcosm of life in Jerusalem - in every aspect," says Dembinsky. The Northern Lights concert was conducted by Timothy Myers, 31, a guest conductor from New York who had only a week to become acquainted with the orchestra and the repertoire. "It's very hard work because many of [the players] were seeing the pieces for the first time… It's been a wonderful challenge - in the best sense of the word - to put all of this together and learn about each other," says Myers. "We cater to all audiences," says Richard Assayas, a violinist in the JSO for 17 years and a native South African. He describes how on the one hand, the JSO performs many classical pieces, while on the other hand it recently accompanied Israeli pop star Shiri Maimon in concert in Herzliya. "We also do pop, sometimes hazzanut - that really packs the hall with Orthodox people." Of the JSO's impending closure, Assayas admits, "We are hoping for a miracle." The JSO has faced many threats of closure in its 69-year existence, and Dembinsky relates that the JSO was under threat of closure as early as 1962. There have been so many near-misses that Dembinsky developed a casual attitude toward the doomsayers' prophecies. But this time, "I'm disturbed," Dembinsky says. "I can't accept that the symphony orchestra of the capital city will be closing - it's inconceivable." In trying to explain his attachment to the orchestra, Dembinsky laughs as he grasps for the right words. "It's difficult to explain when you're an addict," he says at last. "It began with a primal love… as a 10- or 12 year-old kid I was already fascinated by the sound of this machine called the symphony orchestra… I feel lucky that when my time is up, I can thank God for a wonderful life here, and for the chance to be a part of new music." When asked how his work has changed in the course of three decades, Dembinsky says: "Getting older sharpens your musical taste, like fine wine… When I play a solo piece, I have the echoes of the past with me, producing something more ripe… the measurements are more subtle." People in the audience were shocked to learn of the orchestra's imminent demise. "I owe a great deal of my musical maturity to the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and feel a great sense of pride in them. The concert on Thursday was a perfect example of one of the great things they do - introduce music that falls outside of the usual classical vocabulary of most listeners," says Jerusalem Academy of Music student Asher Krim, 21. In contrast to the dissonant emotions of pride and sadness that surrounded the stage that night, the music of the Northern Lights concert filled the concert hall with waves of resounding strength, almost of triumph. When the last notes had faded, the audience rose in a standing ovation that lasted even after the conductor's final bow. The players in the orchestra smiled back.