It takes a festival

Did the Abu Ghosh Festival make the village a success, or is the event a hit because of the picturesque location?

311_a cappella (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_a cappella
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Abu Ghosh Festival will take place for the 38th time, from September 29 to October 2. Even if you take into account that it takes place twice a year, 19 years of presenting predominantly ecclesiastic vocal music in a row isn’t bad going. Festival producer Gershon Cohen attributes much of the event’s ongoing success to the setting and the content.
“[Artistic director] Hannah Tzur has worked very hard to put together attractive programs for 14 years,” says Cohen. “I don’t think there is anyone else in the country who could do her job so well.”
The forthcoming program is a mix of tried-and-tested staples and some surprising artistic departures.
“You have to have the regular items, like Fauré’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem,” Cohen continues. “The public always goes for them and the other standard works. You have to provide for those tastes.”
But there are also normally a few surprises to be had along the way.
“Art cannot stand still,” Cohen declares. “You have to move with the times, and you also have to try to break into new market areas and draw in new sectors of the public.”
There are a number of concerts at next week’s festival that seem to be tailored to do just that. Consider, for example, the Songs of the Soul – The Great American Folk Singers concert on October 1. The repertoire for the show appears to be customized for Anglos and Israelis who were brought up on a musical diet that dates back to the 1960s and ’70s. The concert program almost sounds like a playlist of an AM radio show of yesteryear, including songs by artists such as of Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Leonard Cohen.
There is more “outreach” entertainment on offer on the last day of the festival, at the From Paris to London concert, which features an eclectic roster that takes in a couple of French offerings – a sonata for mandolin and mandola by Baroque composer-violinist Jean-Marie Leclair and two French songs arranged by Benjamin Britten – with the English contribution to the concert including Handel’s Spanish Cantata, the ever-popular “Greensleeves” and an intriguing rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill.”
The second October 2 slot covers even more expansive musical territory. The Lark’s Song and the Magic Flute, which the festival brochure places in the From Mozart to Irish Folk Songs category, features some highlights from Mozart’s oeuvre, including a duet from The Magic Flute and an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Then there is Gershwin’s ubiquitous “Summertime,” as well as Leonard Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty,” three Irish songs and a local contribution in the form of David Zehavi’s “Hehalil.”
“I believe you have to offer the audience something new and, to a degree, keep them guessing,” Cohen observes. “You have to have the long-standing favorites, but I think you also have to try something out of the box. If you only stick to what you know, you’re going to lose out on the other stuff, and that would be a shame. There are always new and exciting things happening in music.”
Mind you, it helps your marketing strategy to have a picturesque location for your artistic wares. “Abu Ghosh is a beautiful spot,” says Cohen, “and it combines so many ethnic and cultural elements. The people who come to the concerts are Jews, the performances take place in churches, and the village is entirely Muslim.”
Still, some may say that – to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – a church is a church is a church. However arresting the interior setting may be, it is the extramural environs that generally provide the added value. With that in mind, Cohen and Tzur have, for some years now, included some alfresco musical sessions in the festival lineup, with community singing events featuring works by the likes of Verdi and Ehud Manor.
“We have outdoor events at five different spots in Abu Ghosh, with several hours of a wide-ranging repertoire,” explains Cohen. “It’s sort of high-quality community singing, and we give out sheets with the words of the songs. Members of the public are given the opportunity to sing opera and material by Israeli poets and composers. It’s great fun.”
Cohen also says that, over the years, the festival has become increasingly home based. While ensembles come over from Britain, Germany, Russia and other countries, the contingent of Israeli artists in the program is constantly increasing.
“I often hang around outside the churches and other festival venues and, after the concert, I ask members of the audience how they enjoyed the show. Many of them have told me that there is no need to bring artists from abroad, as we have plenty of gifted musicians of our own. They are absolutely right. The level of musicianship in Israel has risen dramatically in the past 10 years or so.”
There have been other, non-musical, changes in the area during the festival’s lifetime. “When we started the festival 19 years ago, there was one restaurant in Abu Ghosh. Jews hardly came here back then. Now there are dozens of restaurants and other businesses that are doing well. That’s all because of the festival.”
That first eatery, the Caravan restaurant, has been around for six decades. Owner Tabett Abu Ghosh agrees with Cohen’s take on the symbiotic economic relationship between the village and the musical get-together.
“The festival has helped our business a lot, and the rest of Abu Ghosh, too,” says the restaurateur. “People from all over the country who would not otherwise visit Abu Ghosh come here to eat and shop during the festival. I like to see Israelis having a good time here. It’s good for business and for the soul.”
Meanwhile, owner of the Abu Ghosh restaurant Jawdat Ibrahim has a different take on the festival-time influx. “Yes, it’s good for the village that Jewish Israelis come to visit and eat and buy things here,” he says, “but the festival takes place on religious holidays – on Succot and Shavuot – and people come here at those times and on Shabbat anyway. In fact, we get too many people at the restaurant, and that has a detrimental effect on the quality of our service. We can’t handle the volume of business. I think it would be better to hold the festival in the middle of the week and not on a religious holiday. That way, it would bring in business at times when there are normally fewer visitors.”
Ibrahim knows a thing or two about bringing in the crowds. On January 8, the former Chicago resident and his staff set a new benchmark in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s biggest serving of humous – 4,090 kg. “That was a lot of fun and brought thousands of people and dozens of media people to the village. But I believe Abu Ghosh made the festival a success, not the other way round.”
Either way, the festival carries on packing them in, and Cohen is already planning the next edition.
“Next year we will celebrate our 20th anniversary. We’re planning something extra special for that,” he promises.

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