Half a century and still going strong

This year’s Israel festival, the 50th, brings many of greatest names in art and music to what some in West perceive to be a cultural backwater.

Phillippe Petit walks tightrope across Ben-Hinom Valley 521 (photo credit: Yaakov Saar)
Phillippe Petit walks tightrope across Ben-Hinom Valley 521
(photo credit: Yaakov Saar)
Fifty years is a hefty slice of time for anyone, but for an arts festival to run that long – especially in a part of the world that has had its fair share of disruptive incidents – is well nigh miraculous.
This year, the Israel Festival, the premier cultural event in the national calendar, completes five decades of artistic derring-do. The festival has relocated, expanded and added new areas of entertainment fare, but it has survived through war and peace, thick and thin, and the odd spot of controversy.
In the latter regard, 10 years ago conductor Daniel Barenboim presided over a highly successful concert at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC). There had been some pre-festival talk about Barenboim doing a number of Wagner works, but due to the anti-Semitism and Holocaust connotations associated with the German composer, Barenboim seemingly agreed that he and the Staatskapelle orchestra of Berlin would steer clear of him. However, at the close of the official concert program, which featured Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, and which sparked rapturous applause from the packed audience, the conductor turned to the audience and said he would like to play something by Wagner after all.
In fairness to Barenboim, he said he would fully understand it if some people preferred to leave. In fact, some did leave, and others shouted their disapproval while the Wagner piece was being played.
Yet despite its few dark moments, the festival has proven a prestigious and enduring institution.
Gideon Paz has certainly seen some ups and downs in his long association with the event.
“I was director of the festival in 1982 and 1983, and I was also a board member for a long time,” Paz explains, adding that he had done his best to help from abroad, too. “I was head of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation from 1965, so I had direct access to people in the States.”
Paz is quick to acknowledge the great contribution made by the event’s first director, Zvi Aaron Propes – who, one presumes, would have been delighted with how his baby has grown. Propes laid the foundation for the current event with a summer music festival at the Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea. It was not an entirely auspicious beginning.
“It was a wonderful idea, but the amphitheater had not even been restored back then,” Paz recalls. “It was not anything like the wonderful facility there today.”
That initial summer musical program was part of a tourism drive, and got pretty decent official backing from the get-go. “Propes worked at the Tourism Ministry, which was then part of the Prime Minister’s Office,” says Paz. “Teddy Kollek was then the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, so he helped pushed things along, too.”
It smacks of neat closure, then, that the festival largely relocated to Jerusalem in 1982 while Kollek was the mayor.
Paz says that although Propes had the right idea, he did not possess all the skills required to take the festival to the next level.
“He didn’t really have fund-raising acumen, and he wasn’t good at finding backers, but he was excellent at nurturing contacts with the great names in the music world,” observes Paz. Early recruits to the event included the likes of violinist Isaac Stern, violinist- conductor Alexander Schneider and legendary cellist Pablo Casals. “Propes got a really good program together for the 1961 festival, and that set a benchmark for the future.”
There was some more substantial value to the festival, as well. “After the first one, the authorities managed to convince the Rothschild family to fund the restoration of the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea. So you could say that the Israel Festival was responsible for that great venue we have there today,” says Paz.
Paz used his connections in the American cultural community to help Propes recruit artists for the festival and, on his return to Israel in 1970, Paz joined the festival’s management board. By that time, the event’s artistic stretch had widened appreciably and begun to target a far wider consumer sector.
“We didn’t just make do with classical artists, we also brought people like [jazz singer] Cleo Laine, the old timers from New Orleans, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Greek theater,” he says.
While the festival became increasingly eclectic, Paz says care was always taken to promote local artistic work. “We always had the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and hosted the premiere of a new Israeli work.” But the festival is far from Israel-centric and has always done its best to accommodate a wide range of genres and offer the public the best from around the world.
According to Paz, “the festival commissioned and premiered a new work by [Igor] Stravinsky, Abraham and Isaac [in 1963].”
At the time, the composer said the work was “dedicated to the people of the State of Israel.” Stravinsky agreed to set the story in Hebrew, which he did not speak, but he quickly connected with the musical qualities of the language.
“I began to compose Abraham and Isaac because of the attractions of the Hebrew language as sound,” Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “because of the subject, and, not least, because I wanted to leave a token of my gratitude to the people of Israel.”
That certainly helped put the festival on the global map, and there have been some spectacular headline-grabbing activities in the program, including a high-wire performance by French daredevil Philippe Petit. Petit traversed the space above Ben-Hinom Valley, from Derech Hebron to the Old City, for the opening of the 1987 festival under Kollek’s auspices, in an act dubbed “Walking the Harp – A Bridge for Peace.”
The festival, however, got some adverse publicity at a 1999 concert by legendary Beatles producer George Martin at the ICC. Martin came here to perform a program of numbers by the Fab Four, with a choir, a classical ensemble and several leading local pop and rock singers, including the likes of Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Danny Robas and Hemi Rudner. Unfortunately, during the concert, someone ran off with some of the scores to songs Martin planned to perform in the second half of the program. An impassioned plea was issued for the return of the scores and, thankfully, they were restored to their rightful owner.
Although in Western eyes, Israel may be seen as something of a cultural backwater that must have struggled to persuade even middle-tier artists to come perform, Paz says the opposite is true – and that in many respects, things are tougher today.
“All the top musicians and artists wanted to come here to play back then,” he says. “In many cases, coming to Israel was then ‘the thing to do.’ We didn’t have the negative image we now have.”
Paz feels that the Israel Festival provides an ideal vehicle for pushing the artistic boat out.
“It’s a subsidized event, so you can take risks,” he says. “In 1976 the classical side of the program was dedicated to works by Schoenberg. That’s pretty daring, and something you can only really put on with something like this festival.”
Paz took over the mantle of festival head himself in 1982 and 1983, although it transpired that his timing was off. “The Lebanon War broke out and a lot of artists canceled,” he recalls. “It’s a shame it didn’t work out when I was director.”
ODED KOTLER, who ran the festival from 1985 to 1990, says he also took advantage of the generous funding available for the event and endeavored to bring over large productions, as well as extra-mainstream items.
“The main idea was to bring things to Israel that no other concert organizer could afford to do,” says Kotler.
“We brought over the great Frankfurt Opera House for a performance of Othello, and we had the Polish Royal Opera doing [Mussorgsky’s opera] Boris Godunov at the Sultan’s Pool. That was really spectacular. We also had Peter Brook’s production of Carmen.”
Kotler says he was also keen to “bring culture to the people.”
“We had street performers doing all sorts of things at different spots in Jerusalem,” he remembers. “This wasn’t some routine parade of clowns, we had theater and the plastic arts. I remember a wonderful wall painting which Eldad Ziv created on a wall of the old Zion Hotel in the center of Jerusalem. I’m sorry they don’t have that at the Israel Festival anymore. Sometimes the cost of the tickets prevents less well-off Israelis from going to the shows. I believe the festival should be accessible to everyone.”
Kotler says he also had his fair share of catastrophes and technical hitches to deal with.
“That’s part and parcel of such large events,” he acknowledges. “But when you have a director who keeps the audience out of the auditorium because the scenery has been placed 20 cm. from the center of the stage and he is not willing to do the show because of that, you can really lose your marbles. You swallow your pride, do whatever he wants and later realize why in other places in the world people take pains to produce professional shows, while here we are not always as professional as we could be.”
While Kotler is all for offering the general public some more accessible entertainment, Paz begs to differ.
“I think the Israel Festival should be elitist,” he asserts. “I think it’s important to aim for the very highest level of art, even if it means that some people won’t be able to enjoy or understand it.”
THE CURRENT director of the festival, Yossi Tal-Gan, has been at the helm for 20 years. He, too, has had to contend with some unexpected developments.
“In 1998 we included a tribute to [director-playwright] Nissim Aloni in the festival. All the big stars, like Gila Almagor and Yossi Banai, were lined up to perform excerpts from Aloni’s works. Aloni died earlier that day, and we had a sold-out audience,” he recalls. “We decided not to say anything about it before the show. The actors performed, the audience enjoyed every minute. Then, at the end, Yossi Banai came onto the stage and placed Aloni’s picture and a bouquet of flowers in the middle. Aloni’s death was announced, the whole audience stood for two minutes of silence. That was very moving.”
Tal-Gan’s term has spanned some troublesome times for the country, including two intifadas.
“There were times when some artists did not want to come, for political or security reasons but, [knock on wood], we haven’t had any problems for the last seven or eight years. Today there are security problems in other parts of the world, so I think artists understand better what goes on here and they have less trouble with having to deal with security checks,” he notes.
Of course, that hasn’t always been the case.
“Once I got a call from a musician at Ben-Gurion Airport telling me the security officers had dismantled his trombone, and that I should tell the officers he’s okay,” he says. “Now the artists appreciate that we are so stringent when it comes to security.”
Tal-Gan says he believes the arts should transcend politics. “I have had artists who talked to me about the political situation here, and I always tell them they can come here and say what they want, and that no one is going to stop them saying their piece.”
Nine years ago, though, politics reared its ugly head.
“There was a Belgian group that had a fascinating show called Rwanda 92, about the genocide that happened there. The director and one of the actors came here to check out the auditorium and other things, and we signed a basic agreement with them for the show,” he relates.
“We sent an actor to Belgium to learn the French text so he could translate it into Hebrew. Then, a short while later, I saw a TV interview with the Belgian director saying he won’t bring the show to a fascist country like Israel. That made my blood boil. No one has to come here, but we had invested a lot in bringing the show here.”
Legal proceedings ensued, but as the case dragged on, Tal-Gan eventually dropped the whole thing.
At the end of the day, he feels the festival is nicely placed for the next half-century.
“Thankfully the Israel Festival has a wonderful reputation around the world,” he says. “Artists, musicians and theater companies want to appear here. I have seen a lot of famous artists here, and a lot of artists who came here as second-string performers, like sidemen in jazz bands, who have since made a name for themselves on the world stage. I think that is a reflection of where the Israel Festival is today.”