Next week’s Tzlilim Bamidbar (Desert Sounds) Festival promises to provide an all-round musical experience for the faithful who make the trek to Sde Boker in the Negev. The event is being curated by classical composer and luminary of the “serious” national musical scene Dr. Michael Volpe. Volpe evidently dipped his fingers into numerous musical, and other, pies in compiling the program.
“The four days of the festival divide into different genres that offer the public the opportunity to embark on an odyssey of a wide range of original Israeli works,” he says. “These include contemporary Israeli rock fused with classical music, roots Hebrew music, liturgical material, theater and more.”
The proof of the musical pudding is in the hearing. The festival opens with Youngsters’ Day and will feature a high-energy roster, including Jerusalemite hip-hop outfit Hadag Nahash, the Revolution Orchestra which blends classical music with a host of other more “street level” genres, and the HaGroovatron act, which defines itself as “bringing to life the spirit of traditional Jewish music by taking classic songs and rearranging and performing them in a vast variety of styles such as rock and roll, funk, reggae, Country & Western and ‘all that jazz.’"
There is also an International Day, with the Latin American Orchestra of the Negev displaying its skills on all sorts of weird and wonderful instruments, alongside some of the more conventional variety. Volpe will also enlighten the audience with a lecture about some of the great Jewish European composers, and the Liszt School of Music Weimar Orchestra and the young orchestra of Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music and Dance will join forces in a rendition of Piano Concerto No. 5 by Jewish Austrian composer Henri Herz.
The third day of the festival goes by the title of And the Sons Shall Return to Their Border, A Tribute to Gilad Schalit. The day’s musical proceedings include a show based on songs written by late lyricist Ehud Manor, sung by his widow, singer Ofra Fuchs, and a performance of Hanoch Levin’s musical-theatrical fantasy Hayuta. Another big gun in the festival lineup is veteran pianist-vocalistcomposer Shlomo Gronich, who recently marked the 40th anniversary of the release of his debut album Lama Lo Sipart Li.
Gronich has proven to be one our most durable and productive popular music icons who has rarely strayed into the realms of mainstream musical endeavor. That makes his impending synergy with the Meitar classical chamber orchestra at Sde Boker a perfectly natural development.
“They are taking all sorts of things of mine over the years and arranging them as they see fit,” says Gronich, although adding that the Meitar players won’t have things all their own way. “I’ll be bringing my regular guitarist Omri Agmon, to add the high-energy rock elements that I like and have been doing for so long. I love playing with Omri. I really take off with him.”
Considering his long years of service to the musical cause, 62-year-old Hadera-born Gronich’s energy output and his constant ability to come up with something new is impressive.
“Yes, I have been around a long time, but I feel young and full of ideas,” he notes. “I also don’t feel I am competing with anyone. The years go by, but I don’t feel any different. It is strange to think of myself as some sort of dinosaur.”
The latter epithet could hardly be further from reality. In fact, Gronich has always marched forward relentlessly, often venturing into areas where many other pop and rock musicians would fear to tread. His 1973 Me’ahorei Hatzlilim record with Mati Caspi encompassed numerous extramural domains, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek punctuation and comic departures mixed in with the more melodic material. And if that wasn’t daring enough, his 1974-75 synergy with Shlomo Yidov and Shem-Tov Levy, as the Ketzat Aheret trio, spread out into even more experimental areas.
That was considered off-the-wall stuff for Israel’s at the time highly conservative society and music industry.
“Yes, you could say I was ahead of my time, and when I started out people told me that some of [my] work was hard to take, and that I was treated as some sort of alien that landed here from some other place,” notes Gronich. “I was some sort of slightly crazed alien from Hadera who played weird chords and dissonant music, and strange tempo changes, and brought all sorts of influences which no one wassure where they come from.” That included Gronich himself.
“I hadn’t heard a lot of music before I went into a recording studio for the first time in 1971. The music just came out of me, and I really don’t know where I got it from – certainly not all from here, from Israel. Maybe it came from Hadera, from the eucalyptus trees or from the malaria, with a tinge of sadness, a bit of dissonance, and a bit of yourself. There was also a kind of mix of classical and non-classical music.”
Some of the latter undoubtedly came from home, as Gronich’s father was a classical clarinet player and the IDF Orchestra’s first conductor. Gronich himself duly studied classical piano as a child, and that early training comes through clearly in many of his keyboard riffs to this day.
Gronich muses that some of his envelope pushing may have been a reaction to his father’s preferred musical mind-set.
“Yes, maybe it was me being rebellious, which is only natural at that age, otherwise I really have no idea where I got all those ideas. All sorts of music researchers talk about me as a revolutionary or as avant garde, which is probably right because, compared with the songs done by some army band, at some outpost in the middle of the Sinai Desert, or the stuff that was around back then, by bands like the Hayarkon Bridge Trio, what I did was pretty far out.”
Of course, yesterday’s derring-do often becomes today’s run-of-the-mill and, over the years, many of Gronich’s songs have joined the ranks of the Israeli songbook classics.
Numbers like “Nueiba,” “Luna Park,” “Rosa Marzipan” and particularly “Sympatia” now get relatively generous airplay and, more recently, Gronich has explored the recording and performance possibilities of more liturgically oriented music, and has worked with children’s choirs.
“We all fed off the music that came from America and Britain in the 1970s,” Gronich recalls. “There were some amazing bands and music back then. We’re talking about artists who didn’t care about ratings. They just came with their own truth and there were some fantastic things done back then.”
Gronich has always sung and played it as he sees and hears it and, orchestral augmentation notwithstanding, we are sure to get a taste of his unadulterated credo at Sde Boker next week.
“I always had this urge to break through all sorts of boundaries and preconceived ideas, and to shake people up,” he notes.
After becoming a father to twin daughters at the grand old age of 49, Gronich has softened a bit at the edges, but the firebrand spirit still glows brightly.
Tzlilim Bamidbar takes place from December 20 to 25. For tickets and more information: www.tzlilimbamidbar.co.il and (08) 656-4161/2. For information about accommodation and trips in the Negev: www.rng.org.il.