ACCLAIMED PIANIST and founder-artistic director Elena Bashkirova has put together a quality, varied festival program. (photo credit: Nikolaj Lund)
ACCLAIMED PIANIST and founder-artistic director Elena Bashkirova has put together a quality, varied festival program. (photo credit: Nikolaj Lund)
International Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival returns live

The International Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival appears to be hale and hearty. A quarter of a century after Elena Bashkirova set the event in motion, it is doing very nicely, thank you. The next edition, which strictly speaking is not the silver jubilee, is set for September 5-10, with a slew of top-quality slots, featuring seasoned artists of the highest caliber, as well as younger members of the classical music maker fraternity, due to do their polished thing at the festival’s regular berth at the YMCA.

Like the rest of her colleagues across the cultural-showbiz spectrum, Bashkirova is delighted to have the festival back live.

“I am so happy to finally, after these two years [of COVID-19], to come back,” she says. She’s not alone in the joy department. “All the musicians are so happy to come back, too, and so looking forward to it.”

The globally acclaimed Russian-born pianist and perennial artistic director of the festival is coming out with all guns sonorously blazing. The program kicks off, on Monday, with an opener to grace any classical music event on any of the world’s most glittering stages.

Who is performing at the International Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival?

The 8 p.m. concert features feted 81-year-old Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich and celebrated Russian-born Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky. The A-lister pair will perform a sumptuous and diverse repertoire that takes in Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in G minor, Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor and Chopin’s Sonata for Piano and Cello in G minor.

 STELLAR RUSSIAN-BORN Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky is one of the big draws at this year’s festival. (credit: ANDREJ GRILC) STELLAR RUSSIAN-BORN Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky is one of the big draws at this year’s festival. (credit: ANDREJ GRILC)

That is quite a curtain-raiser, with Argerich widely considered to be a bona fide member of the all-time pianist pantheon, and Maisky is not far behind in the kudos stakes.

With half a century of collaborative music-making behind the Argerich-Maisky synergy, the audience will, no doubt, revel in that priceless simpatico added value which can only be achieved over time. And with not only the rare instrumental gifts each has to offer but also the desire and ability to lend an accommodating ear to their onstage counterpart, the concert promises to provide one and all with an enriching musical and spiritual experience, and enduring memory.

The charmingly appointed, and acoustically user-friendly, YMCA auditorium also conveys a sense of coziness and intimacy. That is a sentiment that runs through the whole venture, and has done so since the get-go.

FOR THE founder, it was just a matter of putting an idea into practice and going with the flow. She says she had no designs on a quarter of a century of robust quality musical fare.

“I was just hoping for the festival to take place once,” she says with a laugh. “It was a crazy idea. Everybody thought it was a crazy idea. But, somehow, sometimes the most impossible craziest ideas become a reality because people become so enthusiastic about them.”

It is, she says, very much about the prevailing human spirit, as much as the talent and polished skills, of the participating artists. “I am trying to go to the very top [in terms of quality acts]. Everybody performs for free. We don’t have money. It is just a very small, tight budget.”

Considering the stellar quality of the roster, for example the aforementioned Argerich-Maisky pairing, that is pretty astounding. It is also a shot in the arm for anybody who may have developed a cynical view of the entertainment sphere and may be less than enamored with some of the ego-strutting that undeniably goes on in such circles, at least in the higher, bigger buck-earning spheres thereof.

“Nobody, in all these 25 years, maybe one or two musicians, has said ‘No, I will not play at your festival if there is no fee.’ I think everybody comes for the pleasure of being there, of being together with the other musicians,” Bashkirova observes, adding that we, the culture consumers, do our bit, too. “The musicians love playing for the audiences at the YMCA. They are very special and very understanding and curious audiences. And it is such a beautiful place. So it is really a combination of wonderful things.”

“The musicians love playing for the audiences at the YMCA. They are very special and very understanding and curious audiences. And it is such a beautiful place. So it is really a combination of wonderful things.”

Elena Bashkirova

There’s nothing like having a mutual support group, especially after the hard-earned lessons of social distancing and the rest of the emotionally and physically detrimental pandemic fallout. It seems that has been the heartwarming case with the festival right from the start. I suggest that the sense of esprit de corps may also have something to do with the quality and variety of material, and its onstage manifestation, too.

The artistic director notes the choice of location is not serendipitous and contributes to the feel-good factor. “In many ways it is a blessing that the festival is in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv has so many places [with live music], that it makes no sense [to have the festival there].” Then again, it is not purely a matter of default. “The location in Jerusalem is so special. The hall is wonderful and, for the musicians, being outside has a very special connotation. The view [of the Old City] is amazing. It does something to you.” 

Coming to this part of the world, of course, also has gastronomic pulling power.

“The musicians are not getting any fee, but they stand a good chance of putting on a couple of kilos while they are here,” Bashkirova chuckles.

Presumably, by now, she is well aware of that particular “pitfall” of venturing to the Middle East. To say the least, it would be a great shame if she had to strain to reach her piano keyboard. During the course of the six-day event, the celebrated pianist-festival founder will be called upon to contribute to the onstage proceedings on several occasions.

The September 8 concert, for example, has Bashkirova performing in a rendition of Viktor Ullmann’s “Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke,” alongside seasoned German baritone vocalist Dietrich Henschel.

Ullmann was a Czech-born composer of Jewish descent who was incarcerated at Theresienstadt concentration camp and later murdered at Auschwitz.

After the intermission, Bashkirova accompanies Henschel’s compatriot soprano singer Dorothea Röschmann in a program of songs by Gustav Mahler, and on the morrow she plays in a Shostakovich quartet setting.

She is clearly not making do with just putting the artistic program together and, no doubt, facilitating the consent of the musicians to come over here to perform gratis by her very presence and her stature in the international classical music arena. She is also down for lending her instrumental expertise and experience in a couple of lieder recitals, with works by Felix Mendelssohn and by the famous composer’s younger sister Fanny Mendelssohn – both alongside noted German opera soprano and lieder singer Juliane Banse. 

With all that on her artistic plate, even without considering the not inconsiderable festival logistics in general, it doesn’t look like Bashkirova will have an awful lot of time to think about food.

THERE ARE star turns everywhere you peer across the roster. Azerbaijan-born violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, American-Korean cellist Tim Park, French violist Gérard Caussé and London-based Korean-born pianist Sunwood Kim all add an X factor element to the lineup. And there is some serious firepower on the local side of the program, such as pianist Lahav Shani – probably best known as Zubin Mehta’s successor as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – and bassoonist Uzi Shalev.

Intriguingly, Bashkirova offers several members of the next generation a chance to shine at the festival. The inclusion of 25-year-old Nazareth-born violinist Yamen Saadi, violinist Mark Karlinsky, cellist Miri Saadon Shani and 22-year-old horn player Bar Zemach indicates that the local musical community is in pretty good shape, too.

Oh, and there’s a certain Michael Barenboim on the bill as well. The 37-year-old violinist is a returning festival participant who just happens to be the son of the artistic director and her husband, iconic Argentinean-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. But before anyone shouts protekzia, one only has to take a look at Barenboim Jr.’s bio over the past decade or so to understand he has earned his slot in the festival program. 

“He’s wonderful,” says Bashkirova, with more than a hint of naches kleibing. “He now also plays the viola. He’s a genius. I am very happy, and not just because I am his mother but because I admire and respect him very much. He is also very much admired by his colleagues; otherwise I would not have him there, in the festival.” 

On the subject of Israeli musical offerings, the local unveiling of Clarinet Quartet by Ella Milch-Sheriff, on September 9, is certainly worthy of mention and should cause a stir.

“It was played, for the first time in Berlin in April, and now it is the second performance – the Israeli premiere,” Bashkirova notes.

There’s more in the way of here-and-now charts. “There is a work by [33-year-old] Benjamin Attahir, who is a wonderful young French composer. I think he was the last student of Pierre Boulez,” she says, citing the French giant of post-World War II classical composition. There is also the world premiere of Quartet for Piano, Clarinet, Violin and Cello, courtesy of 51-year-old Estonian composer Jüri Reinvere.

Bashkirova is a firm believer in pushing our listening boat out and mixing the Beethovens, Mozarts, Bachs and other usual suspects of the classical music scene with some of the latest, edgiest and most contemporary material infused with 21st-century dynamism. Sounds like a good approach to getting us on board the current zeitgeist while not relinquishing our hold on tried and trusted music many of us recognize after the first bar.

“I think this is the only way to do it,” she states. “I think modern music should not be put in a ghetto, and neither should Baroque music. They should be played together. It is a matter of quality. It has to be dramaturgically right. The people have to see that this is wonderful music – for example, having Ullmann next to Dvorak [on the September 8 bill]. And they have something in common.”

Bashkirova returns to the theme of vittles to get her egalitarian musical point across. “I call this kind of program idea, it is like a club sandwich,” she says with a laugh. “You have bread and butter, but in between there are some special things that make things very interesting for people.”

She has faith the recipe will go down well in Jerusalem. “There are a lot of people, not all the people, who are interested in things they don’t hear all the time.”

That makes perfect sense. After all, even Beethoven was once the new kid on the block. ❖

For tickets and more information: (02) 625-0444 and

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