A mix of passion and tradition makes Israel a classical-musical superpower
The teenage cellist has the cheeks of a cherub and the peroxide hair of Lady Gaga. She arranges a frilly black Victorian gown around a folding chair and tunes her instrument, taking the A from her pianist, a chubby boy a year or so younger. The two of them would resemble Wednesday and Pugsley Addams, except the accompanist wears the uniform of a private in the Israel Defense Force. I am at the nursery of Israeli music, the scholarship auditions that the America-Israel Cultural Foundation holds every May in Tel Aviv. One of three judges in the front row of the small auditorium nods, and the kids launch into a Brahms sonata. They play like heroes.
Improbably, Israel has become a pocket superpower in the arts, most visibly in classical music. Israeli virtuosos have had a high profile for decades, such as conductor Daniel Barenboim and violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz, and Guy Braunstein, now the concertmaster, or principal violin, of the Berlin Philharmonic. In February, Israeli violist Amichai Gross joined Braunstein at the Berlin ensemble as head of the viola section, demarcating a leading Israeli presence in the Olympus of central European musical culture. Braunstein and Gross play with the Jerusalem String Quartet, one of the world’s most sought-after chamber groups.
Israel’s contribution to classical music, that most distinctly Western of art forms, has never been more visible. And Israelis take to classical music—the art form that most clearly creates a sense of the future—like no other people on earth, to the point that music has become part of Israel’s character, an embodiment of the national genius for balancing hope and fear.
The distinctly Israeli take on the European classical tradition has become the country’s most notable cultural export, and it has been nurtured by a reverse flow of Israeli performers who are coming back from Europe and the United States to teach at home. In a country where daily life has an intensity that arises from risk, classical music offers an irreplaceable spiritual outlet. And young Israelis bring to it a unique blend of discipline and fervor. At the Mannes College of Music, the New York conservatory where I taught theory two decades ago, the 10 best pianists each year usually include half a dozen Asians, three or four Eastern Europeans, and one, or sometimes two, Israelis. There are more than 30 million piano students in China alone, more than four times Israel’s total population, so the Israeli kids are beating enormous odds to make it to the top cut.
A young Israeli pianist named Noam Sivan “just might be the best young composer writing tonal music today,” says Carl Schachter, the prominent American music theorist who taught the 22-year-old at Mannes and Juilliard. Superlatives somehow don’t seem to apply to Sivan. He sits at the piano, hair pulled back in a ponytail, and adds his own spontaneous invention to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Even to a professional ear, what emerges from under his fingers could pass for a finished work by one of Bach’s sons. The young Israeli improvises at public concerts, conjuring the great masters of the 18th century with a baffling sort of musical theurgy.
It is hard to believe that Sivan is inventing it as he goes along. He has not simply absorbed the grand tradition of Western classical music, but he has brought to life a long-dead art. It seems improbable that an Israeli kid from Haifa should bear this torch, but Jews have a special affinity for tradition—not only their own, but those of the peoples with whom they sojourned over the centuries.
“What makes our kids so special is a combination of passion and tradition,” cellist Hillel Zori explains over breakfast in Tel Aviv. Zori is one of a new generation of Israeli musical stars. Zori has the neck and torso of a wrestler and the otherworldly affability of a yeshiva bocher. Fresh out of conservatory, he took first prize at half a dozen of the big cello competitions and then debuted with the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta. At 44, Zori is in continuous demand as a soloist and chamber player, but he stays close to home at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv.
“The Israeli students you meet are still living in some layer of a tradition that connects them to the great composers of the 19th century,” Zori says. But it’s more than a connection to European high culture through Jewish emigration, he insists. “Hardship, difficulties, stress lead to great achievements. This is still true in Israel. It’s very hard to sit in your room and practice while the world is exploding around you. But it makes us know that if we’re mediocre, we’re dead.”
Zori and his colleagues have turned Tel Aviv into a sort of Vienna on the Mediterranean; on some nights there is more chamber music offered here than in any city in the world. Last May 28, he played the Brahms B Major Trio with violinist Nitai Zori and pianist Michal Tal. The Israelis do what the young Brahms intended, namely to tear their listeners’ hearts out. It is a shattering performance, with the paradoxical blend of reckless freedom and artistic discipline that characterized the great Central European masters. What surges out of the Israelis’ playing is Brahms’ edginess, his determination to go all in. In general, Europeans no longer play that way; Brahms would feel a spiritual vacuum in today’s Vienna, but he might feel at home at the Tel Aviv conservatory.
“It’s a harsh education,” Zori continues. “A lot of the students struggle immensely, much more than people in the United States. They can’t afford instruments, they have side jobs, they can’t afford the master classes. But the struggle makes them more invested. They realize they need to excel.” But there’s something more to the motivation of young Israeli musicians than professional success, Zori says. “You can’t separate the secular and the religious, the soul and the brain in music. The way my grandfather listened to the hazzan in the shtetl, I hear classical music. Even the secular Jews bring a religious impulse to music. What did we do for thousands of years? We sat in a room and deciphered texts, trying to make sense of them. We bring the same sensibility to music.”
Israeli musical life embraces the distinctly Jewish tradition of engagement with classic texts and a spiritual intensity found in few other venues. And that is what impels some of Israel’s top musicians to leave high-paying positions at U.S. orchestras or universities and come home. Another top Israeli cellist, Zvi Plesser, gave up a teaching position at the University of North Carolina to come to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. “In North Carolina, I had my own studio, grand piano, computer, with a state-of-the-art hall,” he says. “At the Jerusalem Academy we don’t even have a decent hall. But still, the music-making and level of teaching and the level of students is incredible.”
Music offers a spiritual outlet in Israel in a unique way, Plesser says. “People in Israel realize that the arts are not a privilege but a need. Fighting for existence is not all there is. There has to be a content to life to make existence meaningful.”
Eyal Einhaber, the Israel Philharmonic flutist-turned-conductor, who will speed to Haifa by motorbike for a concert shortly after meeting me for coffee a few blocks from the main Tel Aviv army base, speaks at great length about the way Israelis make time for chamber music even at war. “The same qualities make a good musician, or soldier, or high-tech entrepreneur,” he says. “We have the best army in the world. All of us musicians were serving in the army, and they invented a program for exceptional musicians. You go to the army, and they give you a test to check your skills. I tested well for pilot training. But at the same time you do auditions for the musicians’ program. If you qualify, they let you work from 8 to 1 o’clock in the office, and then you play in chamber groups for other soldiers or go home to practice. What kind of an army is that? It shows you something about values and contradictions of Israeli reality. We are always fighting for our existence, but at the same we realize there are higher values.”
Many musicians came to Israel with the wave of Russian immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, which made first-rank teachers available in every small town. But Israel’s extraordinary density of great teachers predates World War II, explains Tomer Lev, a pianist who heads the piano department at the Tel Aviv conservatory. In 1936 the just-founded America-Israel Cultural Foundation gave the legendary violinist Leon Huberman the resources to found the Palestine Orchestra, which after independence became the Israel Philharmonic. Great musicians who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s included the Hungarian-Jewish concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, Ödön Pártos, and the composer Paul Ben-Haim, who had been assistant to the legendary conductor Bruno Walter. Guy Braunstein, Pártos’ eventual successor at Berlin, is the leading interpreter of Ben-Haim’s music.
“Huberman was a visionary,” Lev explains over coffee. “He thought that the most important thing was to save as many elite musicians as possible. First, to save those who could be saved, and second to keep alive the tradition that would be lost in Europe. The consequences of Huberman’s heroic act far exceed establishing an orchestra. They were conductors, concertmasters, composers, and they were implanted overnight. They brought the geniuses, the top 2 or 3 percent of the European music world, and put them on one square inch. They played chamber music, formed ensembles, went to kibbutzim, and brought the air of the high peaks of European culture.”
Given today’s antipathy toward Israel among so many Europeans, Lev’s account of how the Zionists of the late 1930s set out to preserve Western high culture sounds positively chivalresque. Tomer Lev brushes this aside: He finds the events not just improbable but miraculous.
“This country, its existence, its continuity cannot be measured by realistic and rational gauges,” he says. “Everything that happens here has a component of a miracle. The way people think here is not completely rational. It’s a very interesting blend of rational modern thinking and quasi-religious mystical thinking. People here take the risk of trying a musical career even if they know on a rational basis that there’s little money and security. Taking risks in Israel is part of life. You are taking a risk simply to live here.”
Lev pauses, and adds: “Life in Israel is perhaps too intense. Art creates an outlet to this intensity. For sensitive people, the artistic outlet is a necessity; you need it or you go crazy. And we are a society of individualists, perhaps the most individualistic in the world, perhaps to an extreme. In such an atmosphere, the individual spirit has a great deal of freedom to be unique, to be special, not to be suppressed.”
Americans still think of Israeli music as an extension of the great tradition of Russian virtuosos, the yidl mit a fidl from Odessa or Kiev who storms the concert stages of the world. Israel’s best-known musical personalities of the last generation were violinists. But Tomer Lev tells me that the only consistent thing one can say today about Israeli musical talent is that it’s Israeli. Classical music isn’t a plaything of the Ashkenazi elite; on the contrary, it has become a unifying factor, drawing in talent across the spectrum of economic and cultural backgrounds.
“I’ve got five piano students in my class at the Tel Aviv conservatory this year,” Lev tells me. “They come from an incredible variety of backgrounds. One student arrived in Israel from Kishinev in Moldova at 7 or 8 and started piano studies at 10. Her mother is a musician, was a theater composer in Kishinev. Another is from Eilat and comes from a Moroccan family that has no connection whatsoever to classical music; he came to classical music through a conservatory in Eilat started by Russian teachers who couldn’t find work in the bigger cities and went to Eilat to make a living, He’s a completely intuitive musician, very talented. He flies in once a week from Eilat for his lesson and goes back. A third student comes from Ashdod—an interesting city, fifth largest city in Israel, where Moroccans and Russians learned to live together. A fourth comes from Haifa. He’s an Israeli Sabra. His family had no connection to music. And the fifth is originally from Jerusalem. Not one is from Tel Aviv, and not one comes from the social elite.”
“Next year,” Lev adds, “I’m going to have an Arab girl in my class. It’s a big project at the academy to foster Arab kids. And I have another guy from Norilsk. It was a gulag in the far north above the Arctic circle on the Yenisey River. After the gulags disbanded, the Russian government decided to keep it as a mining town, and prisoners stayed on as employees. This kid comes from such a family, that just immigrated to Israel six months ago. It’s a blend of people that you can find nowhere else on earth.”
Israel’s musical DNA traces back to the Vienna and Budapest of Brahms more than to modern Moscow. If anything in Israeli music is overrated, it is the Russian influence, according to Hed Sella, who directs the Jerusalem Music Centre. After the mass influx of Russian musicians, he says, “Many people said this would be our salvation for classical music, but that’s superficial because [the immigrants] represented an extremely conservative approach from the point of view of repertoire. There is almost something pathetic about the way they held classical music in reverence. The music has to be lived, not worshipped.”
It’s not only Teutonic musical culture, though, that flourishes in Israel. Israelis evince an unusual sympathy for the culture of their avowed enemies. Michael Klinghoffer, dean of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, notes that his school is the only place in the world that an Arab student can play in an orchestra that plays classical Arab music. It also offers the world’s best training on the oud, the traditional Arab lute. Jewish and Arab students at the Academy join in orchestral performances of Arab music with a combination of Western and traditional instruments. Arab music stems from a tradition radically different from the Western classical music to which Israelis gravitate, but it is a tradition that Israelis respect. It is a measure of the Israeli regard for the humanity of their neighbors and sometime adversaries that the survival of Arab classical music may depend on Israeli devotion.
Yet not all is well in Israeli music, warns Haggai Shaham, one of Israel’s top violinists. Shaham, a virtuoso in the grand tradition, gave up a professorship at University of Southern California to come back to Israel and teach at the Tel Aviv conservatory. His expectations are high, and his frustrations severe. “If we don’t improve things,” he grumbles, “in a few years the Israel Philharmonic is going to have to find work visas for Korean violinists.”
“The problem is that the old guys died, like my teacher; the students, most of them, live abroad,” he says. “They get great positions as soloists and in orchestras, and very few of us came back to continue the tradition. There’s a vacuum. I came back because I really feel that I’m needed here. I left a much higher salary and opportunities.” He tells the same story as his Tel Aviv colleague Tomer Lev. Israeli musical talent cuts across all the dividing lines in Israeli society—Ashkenazi-Sephardic, religious-secular, center and periphery. “I could open a zoo with my students, they’re so diverse,” he says. And he is proud that first-rank foreign students are coming to Israel; the top performer from this year’s class is from Finland, another small country with an outsized commitment to classical music.
“There’s no music in the public school system,” Shaham explains. In place of official support, he adds, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, the philanthropy guided for many years by the late violinist Isaac Stern, provides the infrastructure for musical study. “Institutions like the Israel Philharmonic have a lot of prestige,” Shaham says, “but the AICF fills such an important niche that without it, we wouldn’t have the people to sit in the Philharmonic. It’s not only the financial support—and I got help since I was 10 years old—but the educational system that the AICF provides. Every music student in Israel looks forward to the AICF auditions, to get invited to the string program at the Jerusalem Music Center, or to the master classes. The trouble is, it’s harder to get people to support a less flashy cause.”
Flutist Orit Naor is diminutive, dark, and tightly wound. After her fourth child was born she gave up her chair at the Israel Philharmonic to become Israel’s cultural attaché in Washington; she later took over the AICF’s Israel office. “The artists are Israel’s best ambassadors—musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors,” she tells me during a break at the cello auditions. “Culture is the strongest form of diplomacy. It’s a universal language.” She seems to be in many places at once, haranguing a prospective donor on her cell phone, shooting orders to her secretary, and persuading a U.S. journalist that lives depend on her labors. She scans the room to make sure that all of the aspiring musicians have arrived and are ready to play. When bow touches string, though, her focus on the music is absolute. Her eyes shine, her lips purse, her head nods or shakes as the youngsters do well or not as well as they might have.
Naor’s passion is finding talent on Israel’s periphery. She hails from working-class Beersheva in Israel’s south, and now she supports youth orchestras, regional music schools, coaches, the whole net required to catch young talent. We go back into the auditorium to hear more cellists. The girl in the Victorian dress and her soldier accompanist have finished and depart to an appreciative nod from the judges. Next comes a lanky 18-year-old who begins the same Brahms sonata. He is spellbinding. The judges forget to tell him when to stop. They have set their pencils down, and the audition has become a performance. Orit Naor is radiant. One more of Israel’s children has done well.
For most of AICF’s seven-decade history, U.S. donors paid for scholarships, instruments, and foreign travel for Israeli students, who seem to include every one of the stars I interviewed. Israeli entrepreneurs now comprise an important part of the AICF’s support. The Jerusalem Music Center, founded in 1973 by Isaac Stern and now headed by the great American pianist Murray Perahia, was another AICF offshoot. The most analytical of keyboard virtuosos, Perahia knows the method of the great Viennese-Jewish theorist Heinrich Schenker and brings his background and contacts to bear on the Center’s teaching methods.
Schenker showed how the tonal music of the West creates a sense of the future, in a way that no other kind of music can. Even the simplest eight-bar phrase evokes a musical future. The four bars that set “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream” leave the listener on the fifth step of the scale, the “dominant” to music theorists, and we expect that the next four bars will take us back to the home note, or “tonic.” Great composers spin this contrast of departure and return into extended pieces, in which time itself becomes a variable dimension. Musical time can be distended into suspense or compressed into surprise. The methods by which the great composers achieve such effects are subtle and require faithful attention to the score and knowledge of the composers’ teaching tradition in order to represent them in performance.
A simple way to think of the problem is this: The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.
Western conservatories, by contrast, tend to penalize risk-taking. Their graduates are taught to launch careers by winning competitions, and the default strategy for taking a competition prize is to make the fewest mistakes. The conservatory-and-competition circuit tends to manufacture risk-averse savants who play with the spiritual equivalent of surgical gloves.
Erez Rapaport, one of the best-regarded theorists of the Schenker school, taught at the Tel Aviv conservatory and was working with Perahia to enhance music theory programs when he died of a heart attack last November, just before his 50th birthday. Erez and I did our doctoral coursework together a quarter of a century ago, and our wives became good friends. Several times we had tutorials with Carl Schachter—Perahia’s theory teacher, as well as Noam Sivan’s. I did those courses twice, first with Schachter, and again when Erez explained it to me afterwards.
Erez stood out for what Schachter called “X-ray ears”—an uncanny ability to hear the composer’s intent through a complex structure—but most of all for a kind of fearlessness in looking into the musical future. His rough sense of humor marked the Sabra in him, but otherwise I didn’t see what made him Israeli. When he finished his doctoral exam he returned to Tel Aviv and much humbler professional prospects than he would have encountered in the United States. “Israel is home,” he said, and left. When the call came about Erez’s death, I left for the airport and landed in time for his funeral at a cemetery just north of Tel Aviv the next day. Some 150 people gathered in the rain, most of them his students, kids from every walk of Israeli life, many wearing kippot. My friend from graduate school had become the intellectual father of young musicians who mourned him. Erez was unique; in some ways, he was the smartest musician I knew of his generation. But in retrospect I see how characteristically Israeli he was.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things magazine and the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online.
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