JERUSALEM — When Eyal Sher was a kid, he looked forward to the annual Israel Festival, when musicians from around the world gather to perform in a Roman amphitheater in the seaside enclave of Caesarea. First held to feature classical music in 1961, it gradually added ballet, jazz, and visual arts performances. “It was a window to international fare,” recalled the 60-year-old Sher, a filmmaker and the chief executive of the Israel Festival, which will open for its 56th year in Jerusalem on June 1. “[The festival] was really the only way to see this kind of stuff in Israel back then.”
But in recent years, the Israel Festival, which moved to Jerusalem in the 1980s, lost some of its edge and excitement, mainly because it was no longer the only act in town. In Jerusalem, a number of annual arts festivals have cropped up, including the Oud Festival, Mekudeshet and the Opera Festival, not to mention a growing selection of smaller-scale events. “The cultural landscape around the festival has changed a lot,” said Sher. “In recent years the Israel Festival has still been important to the landscape, but it’s just became less of a distinctive event, less central, and less unique.”
Since becoming director of the country’s oldest arts festival three years ago, Sher has sought to change this emerging dynamic by bringing in boundary-pushing artists while reaching out to all sectors of Jerusalem’s population. “I’ve been thinking about how we widen the conversation, to stay ahead of the times,” he said. As a result, this year’s three-week-long festival will feature works that boldly bring together different cultures and traditions, exploring the boundaries of identity to reflect life in Jerusalem, a city full of distinctive populations that constantly interact.
The highlights of this merging of cultures include a performance by Jerusalem’s Symphony Orchestra of pieces from Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinksy, with a surprising interlude by Moroccan-born Rabbi Haim Louk who will sing a traditional Sephardic rendition of bits inspired by the Book of Psalms. The Turkey-based Sarband Ensemble will perform music written by 17th-century European composers while under the rule and influence of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, highlighting the new styles created during this era of cultural encounter. The Spanish director and hypnotic artist Angelica Liddell will give a four-hour performance called “And What Will I do with This Sword?” which explores both a crime from 1981—when a Japanese student in Paris murdered and ate his classmate—along with the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attack that killed 90 concert-goers at the Bataclan Theater in Paris.
Most of the performances will take place in the Jerusalem Theater because Sher says it provides a space where performers, the theater environment, and the audience can “explore new stage languages.” During some performances, the audience will sit onstage, and in the all-night long “Night Shift” event, the audience will follow various artists, dancers ,and musicians into all the hallways, back rooms and other nooks and crannies of the sprawling theater complex.
For most of the participating artists, it is their first time performing in the festival and in Jerusalem, something that they say could influence their work and identity. “It is always interesting to work in places where my work is not yet known,” Liddell said. “There is purity in the gaze, a virginal reception that stimulates the whole team. It is an unpredictable encounter.”
And for those artists from Jerusalem, including the Firqat Alnoor Orchestra, a band that includes ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze playing 19th-century classical Arabic music from Egypt and Iraq, performing in the festival is a chance to express their feelings about the city. “It’s really a big honor to be in the festival,” said Hana Ftaya, who co-established and manages Firqat Alnoor, which will perform in the festival for the first time, during its opening night at the Sultan’s Pool, a concert venue just outside the Old City walls. “We are a microcosm of Israeli society, so what could be more fitting for our orchestra?”
Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.