Can’t go to concerts, then ‘Corona Concerts’ come to you as top Israeli musicians perform nightly in our living rooms
By David E. Kaplan
How accustomed are Israelis that when the chips are down, they will not be denied culture and entertainment! It’s a hallmark of the character of this country and its people. Through wars, intifadas and incessant missile attacks, the message projected is that ‘The Show Must Go On’.
It’s in our national DNA.
Over a decade before Israel emerged as a state, culture was foremost on the minds of those navigating its destiny.
On 26 December 1936, The Palestine Orchestra – the forerunner of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) – was born. Its genesis coincided with The Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939) that began in April 1936 when a Jewish convoy was attacked, and two drivers killed. If frightening violence against Jews prevailed in Palestine, it was the impeding genocide of Jews in Europe that was the impetus for the formation of the IPO.
The great Polish-born Jewish violinist and musician, Bronislaw Huberman, who foresaw the Holocaust, persuaded 75 Jewish musicians from major European orchestras to immigrate to Palestine, creating what he called the “materialization of the Zionist culture in the fatherland” on the sand dunes of Tel Aviv.
Striving for excellence, Huberman invited the greatest conductor of the time, Arturo Toscanini, to conduct the opening concert, to be performed at the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv on 26 December 1936. Toscanini abandoned his renowned NBC Orchestra for several weeks “to render paternal care to the newly born…”
Having escaped the rise of Fascism in his homeland of Italy, the great Maestro said:
“I am doing this for humanity…”
That thirst of a people for music prevailed and is embedded in Israeli culture.
When in 1948, South African Dr Jack Medalie the grandfather of famed Israeli songwriter Doron Medalie volunteered to serve in Israel’s War of Independence as a doctor in the front line, he recounted how in the thick of war, “I was surprised one day when we were taken to a desolate place in the Negev where our soldiers sat listening to an orchestra under the baton of a young American.” The name of that “young American” was – Leonard Bernstein, who was touring the war-ravaged country with an ensemble of 35 members of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra performing to civilians and soldiers alike – a grueling schedule of forty concerts in sixty days.
Conducting several Beethoven pieces, “with a gusto of physical movement the like of which I had never seen,” recorded Medalie, “it was an amazing spectacle of an orchestra playing to an appreciative brigade of soldiers behind enemy lines.”
War might be raging, but culture was no casualty.
Recovering from his surprise, it did concern Medalie that between Beethoven and Bernstein “a few enemy bombs could have destroyed most of the Palmach in the Negev.”
Bernstein would later describe that of all his experiences in the nascent Jewish state during its war for survival, “the greatest being the special concerts for soldiers. Never could you imagine so intelligent and cultured and music-loving an army!”
Has any army anywhere been so described?
Maintaining high moral during that war was critical, and whose ‘VOICE’ was most prominent was polish born Chaim Hefer who joined the Palmach in 1943 and took part in smuggling illegal immigrants through Syria and Lebanon. In January 1948 he was one of the founders of the Chizbatron, the Palmach army troupe, and was its chief songwriter. Hefer and his troupe would travel to combat units in the front line -their stage often a bed of rocks, a dusty dirt road or their tour truck. With the lighting furnished by a jeep’s headlights, the sun, the moon, or simply from a bonfire, the band often performed four to five times a day, each time before a different squad and sometimes sustaining casualties when some of its members were injured as their truck hit a landmine on the way to a performance. The fact that the ‘Chizbatron’ performed in the most dangerous places during the war, contributed to raising the morale, and some even say that “the Chizbatron was a battalion in its own right.”
This is little doubt that one of the most iconic Israeli songs of all time is “Jerusalem of Gold”. Written by the “first lady of Israeli song and poetry” Naomi Shemer and released three weeks before the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, the paratroopers who first liberated the Western Wall – then more commonly called the Wailing Wall – sang this song in triumph after the Old City’s liberation after 2000 years of “occupation”.
Written during neighbouring Jordan’s occupation when Jews could not enter the Old City and worship in their holy places, it describes the longings of the Jewish people for Jerusalem.
After the war, Shemer added the last verse and is a heart-wrenching ‘reply’ to the lamentable second verse:
“We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and the square.
The shofar calls on the Temple Mount in the Old City.
And from the caves in the rocks, a thousand suns glow again.
We will go down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho. “
The album “Jerusalem of Gold” was the most widely-sold album in Israel and there was hardly a home that didn’t have a copy of this record. The lyrics and tune resonated to Jews across the globe, awakening their eternal longings – a musical affirmation of a people’s desire to survive and strive.
Another “Classical” illumination was revealed to me in an exclusive interview in 2016 with former IPO lifetime director and conductor Zubin Mehta who regaled on his solidarity concerts in Israel during the First Gulf War (1990-1991) when he, and violinist Isaac Stern, were presented with gas marks “just in case.”
“We never needed them,” he said, “and we only performed during the day, as the scuds were mainly at night when the country was in total darkness.” However, what fascinated the Maestro was “the grit of Israeli audiences. People were rightly worried of scuds landing anywhere in the country with possible chemicals, and here we were, the Israeli Philharmonic, performing to packed audiences. Israelis were undeterred – they wanted to hear the music they loved.”
Deafening alarm sounded in the hall, disrupting Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 for violin and orchestra. The orchestra players went offstage to wear their masks, and Stern stepped off the stage, too, wanting to continue with the concert, but it was impossible to continue playing the concerto while the musicians wore masks. He decided to play the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata Violin No. 1 in Bach Minor, with the alarm still wailing in the background, and the audience stood up and burst into applause, which was accompanied by a siren. Stern wore no mask.
Fast forward to 2002 and in the midst of the Second Intifada, when people avoided public places due to random suicide bombings on busses, bus stops, malls, clubs and restaurants, the South African Zionist Organisation in Israel – Telfed – organized a solidarity concert at Yad Lebanim Auditorium in Kfar Saba, aptly titled – “The Show Must Go On”. Actors, musicians, dancers and singers from all over the country – including a dance troupe from Eilat – performed and while it was feared, “no one will come, people are scared to go out at night”, the auditorium of over 800 seats was a sellout.
The people’s spirit of solidarity through culture prevailed, and snippets of that show can be enjoyed by logging below (As the movie begins on YouTube halfway, you will need to ‘rewind’ to the beginning):
Clearly, come hell or high water, Israelis from the past to the present, love their music, so no sooner had the government introduced regulations limiting gatherings due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus – including the cancellation of all cultural events until further notice – many of Israel’s top performers signed up to entertain Israel’s populace stuck at home.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Hannah Brown expressed that “The missile barrages last November that drove residents of the south into shelters were a good dress rehearsal for the current health crisis. In that case, musicians went to the shelters and played for small audiences. But this time, even small numbers of spectators are not permitted, so the musicians are performing in empty auditoriums” and televised to the nation. Some of the musicians are performing in their own homes, like last Monday night’s concert in the garden of Omer Adam, whose music fuses elements of eastern “Mizrahi” and Western pop instrumentation.
Israel’s 2020 own “The Show Must Go On” series, kicked its first concert on a Saturday night in March with Idan Raichel, one of the most well-known Israeli artists abroad.
The diverse group of performers appearing on Israel’s Channel 12 includes Harel Skaat, Amir Dadon, Maor Cohen, Asaf Amdursky, Dudu Aharon, Danny Robas, Knessiat Hasechel, Netta Barzilai, Marina Maximillian Blumin, Monica Sex, Natan Goshen, Idan Habib, Miki Gavrielov, Elai Botner, Amir Benyun, Kobi Aflalo, Karolina, Keren Peles, Shiri Maymon, Rami Kleinstein, Shuli Rand, the Shalva Band, Shimon Buskila and more.
Golan Einat, owner of the Zappa Group that is cosponsoring the ‘Corona Series’ together with Keshet, said: “In these difficult days, it is a great privilege for us to try to bring Zappa’s live performances directly into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people in Israel.”
And now all of you who might have missed these extraordinary concerts, can ENJOY at your leisure at home by linking onto the various performing artists below:
Marina Maximillian Blumin
Shalva Band with Kobi Marimi
Beit HaBubot (Dolls House)
Muki & DJ Jello
The Revivo Project