Monday, March 15, 2010

Leon and Leo

Where we last left off: We had just watched tens of thousands of common cranes take off, flock by flock, in military precision from the feeding areas in the Hula Valley bird sanctuary. Tired from a full day of standing around and squawking, they were presumably asleep. It was now getting dark, and we had two extremely important activities on our agenda before the four of us, Barbara and I, Jeff and June could rest our own weary bones: eating dinner and checking into our rooms at the tzimmer. Back in The States, if you were in the middle of nowhere, you would be in serious trouble if you needed or wanted a kosher restaurant. We were near Kiryat Shemonah, and there we had a choice of restaurants, winding up at a place where the four of us had a fine meal for about $70. Finally, we headed off to our tzimmer, really a series of cabins on Kibbutz Gonen. The place was somewhat off the beaten path; in fact, the middle of nowhere would have seem crowded by comparison. But our accommodations were fine (we even had a Jacuzzi in our room which we were much too tired to deal with). The next morning, we were up bright and early for breakfast, stopping first at the little ‘zoo’ to check out the baby lambs. Our morning repast, kibbutz style, was certainly an improvement over what we had been fed at the Tel Hai guest house on the earlier tiyul which I chronicled in these pages; at least the eggs weren’t powdered. (My financial secretary tells me that the retail prices were comparable for both these places; Gonen was definitely a better value.) It was hard not to notice the large group of developmentally disabled adults who were also staying there. I wondered to myself if any of them on their own could do what the cranes do, negotiate a journey from Europe to Africa using their innate ability to form mental maps.
Speaking of Tel Hai, that was our first stop of the morning. Not the guest house, but the national monument nearby – another place we had not yet been to. Here is the tribute to a small group of men who died in the 1920’s defending the small Jewish settlements in the northern Galil against marauding Arabs, the most famous defender being the renowned Yosef Trumpeldor – he who allegedly uttered something like “It is good to die for one’s country.” (itself a paraphrase of an old Latin quotation) with his last breathe. Those who actually knew him were convinced that, if he said anything at all, it would have been something like the Russian equivalent of “Oh ________.” There is a small statue there of a lion with his head tilted, ready to roar, probably as well known to Israelis as the MGM lion is to many of us. (Here’s a phenomenal factoid to impress your friends. What’s the name of the lion who appears in the MGM movie logo? The most recent one is named Leo [how’s that for being original], although there were four predecessors: Slats, Jackie, Tanner, and George.)
Jeff hit us with some information that may seem more relevant to our lives. The original agreement between England and France carving up this region left France in charge of Lebanon and the northern Galil. However, after the on-going fighting between our guys and the Arabs, the French washed their hands of the whole business and turned the area below Mount Hermon over to the British. If the French had not done so, a decent chunk of the Galil would probably be part of Lebanon today.
Enough of lions and semi-mythic heroes. Our last scheduled stop was the official Hula nature preserve, very close to the bird sanctuary. A very quiet, peaceful place, except when we passed the small screening room where they were showing a film about migratory birds. I wondered out loud: who can make more noise, fifty thousand cranes or thirty Israeli school children? The preserve is a place for people to wander around and get a sense of what the Hula Valley must have looked like back in 1950. There are trails, a lookout station, and a long boardwalk, some of it enclosed. Lots of different birds, water buffalos (not native), turtles, enormous catfish, maybe two foot long (also not native). We walked and walked and came back to where we started so that we too could see the film. No wonder the kids were screaming! The movie is about eighteen minutes long, and it’s in 3D with amazing effects: things shoot out at you; you get sprayed with water, the seats shake. Not only do they get your attention, you get a good sense about the trials and tribulations of the migratory bird, avoiding death by gunshot, poisoning, destruction of their resting places, and the many vicissitudes of traveling thousands of miles virtually non-stop.
Speaking of traveling, we all needed to get back, so we headed south, stopping in what passes for a mall in Beit Shean for lunch and then retracing our path (except that this time we took the road on the east side of the Kinneret instead of the west side), arriving in Maale Adumim a little before four in the afternoon. Just enough time to take a nap and get ready for the concert.
I didn’t tell you about the concert??!! OK. Shortly after we arrived in The Land in 2007, we found out about ‘Etnachta’ (nothing to do with the trope for the Torah reading), a series of chamber music concerts held at 5PM on Mondays throughout most of the year. IT’S FREE. You show up half an hour or an hour before the concert to get your tickets. Oh yes, it’s at the Jerusalem Theater, or should I say the Jerusalem theaters, because it is actually a complex of theaters, for music, for drama, for films, all in one very large building – with a book and music store, a cafĂ©, and lots of room for visual artists to show their work. We don’t go all the time; it depends on our availability and what’s being performed. The only down side to the concerts is the woman announcer who comes onstage and goes on f-o-r-e-v-e-r about the composers and the piece being performed and the musicians and where they studied and where they have performed, remembering to repeat the names of the players and what they are performing at least four times before and after – all in very high Hebrew which I may or may not understand – which is just as well.
Anyway, we were there about six weeks ago only to discover our friends Bernice and David at the same concert. At the intermission, we all looked at each other with the same thought. Did you hear what I just thought I heard? Are they giving away FREE tickets to the concerts that week of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein in which they will be playing the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. That’s what it sounded like. So we went down to the lobby and, sure enough,, that’s what they were doing. So we wound up hearing a very fine orchestral concert, sitting in about the sixth row on the left, and it didn’t cost us a shekel.
The Monday of the week I am describing brought us again to the Jerusalem Theater with David and Bernice, and the nice lady again announced that there were tickets available for the concert on Wednesday and Thursday, the same performers doing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – OK, this time it would cost us fifty shekels per, but $26 for two tickets was still one heck of a bargain. Our friends wanted to get there early to meet family members so they picked us up about 6PM, two hours after we got back from the north, which turned out all for the best because while our friends were hanging out with their family, we got to walk around and look at the art. Surprise! Of all nights to be there, we happened to arrive in time for several official openings for the art exhibitions; the artists themselves were there with lots of people, and wine was being poured as if it were water. Now I’m not proud; you offer me a glass of wine and I’ll take it. If there’s a refill in the offing, my glass is as good as anybody else’s. And as I only need one hand to hold a wine glass, that left the other hand free for the cup of coffee I went and purchased at the concession stand.
I had always wondered who gets to show their work on the walls of the Jerusalem Theater; and then Barbara told me from someone she knows who knows the situation, that it’s mostly a matter of money. If one is willing to pay the several thousand shekels fee, one can show one’s work – which might account for the wide variety and quality of art we’ve seen there. One will certainly be assured that a lot of art lovers will see the work, but still, that’s a hefty sum to shell out. Fortunately for all concerned, this night there was some excellent work for us to see. Right by the entrance was Yohanan Lakicevic, the creator of Kluv Hazahav, a play on words which works better in English “The Golden Cage,” pun definitely intended. His watercolors were inspired by the “warm relationship” he developed with his grandfather’s two armchairs, brought along when the family emigrated to Israel from then Yugoslavia in 1951. The artist created a series of pictures, many of which depict an elderly couple, perhaps married just a little too long, sitting in these armchairs and saying out loud to each other things which they shouldn’t even have been thinking. I enjoyed the framed illustrations so much that I shelled out a hundred shekels for an autographed copy of his book. How was I going to carry it?; both of my hands were already occupied. That’s what we have spouses for!
Around the corner and up the stairs was a group show of work by students of the Jerusalem Studio School, whose director, Israel Hershberg, is my kind of guy. I picked up a handout, a copy of an article entitled “The New Realism” from a year old issue of The Jerusalem Report, in which the journalist Anne Sassoon wrote: “Hershberg’s enthusiasm for the art he loves is only equaled by his disgust for the art he despises. After a few decades when art critics, curators and historians have been ruling the roost in the art world, intimidating artists and buyers alike – and only now, perhaps, being toppled by the gallerists, who are overpowering even them – Hershberg is a vehement and refreshing voice of opposition.” Oh joy! Someday, I’ll devote an article about my forays to various museums and galleries in Israel and some of what passes for art in them, and being totally stymied by the verbiage used ostensibly to explain the art but which actually creates an artificial universe of its own to keep normal people out. But not now; that’s another topic. I was more interested in the work on the walls. What Hershberg does is give his students reproductions of ancient sculptures and renaissance or baroque paintings to study and absorb. The students work on producing large (two and three feet high) charcoal drawings, black and white reproductions of the originals, not timid, stilted copies, but renderings done with brio and panache (wasn’t that a vaudeville duo?). I was truly enjoying this student work,, but……… the chimes began to ring. The concert was going to begin in a few minutes. Time to go to our seats, this time dead center, in about the sixth row. At times like this, I wonder how much two seats like this would set me back at Carnegie Hall – if I had to pay for them.
In a venue like this, it doesn’t matter where you sit as far as hearing the music is concerned. But when there are sixty to hundred musicians on stage, the closer you are, the better you can see each of them: the short redheaded woman all the way in the back who is the principal percussionist; the tall blonde woman next to the conductor’s stand who is the principal violinist and therefore the concertmaster. You can look at each and every violinist on the left side or violist on the right side, seated in pecking order; and you can think about being the last two violinists out of thirty and how good you have to be to be in the ‘backest’ row of a symphony orchestra. You can look at any one of the musicians and wonder about his life and imagine where he will go after the concert is over. You can try to match up the musicians with the list of names in the program. There is Vladimir and Olga, probably trained in the Former Soviet Union, and Rami and Sigal who were born in The Land, where classical music is less emphasized in the school system (much like the U.S.). You can look at the aggregate as they come on stage and listen as a hundred musicians proceed to tune up. And you can think about a day like this, where in the morning you were looking at twenty or so slate-grey turtles huddled together on a sunny spot on a log, and now you are seeing a hundred musicians dressed in black spread out on the stage of a large auditorium.
At that point in time, the conductor, Leon Botstein, (who is also the president of Bard College in his spare time) made his appearance, wearing his conducting jacket, replete with tails. He proceeded to give a long scholarly dissertation about Mahler and his music – in English, of course. It’s easy to spot the native-English speakers in such an audience. Just look to see who is reading the program on the English side, and who is reading it in Hebrew – like the people on my left. How much did they, or others like them in the audience, understand of Botstein’s academic presentation? That’s how I feel very often: I understand the topic (Oh, he’s talking about so and so), but somehow the nuances of the matter are lost in my mental translation. (Was the answer yes or no?) But not being fluent in Hebrew here in The Land is my problem. Should, however, the audience in the Jerusalem Theater need to know English to go to a concert? I’m assuming that everyone in the orchestra knows enough of my mother tongue to follow their Anglophonic conductor.
Leon Botstein finished his introduction, turned and signaled the orchestra that it was time to begin (everyone has had ample time to tune up by now). Mahler’s ninth symphony which lasts about an hour and a half would be performed without intermission. Plenty to listen to; plenty to consider; plenty to think about. For one thing, Mahler is much more difficult to perform than either Tchaikovsky or Berlioz, and I could detect passages which were a little ragged. Overall though, well done. At some point, I began to wonder what the musicians themselves would make of the program notes: “Gradually bits of aggressive motives start to infiltrate the lyrical intermezzo, and the descending scales in the harp signal the beginning of the end of this part and the return to the rondo. The coexistence of contrasts fighting an eternal war reaches in this movement its maximal expression……” Who would have thunk it? If I had only known……….
Poor Mahler! Overwhelmed in today’s Jerusalem by excess verbiage. Despised in Vienna while he was alive for who he was, a “Jewish dwarf,” even though he had converted out – at least on paper – for the sake of his career (no ‘imperial’ positions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire could be occupied by Jews). A man not blessed with good health who wrote symphonies in his spare time when he wasn’t conducting other people’s music. I wonder if he could have negotiated a journey from Europe to Africa using his innate ability to form mental maps.

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