Mozart in Israel

Bruce and obama in BethlehemAretzI mentioned my personal connection with Robert Levin’s completion of the Mozart Requiem, and our performances in Israel, in last week’s blog. I thought I would expand upon that experience, this week. I spent January, 2006, in Germany and Israel, singing with the Gächinger Kantorei, one of Europe’s premier choral ensembles, and the Israel Philharmonic. We presented a series of concerts commemorating the 250th anniversary of of Mozart’s birth, in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Israeli audiences passionately love Western classical music; though concert tickets are relatively as expensive as here in Chicago, every house we sang to was full, with listeners sitting in the aisles, standing along the walls, even seated onstage, occasionally blocking the musicians’ path. We were heard by more than 34,000 people—an incredible percentage of the total population.

Audiences and players alike responded very personally and emotionally to the music—the instrumentalists performed with a personal involvement and expressiveness one seldom sees (or hears) with American players, audibly acknowledging and appreciating one another both during and after performances. Their appreciation of the choir, again both during and after performances, was astounding. Historically, Jews do not have a strong choral tradition, and Israel has not fostered world-class choirs; so their response to this German choir was tinged with awe. Audience members, unimpeded by any sort of physical barriers or Andy Frain-type guards, mixed with musicians both onstage and backstage after performances, in a good-natured free-for-all, and the older listeners, many of whom were lined up in wheel chairs at the front of the auditorium, would call out in German and gesture to the singers to come and talk with them-- to tell us that they were from Germany originally, to tell us what it meant to them to hear this music sung by Germans. Walking home after concerts, sitting in local cafes in our tuxes, we would be recognized, waved at, honked at.

I initially flew to Stuttgart for three days of rehearsal with the choir and Mr. Rilling, then to Tel Aviv for rehearsals with the orchestra. We presented two separate programs: Bach’s Magnificat and the Mozart Requiem on the first, and the Mozart C minor Mass on the second. Both Mozart works were performed in completions by American musicologist Robert Levin. I had participated in the premier of the Mass completion the preceding January in Carnegie Hall, and suspect it was my familiarity with the work which won me a spot in this project. In Stuttgart we were guests of the Internationale Bachakademie; the Goethe-Institut flew us to Israel; and the Israel Philharmonic hosted us in Tel Aviv. We lived at the Hotel Esther, just five blocks from the Mediterranean, and took buses to the remote concert locations.

We also took several sightseeing trips, to archeological sites in Caesarea and Capernaeum, to Masada and the Dead Sea, to the Old City and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, and to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Yad Vashem visit was a particularly wrenching experience for the Germans; several would not go inside, and those who did were constantly bombarded by German names, German language, German photos, German faces and voices. The experience, which occurred early in our stay, remained with us for the rest of the month, and occasioned many an impassioned discussion. Immediately after Yad Vashem, we drove to the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint in the barrier wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and into Bethlehem. Many of our singers were from the former East Germany; the sight of the barrier, coming on top of the Yad Vashem experience, touched off an angry explosion in the bus, which was then fed by the sight of the poverty and hopelessness in Bethlehem itself. The city was nearly deserted; so a group of security vehicles and guards at the church was pretty obvious. We had to wait outside while some important person finished a tour of the church—and who should it be, but then-Senator Barack Obama, on a fact-finding trip. I walked up to him as he approached his vehicle, and his guards intervened to keep me at a distance-- but, as he told me, he instinctively recognized a constituent, and waved them away so that he could meet and talk with me. The Germans were pretty thrilled, and took many photographs of the photogenic Senator Obama and the back of my bald head.

Our final concert in Tel Aviv was a celebration of Mozart’s birthday itself, January 27. As a part of the orchestra’s “Philharmonic in Jeans” series, it was promoted to a younger, less musically literate crowd, and didn’t begin until 10:00 p.m. on the night of the 26th. Soda and beer were available free of charge in the lobby; in the auditorium, the lights were low and amber-colored, a smoke machine created a general other-worldly haze, the orchestra dressed completely in black, and two giant screens, on either side of the stage, alternately showed live footage of the performers, stills of the life and times of Mozart, and clips from the Amadeus movie. A popular, left-wing member of the Knesset served as emcee, and introduced the concert, talking about Sharon’s medical condition and the Mozart being played at his bedside, about the Hamas victory at the polls, about the Israeli love of good music—somehow, it was a light, comic presentation with plenty of appreciative laughter from the beyond-capacity, good-natured audience. They went wild at the conclusion of the concert, and then the MK talked again, right up to the stroke of midnight, when the musicians joined the audience in the lobby for beer and dancing until the early morning hours. A subdued but happy choir returned to Stuttgart the following day.

I had two days to myself in Stuttgart, which I spent exploring. The city was largely destroyed during the war, and reconstruction was done as quickly and cheaply as possible; some of the older buildings survive intact, and some are repaired, but a few still stand as ruins, Romanesque church walls with empty windows gazing on the sad march of history. Stuttgart seemed prosperous, and the many Turkish immigrants seemed well-integrated—every other fast food joint sold Döner Kebap and Schwarma. But one day I ventured into a lower, poorer part of town, to get a closer look at a church with two very tall towers which dominated the skyline. As I approached the church I saw that all automobile traffic had stopped; after a few more blocks, I saw dozens of policemen in riot gear, and police cars blocking intersections into the Marienplatz. No one stopped me, so I continued walking, and soon found myself in the midst of a skinhead/neo-Nazi rally and march. They seemed so young, so drunken, so pointlessly angry—but the anger was real, and so was the threat. The experience cast a new and sharper light on my month’s experience—and not a comforting one. I asked the proprietor of my hotel about what I had seen; he shook his head sadly, and told me I should be careful about walking around in the lower sections of town.

One imagines music as a bridge that brings people together, holds people together, heals wounds-- and this Israel project was a real and gratifying example of this vision in the flesh.   But we have so many more bridges to build, so many more wounds to heal. And the divisions, the wounds, are so deep, in Israel, in Stuttgart, in Chicago, in the United States. Certainly this trip was wonderful from a musical point of view; but I cannot separate the music from the other aspects of the experience. I am as thankful for my encounter with the barrier, and my collision with the neo- Nazis, as I am for the joy and healing we brought to those elderly Holocaust survivors in the front row. I could not be more grateful to Helmuth Rilling and the Bachakademie for including me in their project. I still pinch myself, that this opportunity came to me. I commence preparing for Chorale’s upcoming performance of Mozart’s Requiem with the knowledge that I am taking my turn, Chorale’s turn, with music that belongs to the entire world, that weeps for the entire world, and that is the world’s salvation.