Dispatch from Jerusalem: Chamber music in historic sites

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Music played in sacred sites is nothing new to Southern California, with concerts routinely programmed in churches and synagogues from Pasadena to Santa Monica to Newport Beach.

Halfway around the world in Jerusalem, city of three faiths, similar houses of worship abound, many with historic value. But while Jerusalem hums a classical tune -- performance groups salted with the world-class players of many nationalities have resettled here -- the norm is to play in more traditional (read: less controversial) venues.

A case in point was the run-up to Friday’s 10 concerts in 10 churches and historic sites, a day of chamber performances scheduled under the umbrella of a 10-day Israeli Opera Festival underway in Jerusalem and at Masada.

In March, a consortium of ultra-Orthodox citizenry and some religious deputy mayors elsewhere demanded that the city of Jerusalem withdraw its support for the chamber music event because of the potential violation of Halachic (ultra-Orthodox) rules, which discourage Jews from entering churches. Their contention: An individual has the right to choose to enter a church, but the Jerusalem municipality they pay taxes to should not be funding events in churches.


The rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Places subsequently met with the Jerusalem mayor. A six-week tug of war took place; when the dust settled in mid-May, the city agreed to withdraw its name as a festival sponsor. Since no civic money had been committed in the first place to support the festival, the practical result was that the city’s seal was pulled off event advertising and the concerts would go on as planned.

A classic Israeli dispute -- one in which nothing much changed, but one in which each side declared victory. And on Friday, the shows went on.

Beyond politics, other contrasts emerged during Friday morning’s performance at the late 19th century St. Vincent De Paul Hospice, located just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. During pauses in the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s nuanced reading of four of the six pieces from Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto, decidedly amplified and secular music bled through the walls from the adjacent upscale pedestrian Mamilla shopping mall. That notwithstanding, the orchestra, under music director and harpsichordist David Schemer and playing baroque-period instruments, turned in a rich and vibrant 75 minutes that struck a chord, based on the reaction of the 150-some people filling the church’s pews.

Across town an hour later, a modern piece was played in an aging concert hall. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, under charismatic young conductor Gil Shohat, had shrunk down to 12 players for a chamber-sized reading of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von Der Erde.’

The impact of the piece, before a sparse but appreciative audience, was not, however, chamber-sized. Transcending amplified sound, animated tenor Gabriel Sadeh and plangent mezzo soprano Ayala Zimbler delivered impactful vocal solos while the orchestra, particularly the winds, played passages that turned the aging and shopworn Henry Crown Symphony Hall into a sacred site, at least for this one afternoon.


The music of summer, alfresco and elsewhere

--Christopher Smith, from Jerusalem