N.Y. Phil Puts Israeli Classical Music In The Spotlight


In what is being described as a first, the New York Philharmonic will present a program of contemporary Israeli classical music by some of that country’s leading composers. The “New Music From Israel Program,” which takes place Monday, Feb. 9 (7 p.m.), is a co-presentation with the 92nd Street Y and is part of the N.Y. Phil’s CONTACT! series. The composers on the program are Josef Bardanashvili, Yotam Haber, Shulamit Ran and Avner Dorfman. The Jewish Week discussed the program with its brainchild, Hanna Arie-Gaifman, director of the 92Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts. The interview was conducted via email.

Q: Can you explain a little about the collaboration between the N.Y. Phil and the 92Y on this effort to spotlight modern Israeli composers?

A: When the programming teams of N.Y. Phil and 92Y decided to program CONTACT! with living Israeli composers, we looked at works that would represent some of the richness of the contemporary creative scene of Israel as well as Israeli composers living abroad. The choices made are quite representative although of course far from exhaustive.

We’ve heard so much about Israeli jazz musicians and modern dancers in New York. Israeli classical composers seem to be under the radar. What is it about Israeli classical music that made you approach the N.Y. Phil about spotlighting the country’s composers?

Israeli composers, like Israeli artists, are both very deeply rooted in the cultural mixture of the Eastern European, the Middle Eastern North African or South American musical heritage. They are so typical of Israel, and at the same time very much part of the international musical scene. ‬

There are two generations of very active composers on the program: Josef Bardanashvili and Shulamit Ran, both in their 60s, and Avner Dorman and Yotam Haber, not yet 40. In fact, Dorman studied with Bardanashvili in Israel before coming to New York to study with John Corigliano.

What ties these composers together is their personal way of referring to their roots, whether cultural or religious. Bardanashvili refers in his works to Georgian musical elements (the country of his origin), as well as Latin hymns, tango and jazz rhythms which are very meaningful to him, while Dorman finds his inspirations in the sounds, melodies, smells and tastes of Jerusalem.

Shulamit Ran’s “Mirage” awakens in me the sensation of the Negev desert during a hamsin [hot, dry wind]. Haber’s reference to Benedetto Marcello’s settings of the Psalms ties the worlds of the Western Jewish tradition and the Italian music together. All that said, each of the composers brings his or her own mixture of Jewish and Israeli culture, their very own voice and distinct artistic identity.

Is there such a thing as an “Israeli” classical sound, in the way Aaron Copland is seen as having an “American” sound?

I would have hard time pinpointing the Israeli equivalent to Aaron Copland, although various composers — among them Stephan Volpe, in the 1930s — attempted to create music of the land of Israel that would be rooted more in the Sephardic and Middle Eastern musical tradition than the European one. It is actually now that these varied kinds of sounds and melodies meet in works by composers like Avner Dorman or Betty Olivero.

More broadly, we keep hearing that classical music in America is suffering. True?

The declarations of classical music in America is suffering seem to me self-defeating and actually not true. The creative scene is so live and so vibrant, and there is certainly a lot of interest among the young people that I see, and I see many.