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Sounding Jerusalem

June 26, 2009

konzert_en_karem_credit_to_christian_jungwirthFor me, the hot, dry evenings of June in Jerusalem and the hills around it have become associated with nocturnal discovery in search of musical gems. It is the time of the Sounding Jerusalem Festival, weeks of nightly concerts featuring some of the best in European classical chamber music. The programme’s highlights for me are eclectic improvisations between the visiting Europeans and Israeli and Palestinian players, creating both tension and novelty in exploring the similarities, common roots and differences between Western and oriental instruments and traditions.

The tensions are not just musical, but, in Jerusalem of course, can turn political, in a way the young Austrian cellist who founded the event four years ago seems to relish.

In the story I filed today, I quoted Erich Oskar Huetter as saying he wanted to “break down walls”, by which he was talking metaphorically about the music and of the divides between the people of the city he has grown to love. It’s far from easy. Israelis are banned by their government from travelling to some areas of the West Bank where concerts have been held. Even if they weren’t, few would dare travel there in a climate of mutual fear and antagonism that last winter’s Gaza war has only heightened. Likewise, Palestinians from the West Bank are mostly prevented from crossing boundaries into Jerusalem and Israel, boundaries marked out in part by the very real wall Israel has built around the city against the threat of suicide bombers and other attacks.  The result, audiences for the concerts are very rarely mixed.

One of the distinguished European soloists who have been drawn to Jerusalem by Huetter describes the 35-year-old, in French, as un fou utopique, a “crazy utopian” perhaps.  Whatever optimistic designs he may harbour about bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in the divided city, however, he strikes me as having a fairly realistic, modest goal. He’s not expecting everyone to hold hands, listen to the music and forget about the troubles around them. But at least the audiences, he says, however different they may be from each other, understand that they are participating in a month-long phenomenon that stretches across the divide.  They form, he says, a single Sounding Jerusalem community in a place where the word community is most usually expressed in the plural.

And when cultures do clash, and voices are raised, Huetter seems just as happy.  He wants, he says, while setting the highest of musical standards, to generate reactions, shared human experiences, that also promote reflection on the environment in which the works are played.

roofconcertii_credit_to_christian_jungwirthIt can just be fun, too. The locations of the festival surprise even long-time residents of the city and its environs. Who knew there was a mediaeval Arab castle in that village near Ramallah? I had also never seen the courtyard pictured above in the village of Ein Kerem, in Israel, which is part of a Christian-run care facility for disabled children. Nor did I know quite what lurked on the rooftops of the Old City until invited up for last year’s spectacular festival finale (left). Featuring dozens of young Middle Eastern and European brass players scattered across Jerusalem, the spectacular will be reprised for the end of this year’s festival on Sunday.

Listen out for more reactions.

PICTURES: Sounding Jerusalem/Christian Langwirth


A very nice performance of a piece called ‘Melange Orientale’ from last year’s festival can be found over on YouTube at Q&feature=related.
Well worth a watch.

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