It was with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension that we bought tickets for the concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in which the first half consisted of the performance of an unknown work entitled ‘Twelve Tribes’ by an unfamiliar composer, Benjamin Yusupov. The attraction of the second half of the concert lay in the performance of Dvorak’s much-loved cello concerto, and that was why we took a chance on that occasion.
On entering the Henry Crown auditorium in the Jerusalem Theatre complex we were taken aback by the massive orchestra assembled on the stage. This was obviously going to be something extraordinary. The conductor, a small man of middle age with a head of white hair topped by a small black kippa (skull cap), took his place at the podium then turned to the audience and began to explain the rationale behind the piece we were about to hear. Turns out that he was also the composer, and felt impelled to give us some insights into the music which, he informed us, would take about an hour to perform.
In clear, simple Hebrew he explained that he had felt the need to keep a record of the musical traditions of the different ethnic groups comprising the Jewish people in the various regions of the world, but primarily those of communities from Asian countries and those which had been incorporated into the former Soviet Union, since those traditions were beginning to fade from memory. Thus, the segments making up the various movements consisted of passages evoking the musical traditions of the Jewish communities of Tajikistan (Yusupov’s birthplace), Georgia, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran and others as well as an evocation of Klezmer music from eastern Europe.
The various pieces required tremendous virtuosity from the orchestra, with rhythmic shifts and the use of a variety of unusual instruments, with particular emphasis on the brass and the tympani. The full range of the orchestra was used to maximum effect, creating a kind of ‘surround sound’ which enveloped the audience in a musical experience that was both captivating and intriguing. Yes, there was a lot of noise coming from the orchestra, but at no point was it the cacaphonic disharmony that characterizes many modern musical offerings. Somehow all the different musical traditions blended together harmoniously.
Yusupov himself is an impressive musician – pianist, conductor and composer – who has won many international prizes for his work, and has been resident in Israel since 1990. Here, too, he has won prizes and made a name for himself, working in tandem with many prominent artists and ensembles, as well as continuing to compose at breakneck speed. As he explained, the idea of assembling the music of the various Jewish communities into one orchestral piece served to symbolize both the ingathering of the exiles and the unity that life in Israel represents.
It cannot be denied that at times like today, when discord and disagreement prevail in Israel, it is encouraging to be able to turn to music to give us consolation and hope for the future.