Visiting Palestine in 1936, the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini commented that “even the peasants here know music.” (The peasants in question were in fact German doctors- and lawyers-turned-kibbutzniks.) Reviewing September’s Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, Norman Lebrecht argues that Israel can still provide “what every musician seeks most, namely a public that is as passionate and knowledgeable as himself.”
The first thing [performers at the festival] encounter is silence. In four days of concerts, twice a day, I did not hear a single cough. “The best concentration anywhere,” says Elena Bashkirova, the festival’s artistic director. Programs are unyieldingly highbrow. Concerts contain at least five major works and last two-and-a- half hours. There are no encores. The public leaves the premises deep in thought. “The quality of the public is unique,” says Bashkirova. “If I put on something difficult, . . . they don’t complain. On the contrary, people come to me and say, ‘Please keep doing this, we want to learn.’” . . .
Bashkirova thinks her ideal audience arises from a particular Jerusalem tension which drives the rest of the world to distraction. She may well be right. But I can’t help blaming a music industry that reduced the art to ubiquity. We are never more than an arm’s length away from a masterpiece, on record or online. We are never more than a short flight away from any piece we might wish to hear. Music has lost value. We have forgotten the effort that it requires, as performer and listener. I found it again in Jerusalem.