JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Throughout June, a group of European classical musicians, accompanied by Palestinians and Israelis, has roused and challenged audiences across Jerusalem in an eclectic festival aimed at bridging the city’s divides.
Audiences at the fourth annual Sounding Jerusalem Festival (www.soundingjerusalem.com) have heard chamber music by Brahms and Bach wafting through the Old City, Mozart and Mendelssohn at a Crusader church in an Israeli Arab village and flutes playing Beethoven in the confines of an ancient fort in the West Bank.
Many of the daily concerts, which will conclude on Sunday with a spectacular sunset show, also featured local harmonies.
“We are trying to break down walls,” the festival’s prime mover, 35-year-old Austrian cellist Erich Oskar Huetter, said on Wednesday as he prepared to lead an ad hoc sextet including an Arab oud, or lute, accordion and clarinet for an innovative evening performance in a medieval courtyard near al-Aqsa mosque.
“We hope to get people a bit confused, say to themselves is this really the music of my enemy?” added Huetter, who founded the series of free concerts in 2006 and who expects to develop it further next year, with continued financial support from Austrian, German and other European state cultural foundations.
Among prominent European names persuaded to perform were the Casals Quartet from Spain and Vienna’s Artis Quartet, along with an impressive line-up of soloists, including French clarinetist Michel Lethiec and Austrian pianist Paul Gulda.
Wednesday’s program ran through music appropriate to the four quarters of the Old City — Bach for the Christians, Arabic classical airs for the Muslim Quarter, European and Israeli Jewish tunes and finally toe-tapping Armenian melodies.
It delighted an audience of 100 or so, from both Arab and Jewish sides of the modern city of Jerusalem, who came despite the tension that pervades the walled Old City, where barbed wire marks divisions between Arab and Jewish homes and heavily armed Israeli police patrol the narrow, cobbled streets.
“It’s very touching,” said Tzipi Weitzman, an Israeli art teacher who said the festival had become an annual fixture in her cultural calendar and tempted her to return to parts of her home city she had long avoided due to violence or tension.
“The festival has brought me back to the Old City.”
After 19 concerts, many drawing much bigger audiences, this Sunday’s finale will reprise a spectacular staged last year; about 40 young brass players from Europe and the Middle East will mingle with an audience scattered on the flat rooftops of old Jerusalem to perform a work composed for the occasion.
As Huetter puts it: “Our work is creating something that doesn’t belong to one side or the other.”
The ideals of the festival do not always float easily over harsh realities on the ground. Twice this month, once on the Jewish side of Jerusalem, once in the Palestinian West Bank, the program was disrupted as venue hosts had second thoughts about embracing a phenomenon they find hard to categorize politically.
Huetter sees sometimes heated debate as part of the point: “We are looking for a reaction. Through music you can create a human encounter where it is absolutely absurd to bring hatred.”
Though audiences are generally mainly Jewish or mainly Arab depending on the venue in this divided city, Huetter believes that concert-goers still respond to the fact they are taking part in a festival that stretches across that divide.
This year’s season has featured more improvisation between musicians from European and Arabic traditions, producing rare evenings of excitement as players listen, learn and adapt their instruments and ideas to unfamiliar musical structures.
“It’s something quite new,” said Ahmad Eid, the young Palestinian jazz bassist who played in Wednesday’s concert.
Oud-player Taiseer Elias, one of Israel’s leading exponents of Arab music said before playing: “The fact that many different musicians from different cultures come and play together is a great thing ... It’s very symbolic of this country.”
After the performance, as the audience gathered around tea and watermelon, Palestinian pensioner Beatrice Habesch reflected: “It’s good. It reminds us that music has no enemy.
“We are the enemy of the Jews and the Jews are the enemies of the Palestinians. But the music has no enemies.”
Editing by Paul Casciato