September 4, 2008
Vienna Puts the Spotlight on Yiddishkeit
By BARRY DAVIS
Later this month, an historic event will take place in Vienna. While it is hardly likely to make the world sit up and take note, the first festival devoted to Jewish and Israeli music ever held in Austria is certainly a laudable milestone.
"When I took up this post around a year ago, I decided I wanted to have a festival here each year devoted to a different culture," says Bernhard Kerres, CEO of the Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna. "It was also clear to me that the first festival would be based on Jewish and Israeli music."
The result of that realization and determination is the Spot On: Jiddischkeit festival, which will take place at the Konzerthaus on September 13 and 14, and features an impressive roll call of top Jewish and Israeli artists and ensembles from a wide range of genres.
The lineup includes klezmer maestro Giora Feidman, stellar jazz bass player Avishai Cohen, veteran folk-pop singer/songwriter Hava Alberstein, world music megastar Idan Raichel and young Paris- based Israeli jazz pianist Yaron Herman. There are, naturally, several classical ensembles in the program as well as the Vienna- based wife- husband team of vocalist Timna Brauer and pianist Eli Meiri (Brauer's mother is Israeli and Meiri hails from Petah Tikva) and high-energy cross-cultural act Boom Pam.
Kerres says he was keen to provide not only something of an eclectic taste of what Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish musicians have to offer, but in devising the festival program he kept aware of the role played by Jewish musicians in Austrian culture.
"Historically, Jewish influence has always been strong in Austria," he explains. "If you think of the early 20th century, and people like Freud and Mahler, for instance, you can see that very clearly."
But there's also no getting away from the painful associations conjured up by the juxtaposing of Austria and Jewish culture. Kerres addresses the issue head-on. "We all know what happened in the Holocaust, and it is difficult to pay tribute to that. For me, personally, I look back at what happened with the utmost disbelief, and we have to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
"Austrian history here is very difficult. Many Austrians see themselves as victims of Nazi Germany. I don't see it like that. Hitler was Austrian. Austrians are certainly not victims."
KERRES SAYS it was not easy putting the festival program together, for the best of reasons. "We wanted to have all the different genres involved, but then we thought we might end up with a festival lasting two months. So we had to be selective."
In fact, there are a number of artists in the program who are neither Jewish nor Israeli, but have Jewish connections or are close to Jewish culture. Celebrated South African-born classical violinist Daniel Hope fits into the latter category. Hope, who will perform at the festival with British cellist Josephine Knight, has Jewish German forebears and has attained superstar status in the classical world.
"I think that is something that is characteristic of Jewish artists, that ability to feed off various cultures," Kerres continues, adding that he favors a cosmopolitan approach to culture and sees considerable knock-on advantages in leapfrogging and marrying cultural borders.
"Music is a universal language which goes straight into your heart. It arouses emotions, and that is always far better than politics. I think we have a wonderful mix of artists at the festival who feed off different cultures, and I think that makes the program more attractive and more appealing to the general public."
The Konzerthaus is a certainly a venerable stage for the Israeli- Jewish musical showcase. There are four halls with a combined capacity of 3,500 people, the largest of which seats over 1,800 spectators. The festival concerts will take place over the two days, often simultaneously, starting from 9 p.m. on September 13 and from 4 p.m. on the morrow. All told, there will be 17 shows, and passes for the entire festival cost only 40.
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Originally published by BARRY DAVIS.
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