Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Meeting with Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre

On September 12th I met with Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre. The building is situated in the leafy Yemin Moshe quarter in a position offering a view to the Tower of David, the Old City walls and the Judean Desert.

PH: Hed, let’s start with your own personal music experiences. When did your involvement with music begin?

Hed Sella: You may be surprised to hear that I am not a professional musician, have never studied music on an academic level nor have I ever had my eye on a musical career.

PH: What is your academic background?

HS: I graduated with a B.A. in Linguistics from Tel Aviv University. This was followed by M.A. studies at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) in Communications and Translation. I proceeded to work in that field – translating, editing, teaching, etc. I taught at the Hebrew University and worked there as a research assistant; at the Open University I was the science editor of materials for Mass Media studies. (I may well return to that area of my professional life one day.) But, early on, I was already spending some of my time and energy in directing musical projects

PH: So when did you start managing music projects?

HS: Inspired by my great love of the world of music and my experience as an amateur player, I had begun directing musical projects and organizations. After completing my compulsory army service, I was approached by the person directing the Yuval Café in Ramat Hasharon. This was a venue where much chamber music was played in an intimate and informal setting, with those attending events seated around tables sipping a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. A great number of Israeli artists performed there: some were beginning musical careers and looking for performing experience, others were among Israel’s best-known and most experienced chamber- and orchestral musicians. The artists received no payment – they just enjoyed the atmosphere and the audience’s interest. There were unforgettable evenings at the café when musicians sat down and spontaneously sight-read works. Café Yuval was a vibrant centre of musical activity, with some 100 concerts taking place there every year! I directed the venue’s musical program for four years, during which time I got to know many of Israel’s performing musicians.

PH: To where did this lead?

HS: In time, the organizational projects I took on were larger and more time-consuming and my professional life was focused around them. I organized musical activities at the Tel Aviv Museum, an important venue for chamber music- and chamber orchestra concerts. After that, I spent two years directing the Givatayim Music Conservatory. This conservatory, with a history of excellent teaching, has produced some of Israel’s finest musicians. From 1993 to 2000 I was director of programs at the JMC. Then, at the end of 2005, I was offered the job of directing the Jerusalem Music Centre itself.

PH: How did you see taking on the running of the JMC?

HS: I saw my role as furthering and continuing existing projects as well as broadening and developing new ones. The JMC has achieved much and is an important institution contributing to the enrichment of Israel’s musical life. I have been concentrating much effort on the Outstanding Young Musicians Program; a highly successful project that has been going for some 30 years, geared mostly to 14- to 18-year-olds, a program placing emphasis on the playing of chamber music and the theory of performance, it has nurtured tens and hundreds of young players from all over Israel. Many of our graduates have gone on to make fine concert careers – take, for example, the Jerusalem Quartet, the Ariel Quartet, the Jerusalem Trio, to name just three ensembles. I have been working on developing this program and we are fortunate in having recently received generous support for it from the Goldman family (UK).

PH: And the JMC’s educational outreach programs?

HS: We do much of that. We work in schools. We finance a program teaching violin and ‘cello to 500 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th grade children in different parts of Israel. We are, however, witnessing how difficult it is to persuade a child to try learning an instrument and then to persevere with it. With popular taste currently not pointing in that direction, it is our job to think of how we can encourage children to learn to play music and make this program work smoothly. I want to stress that we do not work alone: we always have a number of partners in educational projects – orchestras, conservatories, the academies of music, schools. We try to work with other institutions so that the end result is more meaningful. In this way, we wish to educate the younger generation and provide the necessary opportunities for outstanding pupils.

PH: Would you like to talk about new projects at the JMC?

HS: Yes. We have “adopted” the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Actually, this was quite a natural move as many of its players – string players in particular - are young people who have received their chamber music training here at the JMC. Several sponsors have helped to make this new strategy a reality – the Marc Rich Foundation, Bruno Landesberg, the Hanan Szuz Foundation, other organizations and, of course, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra itself. The IPO is interested in offering these young players the opportunity to enjoy playing orchestral music, not just solo- or chamber music. The Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra meets two or three times a year for intensive rehearsal sessions under the baton of top visiting- or Israeli conductors. They work on a full-scale orchestral program for a week or two and perform it at the Mann Auditorium (Tel Aviv) and in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall (Jerusalem Theatre), or sometimes at the Jerusalem YMCA. (Nowadays there are several European orchestras and ensembles who work in this way.)

In connection with this, I have established a department of wind playing at the JMC. There had always been sporadic activities for wind players here: some of the best-known wind players have held master classes at the centre – flautists Jean-Pierre Rampal and Aurele Nicolet, clarinetist Mitchell Lurie, and more. However, I enlisted the help of Yossi Arnheim, principal flautist of the IPO and previous head of the wind department at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv), to join us and to head the JMC’s department of wind playing on an on-going basis. We had never addressed wind-playing in a methodical way till then. Isaac Stern, who founded the JMC in 1973, was a violinist. His focus was on chamber music – strings and piano. The truth is that wind instruments play fewer roles in chamber music. However, with our new project with the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, nurturing young wind players had taken on greater importance. I am really happy and proud of this project. When we established the wind department at the JMC five years ago, the standard of the young wind players was much inferior to that of the string players and pianists, but, year by year, we have been noticing a huge improvement in the wind players’ tone, their intonation and their ability to play with others. The department has set its sight at excellence and we and the YIPO are enjoying the results. Also, it is important to encourage young people to play instruments of which there are not enough players – bassoon and French horn, in particular. We are offering teenagers who choose to learn these instruments, and show promise, as much professional guidance as possible in the form of workshops, master classers and opportunities to play with others. This is a real “grass roots” effort, concentrated on young people from all over Israel, the results of which we are already hearing in the concerts of the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. There is no greater satisfaction than hearing them, for example, performing Schubert’s 9th Symphony at the Mann Auditorium. There were people who, on hearing the concert broadcast on the radio, said they would not have guessed they were listening to a youth orchestra! This is the greatest compliment.

Another new project of ours is in the field of Arabic music, offering musical and cultural dialogue between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Our connection here is with Professor Taisir Elias, a musician and violinist of outstanding quality. We have collaborated with Elias, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Israeli Jeunesses Musicales to establish an ensemble of young Jewish- and Arabic musicians. Despite our not having large funds for the project, the ensemble is doing well and Elias brings together players from all over Israel to rehearse twice a month. The group performs in concerts and in festivals of ethnic music, with the occasional overseas concert tour. Two years ago, the ensemble was awarded a prize at an international festival in Germany.

Another Arab-Jewish program we have begun is at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, a bilingual primary school in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Foundation, which supports the school, approached us with a request to create a music program for the children. The program we established there, now running for some years, is quite special: children can learn to play oud or mandolin, these instruments representing both cultures.

PH: What projects are on your drawing board for the future?

HS: Actually, one that ties in with the above two programs I mentioned is a plan to run a week-long Mediterranean music festival that includes not just Israeli music and that of various Arab cultures but also music from countries such as Greece. Begun by Professor Edwin Seroussi, but stalled because of lack of finances, Murray Perahia has suggested we renew the project, taking a few days a year to familiarize ourselves with this body of music that is not “classical” in a conventional sense but that certainly qualifies as art music. Performers of western classical music have much to learn from these other musical traditions – their use of improvisation and technical virtuosity of different styles are a way of opening the students’ ears and developing fantasy. Of course, early musicians were experts in improvisation, as, for example, in continuo playing; Maestro Perahia is of the opinion that exposing today’s young classical musicians to Mediterranean music might awaken the above-mentioned skills, as do good theoretical training and experience in playing jazz. We would also like to have experts run jazz- and improvisation workshops for classical pianists; so many pianists, spending their lives learning works note for note from the score (and I have every respect for the musical text) lack the freedom to improvise, a skill enjoyed spontaneously by early music performers.

PH: And on the subject of early music, what about the Early Music Workshop?

HS: In 2002, after several years of fruitful activity of this workshop, in which the JMC was involved, we were obliged to stop running it. When I took over the role of director of the JMC, we managed to have two more years of the course (2007,2008) hosting many local- and overseas early music specialists and offering tuition in early music performance practice to 150 young players and singers. The tutors also performed concerts that were open to the general public. Once again we have had to put the Early Music Workshop on hold for reasons of finance. Resulting from the world financial downturn, the American Israel Cultural Foundation, one of our supporters, was almost destroyed. Other financial institutions were also no longer able to help the JMC. But I really hope to renew the activities of this very worthwhile study week in the not-too-distant future.

PH: Where does chamber music stand nowadays in today’s JMC activities?

HS: Chamber music has always been and still is the JMC’s “flagship” activity. For many years the chamber musicians met, rehearsed and performed in the intimate surroundings of the JMC. However, this seemed wrong from both financial- and community considerations. The artists were playing to small audiences and not receiving enough exposure. The illustrious Jerusalem Quartet, for example, played a few concerts here every year, filling the auditorium to capacity. I took this infrastructure and decided to build on it to include some 12 chamber music concerts a year taking place in the concert hall of the Jerusalem YMCA, the backbone of which would still be the Jerusalem Quartet. When I talked about this plan this four years ago, I was met with reactions that the idea was a pipe dream, that a well-attended chamber music series (meaning 300 to 400 audience members) was out of the question. I approached the project with trepidation; the series, however, took off immediately, with concert-goers interested in buying subscriptions. We were now able to host well-known chamber ensembles from New York, Paris and London and to offer overseas groups coming to perform in Tel Aviv the opportunity to also play in Jerusalem. So we are now embarking on the fourth chamber concert season, a series offering concerts played by Israel’s finest chamber groups as well as outstanding groups from outside of Israel. Many chamber music lovers are investing in subscriptions (we sold 400 subscriptions to the 2009-2010 series) while others prefer to buy occasional tickets to the concerts. What is clear is that people in Jerusalem are interested in chamber music and our aim at the JMC is to bring this music to these audiences. The 2010-2011 season promises to be especially interesting, with some of the best ensembles performing – the Ebene Quartet (France) for example and the great German tenor Christoph Pregardien singing Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey” with a Canadian wind ensemble and accordion accompanying him, and more.

And, on the subject of chamber music, there is, of course, the Carmel Quartet’s own series here in the auditorium of the JMC (also in Tel Aviv and in Haifa.) There has been much talk of the demand for narrated concerts and how important it is to give concert-goers more information as to what they are going to here, but few do it as well, as elegantly and tastefully as the Carmel Quartet. Violist Yoel Greenberg organizes and provides most of the explanations. Each concert is performed twice, once narrated in Hebrew and a second time, in English. This series is quite special, catering to the needs of music lovers who are always interested to know more and, of course, to Jerusalem’s vibrant English-speaking community.

PH: Hed, contemporary music has also been a part of the JMC’s program.

HS: Yes, and it continues to be important. But it is an ongoing- and uphill struggle. We, at the JMC, have an obligation to present concerts of music composed in the present. When I was involved in program planning at the JMC from 1993 to 2000, I included a good amount of modern music. But today it is difficult to find an audience or financing for this in conservative Jerusalem. (We even find it tricky to program a modern work or one that is not totally mainstream in our highly successful chamber music series!) We continue to perform modern music here in the JMC auditorium but with less success than in past years. However, we do have our Discoveries series – with the Ensemble of the 21st century presenting concerts of a very high level produced by Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky, these events being broadcast on Israeli radio. We endeavor to host the superb Kaprisma Ensemble (director, Israel Sharon) at least once a year as well as the Meitar Ensemble, a group of young players directed by Amit Dolberg. The Meitar Ensemble makes a point of including lesser-known works of Jewish- and Israeli composers in their programs.

We would like the JMC to hold more concerts of contemporary works. It is hard to find sponsors for these projects, these projects being of the kind to appeal to a younger audience than do conventional concerts. However, we certainly are not giving up, for the strength of the JMC has always been its ability to produce events that are not simply “more of the same”. Not being government subsidized or under the auspices of the Jerusalem Municipality, we have always been an independent institution with financial support from overseas, enabling us to be independent in our approach, enabling us to dare to be different. This latter aim has become more difficult to implement. All supporters want to play safe and this means being over-conservative, a strategy which, in my opinion, is a step in the wrong direction. I, personally, believe we must find new ways to win the hearts of the concert-going public: to be more creative and initiate fresher approaches and innovations and to risk performing less conventional works in styles of performance that might attract certain other groups of listeners back to our concerts. We must not stagnate.

We include contemporary music in our work in education; our students are given the opportunity of meeting and talking to today’s Israeli composers

PH: The JMC has long been associated with master classes.

HS: Yes. For many years master classes were the JMC’s “claim to fame”. But this must now be seen in the wider context. The JMC was planned in the 1960’s and it opened its doors in 1973. Israel was a “smaller” and poorer country; for Israelis, traveling overseas was expensive and difficult. Inviting overseas artists to give master classes here was not quite as easy as it is today, but musicians were certainly very keen to come here. Israel was not as open to the world outside as it is today and there was a great need to bring well-known musicians to Israel. But things have changed. Outstanding young musicians travel overseas to summer schools and to more extended studies. And different Israeli musical organizations all over the country offer a variety of workshops and master classes, as do the academies of music themselves. So the need to constantly bring overseas artists to give master classes has become less urgent than it was once, inspiring as it is to host these musicians here. Some of our own teachers have studied and taught in the best music schools overseas and have returned with rich experience and teaching knowledge. All the same, we have not stopped offering master classes at the JMC and they will, indeed, be continuing; they are still a valuable teaching tool but are no longer the central activity they were in the past. Let’s not forget the wonderful master classes given recently by the Emerson Quartet, Andreas Scholl, Miriam Fried, Shmuel Ashkenazy, James Galway, Antony Pay, Richard Goode and Murray Perahia himself, of course. In the 2010-2011 season we will have master classes given by violinist Gyorgy Pauk, ‘cellist Raphael Wallfisch, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer, choral conductor Brady Allred and pianist Arieh Vardi. We hope pianist Victor Rosenbaum, who has been here several times in the past, will also be at the JMC. Rosenbaum’s visit will be in cooperation with the Aldwell Center. We are hoping to bring one or two of the Rubenstein Piano Competition judges to the JMC to hold master classes.

PH: Hed, this discussion would not be complete without a few words about Murray Perahia.

HS: In 2001, the JMC’s founder and president Isaac Stern died and we were left “orphaned” of our great mentor. The centre began the process of searching for an international figure who would function ethically in a position of authority and lead the JMC on to new achievements, to new standards, to more international exposure, etc. To replace the founder with someone who would move forward in his own different way was no small task. My predecessor Benny Gal-Ed and I both searched and approached people who might take on the job. In 2008 Murray Perahia, one of today’s very greatest pianists, agreed to take on the position. Perahia, who resides in London, has strong connections with Israel, has family here and visits frequently. For many years, Murray Perahia has shown much interest in music education for young people. He assists us in several capacities – in raising money for our various projects, in establishing new musical goals and in deciding how to contribute more to the music education of our young players. In particular, Perahia has infused new energy and focus into our training of young pianists. An outstanding personality and devoted musician, his presence and wisdom are and will continue to be an enriching element in the life and work of the JMC.

PH: Hed Sella, thank you for your time and for shedding light on so many aspects of the Jerusalem Music Centre.