A painful progress towards harmony

Pinchas Zukerman went to Israel to unite Palestinian and Jewish children in music. But events got in the way
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It wasn't the best time to be in Israel. The National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, together with their music director, the illustrious violinist Pinchas Zukerman, arrived in Tel Aviv for the start of a tour of the Middle East and Europe less than a week after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Television stations and newspapers worldwide were still showing pictures of the killing of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Darrah by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, 40 miles down the coast from the orchestra's hotel. The orchestra had come with a message about how music can build bridges, but it seemed doubtful that anyone would now listen.

It wasn't the best time to be in Israel. The National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, together with their music director, the illustrious violinist Pinchas Zukerman, arrived in Tel Aviv for the start of a tour of the Middle East and Europe less than a week after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Television stations and newspapers worldwide were still showing pictures of the killing of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Darrah by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, 40 miles down the coast from the orchestra's hotel. The orchestra had come with a message about how music can build bridges, but it seemed doubtful that anyone would now listen.

This was not the return to the city of his birth that Zukerman had hoped for. "It's not nice to see those pictures on TV," he said. "It reminds me of really bad times." Zukerman was born in the same year as Israel was established - 1948 - and the bad times have been plenty. As a schoolboy he saw tanks in the street during the Sinai campaign of 1956, and in 1973, back on a visit, he was forced to take refuge in the air-raid shelter of the same hotel in Tel Aviv where I spoke to him. "Certain people would never adhere to the peace process," he said. "But the one thing we need to do is to continue the dialogue. If we close the doors we're going to be in deep shit."

The NAC came to Israel full of good musical intentions. A substantial part of their planned activity was educational, a major area of concern for the orchestra, as their managing director Christopher Deacon stressed.

"Education is one of the key pillars on which we build our touring and outreach," he explained. "On our Canadian tour last year there were 14 concerts and 42 educational events - three to one. On this tour, our goals are to provide educational benefits to the kids we're meeting, and to benefit an audience back home"; the latter through a sophisticated website which provides a daily record of the tour, with text and video clips of the orchestra's activities posted daily.

"What we're trying to do," Deacon sums up, "is build bridges with music, cross borders, get children from different countries and cultures to talk to each other and make music together."

The programme for Israel was extensive. An event called "Dialog through Music" was to involve a live video link-up between Israeli music students in Tel Aviv, Palestinian students in East Jerusalem and Canadian students in Ottawa, where the orchestra is based. Another project involved Zukerman and some of the orchestra visiting the music conservatory in Ramallah in the West Bank.

But the video link-up was postponed, and Ramallah - where Palestinian rioting and Israeli reprisals have been at their worst, and where two Israeli soldiers were lynched soon after the orchestra left Israel - always looked doubtful. After daily consultation with Canadian Embassy officials came the final thumbs-down. This left a visit to a school in Tel Aviv, where the musicians were adored and the children clearly had a wonderful experience; but among the Jewish pupils there were just two Arab Israelis, and no bridges to be built.

And then came the crowning disappointment - the cancellation of the next leg of the orchestra's tour, which would have taken them to Jordan. For the first time in his life, Zukerman was to have spent a night in an Arab country, to have given a concert and played in schools. But the Canadian Embassy was anxious about anti-North American demonstrations in Amman, and what Christopher Deacon called "one of the key pillars of the Middle East visit" was reduced to ruins.

Music seemed impotent in the face of such events, but Pinchas Zukerman is convinced that in other circumstances it can play a vital role in bringing about the sorts of reconciliation the region desperate needs.

"It's about building that trust factor between people," he said. "Technology can be used to communicate, and music can do the same thing. Many Israeli musicians don't know there's a conservatory in Ramallah - and it's just half an hour from here. It's like you going to Brighton and saying, 'There's a conservatory in Brighton and it's been there for 25 years.' It's asinine. At the moment there's no willingness towards trust, no reason. So we create the reason. 'Come and shake hands, come and see me play. Let's talk about it.' It's just a matter of breaking the ice."

Breaking the ice would have to be done another time, but meanwhile the NAC got on with their tour with two sell-out concerts in Tel Aviv, Zukerman directing the orchestra and sharing soloist duties with 17-year-old Jessica Linnebach. Linnebach was encouraged on to the NAC's Young Artists' Programme by Zukerman, but in a typically self-effacing fashion he rejects any responsibility for her success. "They teach me. I say, Jessica, how do you do that? She's one of these people who when on stage has the ability to raise the level of what's going on ... I'm not bringing anything out of her."

Jessica herself sees it rather differently. "He's just amazing," she insists. "I learn so much every time I play with him. He treats me like an equal. I know that I'm not, but he makes me feel great."

Feeling great is not as frequently associated with orchestral musicians as it might be, but Zukerman seems to have the knack of spreading it around. "He's fun-loving, but he takes his music very seriously," says violinist Elaine Klimasko. "He's thought a lot about how he wants it to sound. I don't think there's a musician in the orchestra who wouldn't say he's one of the greatest musicians they've ever met."

Zukerman's no-nonsense style, and a manner that betrays no trace of ego, are more than just two reasons musicians like him. They are counterparts to a single-minded determination and dedication to whatever he sets out to do - whether it's getting the music to sound how he wants, or taking part in a tour that takes in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Jordan, East Jerusalem, Ramallah may all be on hold, but as he says, "It'll happen. It'll happen next time."

National Arts Centre Orchestra/ Pinchas Zukerman: Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121 780 3333), Tuesday; Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (0141 287 5511), Wednesday

Comments