The Eilat Chamber Music Festival, which takes place this year between March 17-26, is a sheer celebration for every true music lover. Its program features performances by the world’s top classical artists, many of them making their Israeli debut in Eilat, as well as master classes for music students from Israel and around the world, led by prominent teachers and artists.
It is hard to believe that this beautiful festival, now avidly supported by a number of foundations in Israel and abroad, started out just six years ago as a modest weekend event with an almost family atmosphere.
“It probably sounds surprising,” says festival founder and artistic director Leonid Rozenberg, “but the major aim of the festival was an educational one. Granted, there are several classical music festivals in Eilat, but they are aimed at hotel clients, not Eilat residents. Classical music in Eilat is rather scarce and is limited mainly to the concerts of the local conservatory,” says Rozenberg, who is a violinist, music organizer and director of the Eilat Conservatory.
Rozenberg explains that “the geography dictates the artistic guidelines of the festival. This means that the festival must be attractive to music lovers from all over Israel and maybe from abroad – because people cross international borders to attend festivals in Salzburg, Prague and St. Petersburg, so why not Eilat?” He describes the musical life in Israel in general as rather conservative. “Year after year the same artists – excellent artists, I agree – return to our stages. It takes a long time to see new and fresh names appearing in Israel.”
And this is what has defined Rozenberg’s approach to the programming. “I needed to give people from central Israel a good reason to come to the country’s southernmost city. For me, novelty and uncompromising music quality are the name of the game.”
Rozenberg says that the Verbier Festival in Switzerland was his role model. “The Verbier Festival lasts about three weeks and offers its stage to both established outstanding artists and young musicians at the start of their international career. And there also are master classes.”
He adds that daring music projects are also rare in Israel. “This is not surprising because they are very expensive. But festivals by their nature provide a framework for such experiments. Since our festival is a subsidized event, it is only fair that the money goes toward bringing expensive ensembles, and not into the organizers’ pockets.”
As an example, he recalls the Israeli premieres of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and La Venexiana. The latter ensemble was recognized as the world’s best Baroque ensemble precisely the year that it appeared in Eilat. “And this time it will be the Gabrielli Consort with Paul McReesh. This year they will tour Europe with their premiere performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, and their first concert will be in Eilat.”
Among the hot names the festival will host this year are violists Tatjana Masurenko and Maxim Rysanov, who will appear with cellist Kristine Blaumane and pianist Jacob Katsnelson; violinist Chloe Hanslip (“according to Gramophone magazine, she is one of the world’s five best violinists,” says Rozenberg); prominent cellist and musicologist Alexander Ivashkin; cellist Pieter Wispelwey with his musical partner pianist Paolo Giacometti; several excellent pianists, such as Jacob Bogaart, Oxana Yablonskaya and Dejan Lazic (“who debuted in Eilat a few years ago”); British clarinetist Antony Pay; conductors Paul McCreesh, Gisele Ben-Dor; and Eduard Schmieder with his iPalpiti Youth Orchestra, which performed at the festival opening six years ago. Also on the roster are singers Anna la Fontaine, Elisabeth von Magnus, Mhairi Lawson, Nicholas Mulroy, as well as flamenco dancer Maria Juncal with her ensemble of dancers and players.
Some of the Israeli musicians of international caliber include the Jerusalem Quartet; violinists Hagai Shaham and Ani Schnarch; singers Claire Meghnagi and Ye’ela Avital; and harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon.
In addition to 20 concerts, mostly on weekends, the festival program features various master classes for violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano, led by prominent artists participating in the festival.
“About 120 students come from all over the world – such as the US, Columbia, the EU, Korea – will come to study in Eilat, as well as Israelis who are studying abroad and use these classes as an opportunity to visit home,” says Rozenberg. “While most of the teachers are festival participants, some prominent professors, such as pianist Dmitry Bashkirov, come to Eilat to teach.”
Another group of prominent teachers come within the framework of the Keshet Eilon Music Center Spring Seminar, which this year moves to Eilat. “We have decided to join forces,” explains Rozenberg. “I think this is exactly what should be done in such a small country. About 50 young Israelis will participate in this program and will study with such renowned professors as Edward Grach of the Moscow Conservatory, Ani Schnarch and Izhak Rashkovsky from London, Israelis Hagai Shaham, Hillel Tzori and Mila Feldman. And violinist Cihat Askin, who is coming with his students from Turkey, especially at a time when the relationship between our countries leaves a lot to be desired.”
Master classes members will give students’ concerts and participate in two competitions for piano and for strings, dedicated to Franz Liszt and J.S. Bach, respectively.
What’s more, talented musicians of all ages are invited to indulge their passion for chamber music under the tutelage of professional coaches in a special Chamber Music Amateur Project.
The festival is supported by the Arnika Foundation from Holland, which gave it the initial push and has secured its existence; the Israeli Tourism Ministry; the Foreign Affairs Ministry; the Culture Ministry; Bank Hapoalim; the Eilat Municipality; the British Council; Instituto Italiano di Cultura; the Spanish Embassy; the Austrian Cultural Forum; the Zionist Federation of London; and Gramophone magazine.