The drive to make a difference may run in the family, but Elena Bashkirova, married to Daniel Barenboim, has managed to make her own mark on the international cultural music scene as the founding artistic director of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival.
“I never planned to become a director, it happened totally by chance,” says the energetic pianist about her inspired undertaking, which – during two weeks each September – has united international and local musicians in an intense collaboration at the heart of Jerusalem’s YMCA cultural center since its inception in 1998.
Upon returning to her home in Berlin after this year’s festival in Jerusalem, Bashkirova shares some thoughts as to the motivation behind her efforts: “Jerusalem, as you know, is a kind of cradle of all cultures- but it is bleeding! We had this intense conversation with some journalists and friends, when Daniel and I attended an IPO-concert [Israel Philharmonic Orchestra] in Jerusalem, with a lot of wonderful soloists -Itzhak Perlman, Misha Maisky and Yefim Bronfman – performing. During the intermission, we debated about how the increasing divide and isolation takes its huge toll on the city’s cultural landscape and that – it’s nothing new – more and more people are leaving Jerusalem, and that something ought to be done for that special public.”
“And then,” she continues, “I asked spontaneously, if an opportunity came up – and it takes a good amount of great friends within the music business – if I could count on the necessary support.” She realizes: “For these international renowned artists, this was not about career-building performances and certainly not about fees, but about giving back – and they all wanted me to do something about it. Before I met Daniel, I had never lived in Jerusalem or dreamed of spending more time here, but Daniel’s love for Jerusalem was inspiring; he made me aware of this beautiful country.” The enthusiastic response to her inquiries was overwhelming, and her voice beams a bit: “within a week I had a roster of musicians lined up.” First performances were held at the smaller Khan Theater before the festival, in its fully developed state, was permitted to move to the larger YMCA building’s concert hall.
To this day, the festival has not paid its contributing performers – nobody asks for money. Besides covering the artists’ travel expenses, the festival hosts the musicians at the neighboring Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the Jerusalem Music Center, and provides joint dinners at a very long communal table. This special artistic cooperation, the family-style atmosphere, and the pleasure of performing for an ardently loyal and inquisitive audience, as well as contributing to Jerusalem’s artistic scene, is what draws artists to the festival, and sets the festival apart. “And then there is the snowball effect of course,” says Bashkirova, “the same people drive more people to come.”
The attraction goes both ways. For younger artists, it’s a chance to play with stellar, world-renowned performers, but it also allows more experienced artists to meet young talent that they may very well see again at international performances in Berlin, Vienna, or Verbier. It’s a small world after all, as world-renowned performer András Schiff, who also performed at this year’s festival, shared in an interview after last year’s performance with the German FAZ. The master pianist describes his joy of performing with many of his old friends while experiencing the talented, new generation as they endeavor to explore a wide range of repertoire together.
Maestro Barenboim himself proved invaluable to Bashkirova’s efforts, given his healthy network of international musicians; the partnership was an initiation of sorts for Bashkirova: “thanks to him I started this.” So far, Barenboim has only performed twice at his wife’s festival. “He made himself available, whenever he had time,” says Bashkirova, whose son Michael Barenboim, a promising violinist in his own right, is a more frequent participant in her festival. “But I don’t count on Daniel, he is the cherry on top of the cake.” Bashkirova admits to some right wing, controversial public reactions to his appearances, which don’t seem to faze her. “We are on the same page in what’s right and wrong! He vehemently critiques Israeli policies, but only out of love for this country!”
Her own ambitions for the festival (very much in line with Barenboim’s own endeavors) are geared towards claiming Jerusalem’s international cultural status through music without engaging with the pitfalls of political agendas, and the resentment they create. Music shall be borderless. Equally important in the mission of the acclaimed Russian pianist, who engages herself prominently at each of the festival’s concerts, is the integration of contemporary repertoire into the established masterpieces. “Since ten years now, at least, we commission our own works by contemporary, Israeli and International composers,” she mentions. The festival’s programming follows her recipe of infusing the particular thematic focus of each year’s event into a broad spectrum of old masterworks and respective new works. “This year‘s festival was devoted to the exploration of the ‘Quintet‘. The quintessential masterworks by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Schumann, Brahms, Franck and Shostakovich, as well as lesser-known but equally great Quintet compositions, such as those by Bartók, Elgar, and Ligeti were performed in varying formations of all festival performers. A newly written work by Israeli composer Ayal Adler, Colors of Dust received its Israeli premiere at the festival. It had its German premiere this April, at the festival‘s ‘younger brother,’ the 2nd JCMF Berlin Festival and was co-commissioned by both foundations.
“Music has to be framed together in the program, pieces don’t stand by themselves. Only in the pairing of old and new can you understand the full measure of the works. It is a very important part of the program to create the intensity that arrives from neighboring traditional and contemporary art and many times it’s a test, if a piece can stand its own,” she remarks.
Bashkirova has sought to expand the festival by taking it abroad at various times throughout the year, and presenting smaller segments of the program internationally. For two years, the Berlin Jewish Museum and its great hall, designed by acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, has hosted a miniature version of the Jerusalem festival. “We also did a few times in New York, including two weekends at Zankel Hall, six years ago. The last two years we went to Paris’ Cité de la Musiqe, or the big festivals at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and many other wonderful places.” An initial attempt to bring the festival to London failed, due to the proposal of the concert producer to take ‘Jerusalem’ out of the festival’s name, in order to prevent anti-Semitic reactions like the notorious disturbances that occurred during the IPO’s relatively recent performance there. Bashkirova, rather appalled by the lack of courage on the side of the producer, dismissed the rather infamous proposition. “To boycott musicians that come to perform is a terrible thing, I just can’t agree with that, but the producers should not escape the conflict by negating the attacked artists, that just reeks of cowardly behavior,” she bursts out, in dismay.
She is passionate about her mission, and successful at spreading its wings. What artists are looking for is a meaningful environment to communicate through their music. She views the open atmosphere that dominates Germany as a fertile breeding ground at this point in time. The Berlin resident concludes, “It’s not for no reason. Many artists flock to Germany, many of them Israelis, since there is such a flourishing attitude to be found for the arts and for artistic community.”