This is a spring of
contrasts and novelty on the Israeli cultural calendar. While many countries have cut back on programming or stuck to the tried-and-true in this age of austerity, Israeli institutions are making a bid for worldwide attention.
Groundbreaking exhibitions and inventive festivals invite audiences to reconsider topics ranging from King Herod to the very nature of chamber music.
The tense, vital dichotomy of ancient vs. modern is always at the heart of Israeli culture — but spring’s offerings at the Israel Museum prompt viewers to confront past and present anew.
The museum, in Jerusalem, is the site of a groundbreaking exhibition: the first-ever comprehensive show to spotlight King Herod, the controversial Roman proxy and master builder who ruled during the first century B.C.E. “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is easily the most talked-about show of the spring on both sides of the Atlantic (or Mediterranean, for that matter).
In a land so inexorably defined by places and buildings, Herod is a figure of mind-boggling significance. Few people can claim to have left such an imprint on the Israeli landscape: Herod is credited with overseeing the construction of Masada, Caesarea, the Second Temple at Jerusalem, and Herodium, among other sites.
A massive reconstructed tomb, sarcophagi, decorative objects from the king’s palaces and other recovered objects form a testament to Herod’s enduring physical legacy. They also pay tribute to the extraordinary career of Professor Ehud Netzer, the Hebrew University historian who devoted four decades to the excavation — physical and psychological — of matter related to this complex figure.
Elsewhere in the museum, a spotlight on Israel’s recent artists is a thoughtful response to the Herodian legacy. The strong, classical forms of Herod’s day lend historical context to the 20th-century metalwork on view in “Forging Ahead: Wolpert and Gumbel, Israeli Silversmiths for the Modern Age,” a retrospective of the two German-Israeli craftsmen. Recent paintings by the Jerusalem-based Joshua Borokovsky and provocative, highly personal videos by the young Tel Aviv artist Nelly Agassi are both featured in solo shows.
Meanwhile, after dark, Jerusalem arts promoters are continuing their efforts to freshen the Old City’s image for a young generation. Last year’s inaugural “Sounds of the Old City” Music Festival returns for a second season this month, filling the alleyways and courtyards of Jerusalem with live music.
From dusk until nearly midnight, musicians will roam around Jaffa Gate, stroll on Mamilla Boulevard and strum in Muristan Square in the Christian Quarter, filling all four quarters of the Old City with music to complement the city’s ethnic diversity: minor-key Armenian tunes, twangy Arab instruments, a Christian gospel choir and Jewish traditional music. Art videos and light displays add color to the proceedings, which kick off a warm-weather season of outdoor festivities.
Nightlife is always at a constant rolling boil in Tel Aviv, of course, where the world’s hottest DJs are treated like visiting royalty at the beachside clubs.
But it’s a longhair production that’s generating buzz this spring: the first-ever visit to Israel of Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera this June and July. The Bolshoi will present itsw signature production of Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin,” the most popular of Russian operas and a favorite of Tel Aviv’s music-loving Russian community.
Meanwhile down south, Eilat, known to vacationers more for its Red Sea beaches than for Tchaikovsky, has been the site of a prestigious Chamber Music Festival for eight springs running. This year’s lineup of 13 concerts at the Dan Eilat Hotel will take place from late April into May; the headline performance features actor John Malkovich and the Wiener Akademie Baroque Orchestra in “The Infernal Comedy – Confessions of a Serial Killer,” described as a cross between baroque opera and a bloody crime drama.
As that head-scratcher suggests, the Eilat Chamber Music Festival boasts a singularly varied lineup that pushes the boundaries of what most people think of as chamber music. It’s not your typical week of string quartets — although the Doric String Quartet, one of Europe’s most celebrated, is on the program. But so are the German Brass Ensemble and the Salamandrum Percussion Duo, Tomer Yariv and Gilad Dobrecky’s inventive blend of American funk, African tunes, medieval Moroccan and Jewish prayer music.
En route through the desert, make a stop at a far more ancient cultural marker: En Avdat National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that just re-opened after a three-year restoration. In 2009, vandals attacked the site’s historic Byzantine structures, its ancient altars and surrounding Nabatean ruins from the time of (you guessed it) Herod.
Deep in the Negev, in a landscape of canyons and rocky springs, Avdat is an ancient Spice Road outpost that played a role in successive Near Eastern civilizations. A visit here nicely complements the Herod exhibition, putting the Nabatean ruler for whom it is named into tangible context. ◆