First person

A Stradivarius among the cowsheds

In the unlikely setting of a kibbutz on the Lebanon border, the world’s top violin students gather at an unabashedly elitist music school

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Students at the Keshet Eilon mastercourse on Kibbutz Eilon, July 2016 (Sarit Uzieli)
Students at the Keshet Eilon mastercourse on Kibbutz Eilon, July 2016 (Sarit Uzieli)

As my traveling companion and I trudged up a hill on a sweltering summer’s day, we passed the kibbutz swimming pool, a dusty industrial zone, and a cowshed. We then walked past an abandoned social hall with weeds growing out of its cracks until we finally entered a modest stucco concert venue.

Inside, a man was practicing the violin. The melancholy, exquisite sound he produced was so out of sync with our mundane surroundings that we looked at each other for a moment in awe.

The kibbutz violinist turned out to be world-renowned soloist Vadim Gluzman playing his signature 1690 Stradivarius.

This scene played out as I was on a press junket for Kibbutz Eilon’s annual Keshet Eilon International Masterclass for Music and String Instruments, which took place from July 24 to August 11. The program, now in its 26th year, hosts about 70 young musicians from around the world, many of whom have won international competitions and will go on to have solo careers.

Gluzman is one of the course’s instructors, as are Russian violinist Ilya Kaler, who won three of the most important violin competitions in the world – the Sibelius, the Tchaikovsky and the Paganini; violinist Quian Zhou from Singapore; Paul Roczek of Austria, and Ani Schnarch from the Royal College of Music in London.

One of the most buzzed about students at this year’s master course was Chinese violinist Ziyu He, winner of the Menuhin Competition in London.

Juilliard of the Middle East

Perhaps psychologist Bruno Bettelheim was wrong when he predicted that kibbutz education would lead to mediocrity and that [kibbutz children “will not be leaders or philosophers, will not achieve anything in science or art.” Nevertheless, how did a sleepy kibbutz near the Lebanon border transform, for three weeks each year, into the Juilliard of the Middle East?

It started in 1990 when members of Kibbutz Eilon sought to do their part to absorb outstanding immigrant musicians from the former Soviet Union. To give these musicians something to do, they decided to create a summer course.

“We wanted to bring really competitive musicians here but at the same time create an old-time kibbutz communal and familial atmosphere,” said Gilad Sheba, managing director of the Keshet Eilon music center.

Keshet refers to string instruments in Hebrew, but also can mean a rainbow or an arch, and the idea of bringing young people from around the world, as well as bridging cultures, is part of the center’s vision. This year’s students hailed from Italy, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Canada, the UK, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and elsewhere.

In the off-season, Keshet Eilon offers seminars for Israeli violin students from around the country and specifically for hundreds of students from neighboring Arab and Druze villages.

Sheba told The Times of Israel that one of the center’s early donations came from a German musician visiting Israel who one evening, in a drunken state, signed a credit card receipt with the words “Heil Hitler.”

Once sober, he was mortified by what he had done, and made a generous donation to Keshet Eilon as a form of penance, Sheba said.

“At least that’s our interpretation of what happened.”

During our visit, we attended a masterclass in which a young Juilliard student from the United States, Ariel Horowitz, played a violin concerto by Polish modernist composer Karol Szymanowski.

After a vigorous performance, Horowitz’s teacher, Romanian-born Israeli Ani Schnarch, who teaches at the Royal College of Music in London, offered stern but affectionate criticism.

“The audience loves you, so why should I say anything? But I will say something because of my professional conscience. You have beautiful sound, you have energy, but it’s not what’s written on the page; you need to follow what the composer intended.”

Vadim Gluzman and Ariel Horowitz at Keshet Eilon (Facebook)
Vadim Gluzman, left, and Ariel Horowitz at Keshet Eilon (Facebook)

Horowitz took the criticism good-naturedly and played key passages again, striving to incorporate her teacher’s advice. At one point, Schnarch asked her to dance while playing, so she could feel the music with her entire body.

Horowitz complied and performed a little jig on stage to the delight and resounding applause of the audience.

Asked about the audience for classical music in Israel, Sheba acknowledged that it tends to skew older, in fact much older, and said that exposing the kibbutz children to it was one of Kibbutz Eilon’s goals in creating the Keshet Eilon music center.

“That’s how I acquired classical music. I was exposed to it as a child. It’s a question of values, parents have to decide, will my kid study violin, or will he study, you know, I don’t need to enumerate.”

Our day ended with a flamenco concert under the stars. The audience was composed of visitors and kibbutz families, including small children, cats and dogs, all sitting on blankets enjoying the mountain air. In that moment, everyone seemed friendly and kind, as the sweet, hopeful, generous music wafted over the border into Lebanon.

“Kibbutz Eilon is a little haven,” said Sheba, “we’re a drop in the sea, but we’re trying to preserve the Israeli values we believe in.”

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