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'Not being able to perform is bad for our souls and income'

Musicians relegated to backyard concerts during summer of shuttered venues

With new guidelines of 20-person cap at concerts, frustrated performers bemoan lack of options, accuse the government of discrimination

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ido Shpitalnik, conductor of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, performing at the one concert he's been allowed to hold since the start of the coronavirus. (courtesy, Jerusalem Street Orchestra)
Ido Shpitalnik, conductor of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, performing at the one concert he's been allowed to hold since the start of the coronavirus. (courtesy, Jerusalem Street Orchestra)

It has been a long, barren summer for musicians.

With festivals shuttered, along with auditoriums, outdoor venues, and any gathering of more than 20 people, some performing artists have tried to play in people’s living rooms and backyards.

Others are not sure it’s worth the trouble.

“There’s uncertainty because no one really knows what’s going on,” said violinist Michael Greilsammer. “No one really understands. You can have a gym open, but not a small concert.”

When the government announced new guidelines last Sunday for so-called capsules that would divide the audience of outdoor shows into sub-groups of up to 20 people, plans went ahead for a culture industry protest of thousands on Tuesday.

“It’s not just about culture, but an entire sector of employment,” said Eyal Sher, director of the Israel Festival, an annual event that usually brings artists from Israel and abroad to perform for three weeks in venues across Jerusalem. “There are 150,000 people for whom this is their work, and they need a response.”

Protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on August 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the last five months of the coronavirus, there has been frustration among performing artists about the restrictions that did not allow them to perform. Now, however, there is a growing sentiment that the government may be purposefully restricting this particular industry because of politics.

“Why can you get into an airplane for 10 hours or go to a gym or restaurant, but not an auditorium?” asked Sher. “I don’t feel that it’s discrimination, but a lack of unity in decision-making. We all feel that if you have strong political clout and represent the ultra-Orthodox, who want to go to synagogue, then you’re probably going to be able to manipulate the decision.”

The performing artists also linked the government’s current policy to former culture minister of Miri Regev, a Likud ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, during her five-year tenure, repeatedly sought to label artists as liberal left-wingers and withdrew government financial support of political films, plays, and performances.

The new culture minister, Hili Tropper, is very helpful, said Sher, but either does not have the power to “knock on some tables and get something done or there’s just generally a big mess.”

The Last Supper created by performing artists, a lasting image from the July 14, 2020 protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (courtesy, Omer Burin)

“I don’t care, just figure it out,” said Ido Shpitalnik, conductor and founder of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, which specializes in introducing classical music to the masses, performing in front of crowds of hundreds in unusual places, like car garages. “This was supposed to be our government, and it’s just not functioning,” he said. “The pandemic moves slowly, and the government keeps reacting so quickly, making us change work habits completely, and you take all your plans and throw them out and start again from scratch.”

At the start of the coronavirus, Shpitalnik thought his orchestra could hold street concerts for bystanders, but he quickly scratched that idea, given that 14 musicians were already too many people for an outdoor gathering.

When venues were allowed to reopen in July, they quickly gathered forces and performed in the Clal Building, a ’70s-era indoor mall that has great acoustics. But that only happened once before auditoriums were shut again. His next idea was to create a mini tour of five concerts by five musicians to perform in peoples’ homes, but with hosts who would welcome other fans of the alternative orchestra.

“I thought we’d do it on roofs, or terraces in Ein Kerem or in a big garden with a cool carob tree,” said Shpitalnik. “It would still allow us to access an audience.”

But when the government emerged with its latest guidelines of only 20 people at open-air performances, he wondered if anything was worth the effort.

“You hear things from one day to the next, and you’re not sure how to proceed,” he said, noting his concerns about his annual budget for the next year, 50 percent of which is from the local and national governments and philanthropy.

“We don’t have most of our revenue from tickets this year, and I don’t want to have an overdraft, because this will affect us for years to come, ” said Shpitalnik. “I can’t work like this, and it’s like that for all of us.”

A socially distanced concert by the Jerusalem Street Orchestra in June, at the Clal Building (courtesy, Jerusalem Street Orchestra)

In early June, venues were told that they could open for up to 200 people sitting in so-called capsules, with tickets sold only in online presales, and filling only 75% of a hall’s capacity.

There was also a special permit for 500 people, given only under certain conditions by the Health Ministry.

For museums, that was enough of an incentive to come back to work. For Sher at the Israel Festival, it meant he could assemble his festival in September, albeit without non-Israeli performers.

He also added the annual Jazz Festival, usually held in December, but moved it up to September, in order to avoid the second wave of the coronavirus expected in the winter.

Sher brought his staff back to work, even though the government closed everything down again with the rise of coronavirus infections. “We needed the continuity of artistic production and activity,” he said.

Recording artist Assaf Amdursky has spent the last months repeatedly posting on his Facebook page against the Netanyahu government and its lack of efforts to support performing arts.

“We have a black stage
We have a play
We have an audience
We have noise
We have drums
We have lighting
What don’t we have?
The ability to respectably earn income in music/standup/theater/dance/film/recording/spoken word, fill in the blanks,” he wrote in one post in July.

Guitarist Geva Alon, known for his rippling guitar skills and stirring folk-rock sound, announced that he would make the rounds of people’s back yards, balconies and living rooms, writing on Facebook that he missed performing, and adding in his booking email address.

Geva Alon – FREE – live at Macmull Custom Guitars

חברים יקרים, אני ממש מתגעגע אז החלטתי לצאת לדרכים ולהגיע אליכם.אם אתם מעוניינים לארח מופע חצר/מרפסת/חלל אחר ולעמוד בהנחיות, אתם מוזמנים לפנות ולקבל פרטים בטלפון: 03-6203335, או במייל: booking@hamonvolume.com

Posted by Geva Alon on Monday, July 27, 2020

Greilsammer and his wife, singer-songwriter Shimrit Greilsammer, tried to play in the streets of Jerusalem when invited by the municipality back in June, and also did a small backyard performance earlier in the summer.

“No one really knows the guidelines,” said Greilsammer, “and 20 people is nothing. You can’t have a private event because no one is going to pay us a serious amount for just 20 people.”

In the meantime, Shimrit Greilsammer has continued teaching music and composed a new single. Michael Greilsammer recently finished his own teaching degree and will teach music next year.

“Our music is our life, we’re not going to stop it,” he said. “We would have begun teaching anyway because we have three kids and most musicians have three or four other jobs besides performing. Even the famous ones do TV. But not being able to perform is bad for our souls and our income.”

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