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A world-famous pianist writes from Israel

Peter Donohoe, who won joint silver at the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition (the gold was withheld in a classic act of Soviet jury-rigging), finds himself this week for the first time in Israel. And he’s excited. He’s giving four performances of the Gershwin Concerto in F with the Israel Symphony Orchestra.

So Slipped Disc asked him to keep a daily diary. Here’s the first instalment.

Israel, at last

by Peter Donohoe

The result is a feeling of a new and exciting adventure. It is a long time since I had one of those – the last occasion I felt anticipation and excitement like this was when I first went to the Soviet Union in 1982. It is not the fact of experiencing a new country – I have done that many times. It is that it is such a significant country – so special to the music world and to the future of world peace. It is so much a result of all the 20th Century historical events that interest me – events that have shaped all of our lives, our society and our ideologies (those of us who actually have one), and events of such unbelievable hideousness that we cannot even begin to imagine. That said, I have absolutely no real idea of what to expect, and am a little confused by what people say and what appears on the media.

I have had recent experience of visiting and working in the Arabic Middle East, mainly in Jordan. The main reason for going was to raise money for music therapy institutions dedicated to the victims of the never-ending Middle Eastern conflict. The company that made this possible was Music in ME, based in the Netherlands.

Many of my pre-conceptions were contradicted by those visits. That it turned out, for example, that in the orchestra in Amman there were two Jewish Israeli musicians, married to each other, were based in Ramallah in Palestine and had dedicated themselves to the music therapy project was to me a sign that, as usual, the impressions one gets from the media are unreliable, as the full story is always endlessly complex. That they were in mortal danger to be living where they lived and doing what they did seems obvious, but nevertheless they did it with huge commitment. That there was an Arab member of the orchestra who was openly aggressive and contemptuous of the Israeli couple did not stop them, and it did not blind me to the fact that by far the great majority of Arabs there did not feel that way at all.

In the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite countries, Northern Ireland and Kosovo, my partly media-inspired pre-conceptions were almost completely overturned by the reality. I experienced that in Arabic countries, and I anticipate the same in Israel.

The first thing I encounter is the extra airline security. At Brussels airport, being taken on one side by Israeli security in a similar way to when one is travelling to the USA is a reminder of the threat the country feels from outside sources. Israel also has a reputation for aggression in its own way, of course, and I hope to come out of the experience with a greater knowledge and understanding of the real truth behind the news.

On the El Al flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv, I had the best airline food I have had since I was on Malaysian Airlines in 1st Class between Auckland and Brisbane years ago. You might think that you should be able to expect good food in Business class on any airline. However, I have been on many airlines in Business and occasionally First class, and although I have rarely had complaints about the food, I have sometimes wished I had brought some peanut butter sandwiches.

I had heard rumours across many years that armoured guards were posted very visibly on all El Al flights, but they were not in evidence on this one. Perhaps yet another Chinese whisper? Or perhaps times have changed. Perhaps it is as simple as they are disguised as ordinary travellers.

The crew’s uniforms make them look a bit military to my eyes – in fact the stewardess in charge of Business looked like a prison guard, but was actually very pleasant. The steward looked for all the world like a young Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Tel Aviv airport is modern, huge and very impressive. The landscape is like a cross between Southern California and Jordan.

The weather is very very hot – 33C and cloudless – this after the worst and wettest British Summer within living memory. I am not good with hot weather, but I do like to look at it from my hotel room with the air-conditioning set as low as possible. We have air-conditioning at home in the piano studio, but it has been somewhat under-used in recent years, and this year it might as well have been put in a museum.

I notice that the main arterial road signs are green like in the USA, and in both Hebrew and English. The rush hour traffic in Tel Aviv (my flight arrived at 4.45 p.m.) is beyond description – makes Seoul seem like a village.

More tomorrow…

Here‘s the second instalment.

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  1. Coming hard on the heels of Peter’s excellent diaries of his experiences at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1982, this is another fascinating insight into the life of an international concert soloist. And Peter writes so well, with a refreshing honesty.

    Grand hurrahs and bravos, Norman, for sharing this. Looking forward to the next instalment :-)

    • As someone who was inspired to move to Israel 25 years ago by all kinds of Jewish music (especially cantorial, folk, klezmer), I am most interested to hear Mr. Donohoe’s reaction to the local music. It and the tomatoes are the two main reasons I love living here!

      • Along this same line, can someone explain why Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who holds both Danish and Israeli passports, is appearing in Venezuela this coming weekend? On Friday night, he will play the Brahms concerto with the Simon Bolivar orchestra. On Sunday, he will conduct the Teresa Carreño youth orchestra.

        Znaider’s mother’s family emigrated from Poland to Denmark because of anti-Semitism. Znaider’s father’s family emigrated from Poland to Israel (and thence to Denmark) because of anti-Semitism. Both families have stated, publicly, that they have contemplated returning to Poland, but cannot do so because of ongoing anti-Semitism in that country.

        So why would an artist with Znaider’s family background appear in Venezuela, a country that has severed diplomatic relations with Israel, cosied-up to Israel’s enemies, and whose regime leader regularly issues bizarre anti-Israel statements?

        For months, Jewish organizations all over the world have been issuing outcries over the state-supported anti-Semitism emanating from the Chavez regime. Persons of the Jewish faith have been emigrating from Venezuela in significant numbers in recent years. Synagogues have been defaced. Chavez has stated, repeatedly, that Israel’s existence will soon end.

        I am Presbyterian—but, if I were of the Jewish faith, I would not be caught dead in Venezuela. So what is Znaider doing there? (When he entered Venezuela on Sunday morning, Znaider had to have used his Danish passport—he could not have entered Venezuela with his Israel passport, nor would he be able easily to reenter Israel with a Venezuela stamp on his Israel passport.)

        There is something extremely mysterious about this engagement. It was VERY last-minute, only announced on Wednesday or Thursday of last week—and it was announced ONLY in Venezuela. Nothing has been issued from Znaider’s managers, IMG and Opus3. It is almost as if information about the Venezuela engagement is to be kept strictly within that nation’s boundaries. I doubt that press in Israel is even aware that Znaider, who appears frequently with the Israel Philharmonic and the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, is presently in Venezuela.

        A journalist I know from the Los Angeles Times told me last night that this would be an important news story except that Znaider is simply too minor a figure for any news organization to bother with—especially in the U.S., where Znaider’s career, never significant, is petering out (he only has two U.S. engagements next season, the lowest number since Znaider has had professional management).

        And, regarding Znaider, what happened in Saint Petersburg last month? Rumors have been rampant. The “illness” announcement, issued by The White Nights Festival only immediately prior to the second concert, obviously was bogus. The Festival did not even bother to make an “illness” announcement before—or after, for that matter—Znaider was replaced for his first scheduled appearance there three days earlier; he was simply a no-show that night.

        Once Znaider returned to Denmark, he had a week of rehearsals with a youth orchestra—and, immediately before the scheduled concert, it was announced that Znaider had “pneumonia” and would be unable to appear. The “pneumonia” announcement was obviously bogus, too, because Znaider was rehearsing in Dresden two days later, followed by a concert the following day.

        What is going on?

        • Wanderer says:

          Do you know for fact Znaider has an Israeli passport? Holding a Danish passport, he wouldn’t need anything else.
          Second, Venezuela has issued Anti-Zionistic statements, not anti-semitic, a big difference. Since Znaider is not a friend of zionism himself, why should he not visit Venezuela?
          Why he is there in the first place? To have conducting lessons with Dudamel’s teacher maybe? ;)

          • Yes, I know for a fact that Znaider holds both Danish and Israeli passports. Znaider spends significant time in Israel, and has numerous family members living there. In fact, he resided in Israel for a time.

            Znaider’s formal education ended at age 15. He is not an educated man.

          • Drew Lewis says:

            If I were Nikolaj Znaider I’d fire my lawyers in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia and find others who understand better the concept of confidentiality! I would not want my counsel to gossip with their ‘very close friends’ about my personal affairs.

            Drew, your first post about Znaider was replete with insinuations about his motivation in cancelling engagements.

          • It was the Mariinsky, not Znaider, that cancelled Znaider’s June 12 “Figaro” performance and replaced him with a house conductor.

            It was the Mariinsky, not Znaider, that cancelled Znaider’s June 15 Brahms performance and replaced him with an unknown violinist.

            It was the organization that oversees the summer Tivoli concerts, not Znaider, that cancelled Znaider’s June 22 appearance with the Royal Danish Conservatory Orchestra, or whatever the name of the student orchestra is.

            Please read what I wrote. I attributed no motives to anyone, least of all Znaider. I said I did not believe, first, the illness announcement issued in Russia late on June 14 and, second, the pneumonia announcement issued in Denmark late on June 21.

            No one believes those cover announcements.

            And I’m not the only one who’s curious to know what is going on.

        • Drew Lewis says:

          I find Drew’s comments about Nikolaj Znaider quite upsetting. His shameful sneer about Znaider being ‘not an educated man’ and his speculations about Znaider’s motives tell me that Drew has for some reason a personal animus against the violinist. I would not have thought that this blog was an appropriate place to air an ad hominem attack of that sort.

          • I have no animus toward Znaider. I’ve never met him, and I’m sure I never shall. He and I do not move in the same social or professional or geographic circles. No doubt, in matters non-musical, I would probably find him rather silly.

            I am, however, a very close friend of an attorney in the law firm in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, that performs legal work for Znaider, serves as his American counsel, and has handled his American affairs for quite some time.

            “Speculations about Znaider’s motives”: I do not know what you are talking about. Motives regarding what?

          • Wanderer says:

            Drew, what’s your incentive to come to this thread then, hijack it and bad mouth Nikolaj Znaider with rumors and ad hominem attacks, if you have “no animus toward him”?
            You “would find him silly” but you never met him. How strange.
            As far as formal education goes, ask your lawyer friend about total assholes with Harvard and Yale degrees. I’m sure he knows a bunch…

      • @Dorothy Kushner I don’t know where you get your tomatoes but the usual genetically modfied variety are hard as rocks, the same for cucumbers, eggplants, turnips…).

  2. Bravo Peter. You are, as ever, unwaveringly honest and direct. Your account of the two Israeli orchestral musicians married to each other, living in Palestine and dedicated to the music therapy project brought back memories of Danny Berenboim and his reaction to the Arab-Israeli Six-Day Wary in 1967. “You call this a victory?” He said to my boss, Suvi Raj Grubb — this is a tragedy. War means disaster, never mind who wins.” And this is reflected in Danny’s founding of the Wester-Eastern Divan Youth Orchestra, a shining beacon for freedom of thought and the power of music to win all wars in the end.

    The ‘Longed for Light’: Elgar’s Music in Wartime

    • Sorry about that, I’m not Edward Elgar… Don’t know where that crept out of, except that it’s the title for my next CD on SOMM! :)

    • Lovely, Siva.

    • If Israel hadn’t won that war – which was foisted upon it by coordinated Arab attacks – thousands of Jews would have been massacred and Israel would not exist. Sometimes the smug vision of pacifism is a luxury.

  3. As someone who plays quite often in Venezuela, and given the results of that country’s government’s attitude to the importance of music in society, I was very concerned at the discussion over its alleged anti-semitism. I have no right to an opinion over Mr. Znaider’s activities, as I do not know him, his work, or anything of the background to this story. But for me recognising the difference between anti-fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, and trying not to blur the lines between the two is quite obviously the main point. I did find this:

    Thank you to everyone else for your comments. More to come from me whenever I get the chance to write it.

  4. I put this in the wrong place earlier…

    Drew – I think your lawyer friend in Tyson’s Corner might turn out not to be such a close friend if you keep making inappropriate remarks about his client. If he really is a close friend, he knows who you are.

    As Drew Lewis, says, his concept of confidentiality is open to doubt, particularly as you say you don’t know Mr. Znaider. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that you are posting his confidential reports.
    Although, even if you did know Znaider personally, and even if the lawyer did know about your postings, on both alleged counts he could possibly be said to be allegedly out of line – perhaps (allegedy, that is).

    I think I know what I would do in Mr. Znaider’s position on all three counts, but it is not my business. Please don’t ask which three.

    The other thing is, regarding the way your first post begins with ‘Along the same line’: which line would that be? This thread was meant to be about my first impressions of Israel, rather than an opportunity for a rant about something quite different. But your comments are very welcome nonetheless, as I have a deep interest in Venezuela, American lawyers and the politics of music. Thanks.

  5. Amidst all of your outrage, entirely misplaced, you failed to note that I revealed not a single attorney-client confidence or any privileged information.

    One may ascertain garden-variety passport information from any of several sources.

    Your comments are welcome, too. As for me, I have a deep interest in zarzuela, American linguists, and the politics of British pianists.

    • Who is outraged? I think that’s enough of that now. Let’s either concentrate on Israel and what it stands for, or cork it – just a suggestion. Thanks.

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