Student By Day, Musician By Night: A Spotlight On The Hebrew University Orchestra

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Jerusalem Post header - Student by day, musician by night - “We wholeheartedly believe in the importance of our work and in what we give to the public.”

Conductor Anita Kamien

The involvement of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of the capital in recent years has far exceeded the role traditionally taken by academic institutions in their surrounding communities. It has done much to enrich the lives of local Jerusalemites by keeping the campus gates wide open and offering free lectures, film festivals and concerts year-round to the public.

The jewel in the crown of its many cultural achievements, some would say, is the Hebrew University Orchestra, founded 27 years ago under the auspices of the Musicology Department in Mount Scopus and highly acclaimed by critics nationwide. More diverse than most orchestras on the scene, the Hebrew University’s is an eclectic assembly of students, faculty, veteran Jerusalem musicians and visiting international students, all banded together by a common passion for classical music.

It was through the spirited leadership and vision of conductor Anita Kamien that the orchestra had been turned from a vague idea into a reality. And through her contagious enthusiasm and unstinting devotion to the orchestra for nearly three decades, it remains the pride of the university and an indispensable part of its renown in Israel as an institution deeply invested in the cultural commonwealth of the country.

As most of its constituent musicians are students at the university, coming and going with the passing seasons, the orchestra ceaselessly grows and morphs like a living organism. These gifted young men and women invest hours of their time each week to practice together, finding respite from their hectic student lives in a blissful session of Mozart’s classics.

Clara Herscu, a talented flute player by night and diligent student of computer science by day, describes the orchestra as “an island in time where [I] can delve into the music completely, forget about the world outside the auditorium and partake in an act of magic with 40 other musicians.”

Other seasoned members have in fact remained faithful to the orchestra for years, returning to perform whenever called upon, even in the midst of busy careers as teachers, doctors and other professions.

Among them are more than a dozen musicians from the former Soviet Union, who were welcomed by the orchestra with open arms upon their arrival in the early 1990s. As an old joke among musicians goes, any Russian Jew who disembarked from the plane without an instrument in his hands was surely a pianist. So out of this flock of talented newcomers, Kamien was determined to bring as many into her employ as she could.

The orchestra’s most recent public performance, dedicated to the memory of the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman, drew more than 500 guests to the Jerusalem Theater in March and was hailed as a resounding success. The evening was devoted to select works of Beethoven and Brahms, with which Kamien strongly hopes to render the local community more familiar over time.

“I feel obligated to expose the younger crowd to some of the masterpieces of classical music that form the cultural backbone of Western civilization,” she explains.

“The public rarely has the opportunity to listen to these works in our time.”

A symphonic ensemble of two dozen violinists, alongside violas, cellos and contrabasses, spanned the stage. Behind them, a row of flutes and clarinets, tubas and trumpets encircled the center. All together they commanded the attention of a spellbound audience for more than two hours, under the adept conductorship of Kamien.

The orchestra opened with the Egmont Overture, Beethoven’s stirring musical accompaniment to Goethe’s celebrated tragedy. The company of violinists led the way with an invigorating segment of strings. Twenty bows all jolted skyward in striking unison reminiscent of the marching soldiers of the Spanish Duke of Alva, whose subjugation of the Netherlands Goethe so vividly dramatized in his play.

The distant thump of cellos steadily rising in the background was joined by the rumble of trumpets and trombones, all heralding the entrance of the full ensemble, as well as the rising tide of revolution that brought Holland its long dreamt-of independence.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 peaked the energies in the concert hall halfway through the evening. First a sprightly theme of flutes strode elegantly through the air like a fleeting gazelle, escorted by the soft prattle of the strings in a light, skipping rhythm often compared to a peasant dance. The full might of the symphony arrived with the booming climax.

The segment sent shock waves reverberating from the walls and electricity running through a silent audience.

When acclaimed violinist Yonah Zur stood upon the stage for his anticipated solo, an air of esteem was visibly present among his colleagues. They sat stock still as he played, transfixed by what sounded like the enchanting weeps and penetrating sobs of a wayfaring stranger recounting his heartbreaking tale. Briefly the tones reached so high it had seemed as though Zur would be lifted into the air by the undercurrent of his own tunes.

Months of dedicated preparation for the concert on the part of Kamien and her talented troupe of musicians had culminated in a thrilling evening for hundreds of Jerusalemites, who had gathered for a taste of some of the most highly prized treasures of the Western musical tradition.

Now nearing its next open performance, scheduled for June 22, the orchestra again braces itself for an intensive few weeks of work ahead.

“We practice hard but with a great love for what we do,” says Kamien. “We wholeheartedly believe in the importance of our work and in what we give to the public.”

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