The Jerusalem Post
The sunny side of Arlozorov Street
There’s no stopping some people, especially if they are as high spirited and effusive as Oded Zehavi. The internationally acclaimed composer was not about to be stopped in his creative tracks when the pandemic struck, even though it did put a spanner in his globetrotting concert schedule. “I had 14 performances of works of mine canceled right at the start of the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “That included a concert with the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. They were due to perform my Piccolo Concerto.”
But you really can’t keep the man down and, after a brief downtime interval to emotionally regroup, Zehavi got back to the compositional trenches. One of the fruits of that flurry of creative outflow, Arlozorov 178, will be performed by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra (ICO), conducted by Ilan Volkov, on April 20 under the auspices of the Tel Aviv Municipality. “The idea was [to] get some corona-inspired works out of a bunch of Israeli composers,” Zehavi chuckles.
The other score writers – 72-year-old Josef Bardanashvili, 80-year-old Canadian-born Aharon Harlap, and the junior member of the lineup Naama Zafran – will have their offerings premiered at a later date. Zehavi’s work will be sandwiched between Johann Sebastien Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor and Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 82 in C major. Not bad company for the 60-year-old Tel Avivian.
The title of the new work was, naturally, spawned by Zehavi’s home address, wherein it was scored. True to his effervescent take on life, he did his best to take the lockdown confinement on the chin and just get on with things although, like for the rest of us, that was easier said than done.
“Right in the full flow of life, without warning, Arlozorov Street became the center of the world,” he laughs. “The idea of ‘my home is my castle,’ for a while, turned into where it was happening, physically and spiritually, and a place that was not devoid of claustrophobic elements.”
Then again, genuine artists know how to channel any life experience through the prism of their professional calling. “I didn’t go mad with the lockdown because I saw it as an adventure.” In fact, he says he used the physical strictures to help him focus on his work. “You know, one of my less developed fantasies was to sit in prison, like [celebrated 95-year-old Greek composer Mikis] Theodorakis,” he giggles. “I was told that when he was in jail [for five months in 1967, by the Greek dictatorship] he wrote 140 lieder. I thought, wow, maybe I should try that. I even fantasized about Damon Prison [in the Galilee]. There’s a really nice view from there.”
ZEHAVI DIDN’T manage to fall foul of the law so he had to make do with Ministry of Health regulations to keep him cloistered within his own four walls, and set pen to sheet music paper. While keen to make the most of the opportunity, he says the grounding meant he had to make more of an effort to find the grist to keep his muses on track.
“Actually it was extremely challenging. The contrast was a shock to the system.” In the normal flow of his work life, Zehavi likes to balance seclusion and socializing. “I like to see a lot of people. I usually write for a while, and then I go out to a café for a while, and relax, and then go back for another writing session on the days I don’t teach. That was denied me.”
Still, the outside world found a way to keep Zehavi in touch with alfresco events, whether he liked it or not. “I got to enjoy the 1,000 meters around my building,” he laughs. “And they basically turned Arlozorov Street into a building site. There were road works which didn’t stop in the pandemic, so I had those sounds coming into the house.”
That was yet another challenge but, typically, Zehavi used the impediment to upgrade his senses. “That meant that, in an entirely non-metaphysical way, as a person who is very much dependent on the sharpness of his ears in fact I got an opportunity to really finetune my hearing faculty.”
If that isn’t a prime example of art feeding off life, I don’t what is. Mind you, Zehavi did have ‘previous’ as a tank commander during the First Lebanon War. “That reminded me of the days when I’d insist on writing music when I was serving in the Armored Corps. That was a little more difficult. But I decided I would go on writing, during the pandemic too.”
While live performing opportunities almost completely dried up, the commissions for new works kept on rolling on, including the municipality’s initiative. “I got loads of requests for chamber music, and then the Tel Aviv Municipality project came up. [Head of the Municipality Arts and Culture Department] Giora Yahalom said like everywhere around the world we will also commission coronavirus [inspired] works. Daniel Barenboim commissioned something for the Berlin Philharmonic and we will too. The guideline was that the work should reflect something of events taking place here.”
Over the years Zehavi has built up a diverse and large body of work which, he says, takes in around 180 scores to date. “I went for all kinds of genres, and I filtered them through the pandemic,” he explains. “The funniest and saddest movement is based on a dance by Hungarian farmers,” he chuckles. “All the Hungarians are stuck in a small house. All the shepherds are cooped up. I call it a claustrophobic pastoral. I had a lot of fun writing it.”
Always looking to the sunny side of the street, Zehavi imbued the movement with a sort of unresolved line of attack. “You know, in all this folk music field you always lead up to some sort of climax, a great big party with the sound of boisterous joy. But my movement doesn’t really go anywhere. It is sad and funny.” Arlozorov 178 also includes a chorale and a couple of movements Zehavi describes as “reflective.”
The end result of his enforced domestication is an intriguing, wide-ranging composition which, he hopes, will keep the Tel Aviv Museum audience well entertained while not making life too difficult for Volkov or the members of the ICO. “Part of my compositional philosophy these days is not to overtax my musician colleagues,” Zehavi declares. “You know, you can write good music which is not difficult to perform. I am a firm believer in that.”