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A conversation with Yossi Tal-Gan, Israel Festival director

by ben May 25 2008
InterviewThings to do

Between Two Worlds

The man behind the country's premiere mainstream annual performance arts series, Yossi Tal-Gan has served in his current post for 15 years now. He was kind enough to speak with Jerusalemite about the scope and ambition of this year's five-week festival (which is now in full swing), the timeless symbolism of on-stage exorcism, and Jerusalem's place in the national and international cultural landscape.

What role does the Israel Festival play in the greater Jerusalem cultural scene? It is simply the international stage for performers – it's the most meaningful and the biggest. It's been part of Jerusalem for over 20 years.

How has the Festival evolved over the years, and what's different and exciting this year? Is there a theme to the 2008 incarnation of the festival? The styles of the artists have changed considerably. There are more performances connected with world music now, for example, and we're bringing video art into the mix. I don't look for a theme every year – I look for new and interesting things going on in the world, things that you wouldn't find in New York or London or Paris, but rather from places less famous.

Jordi Savall

For example, this year, Brazilian composer Jordi Savall, who comes from an early classical background and brings to his music ethnic influences from all over the world, is premiering a piece dedicated to Jerusalem, weaving in Muslim, Jewish and Christian music. This is a major project that involved cooperation with academics and religious leaders from all over the world, and so far, he only plans to perform it three times: here, in Barcelona and in Paris.

We also have the Dybbuk projects, including a new production by a theater company from Poland that is a combination of the traditional play and a new interpretation and includes [classic Israeli actress] Orna Porat in the cast. In addition, there are three Israeli Dybbuks – young artists from dance, theater and puppetry. These are examples of things that are international and local, engagingly cultural and religious.

In the years since the festival got started, the Israeli cultural calendar has become saturated with festivals that cover similar ground as yours – international dance troupes, jazz and classical ensembles and the like coming to perform. How would you say that the Israel Festival differentiates itself? Our festival is not a gimmick. It's not connected to a specific food, a specific venue or a specific holiday. [Mimics a low-brow festival organizer.] "On this holiday, let's do a wine festival; on this one, let's do cheeses; on this one, let's do a Coca-Cola festival." This is international and this is the performing arts. We try to offer the Israeli public arts that are refreshing and challenging – not just to get people to go out, but to make people think and learn. But it's an amalgamation of being enjoyment and being on a high level.

Planning a five-week schedule must take a lot of time, but you must have some kind of day job as well. For the past five years, I've also served as the business manager of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. They had a 15 million NIS debt, and I succeeded Yossi Talganin bringing them back from the brink of bankruptcy. Now they're operating normally, with an organized budget – although the Israel Festival keeps me busy all year, choosing, scheduling, arranging, production, marketing, sponsorships. And this year, there are 60 productions involved. I look at it like a wedding: First you find the bride, then you find the budget, then you organize the invitations and decide whom to invite and so on – it's endless. But that's one wedding – I have 60 [laughs].

What are some of the uniquely Jerusalem elements to the festival that make it so special? To put on jazz shows in the Tower of David – for the artists and for the audience – is to make something different from what would happen in a hall or a club. To put together something big at Sultan's Pool with the lit-up walls of the Old City above, and it's not too cold out but just right – it doesn't get better than that. A performing artist is a person too, and if he feels a special atmosphere, it influences the quality of his performance. We're putting on a play about the founding of the country at the Museum of the Underground Prisoners – of course it'll be extraordinary.

Photos of a Tim Burton-inspired Israeli Dybbuk production (top), celebrated Brazilian composer Jordi Savall (middle) and Tal-Gan himself courtesy of the Israel Festival.

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