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St. Matthew At Passover In Jerusalem

I've written recently about the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and its great performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Bloch's "Schelomo" with Yo-Yo Ma.  As president of the orchestra, I returned to Jerusalem about ten days ago for a board meeting and stayed to hear Maestro Leon Botstein conduct the J.S.O. in Bach's epic and threnodic "St. Matthew Passion."  Imagine hearing any ensemble playing any of Bach's religious masterpieces in any Arab or, for that matter, any Muslim city.  Well, you can't imagine it, can you?

You'll get an insight into this lamentable truth if you read Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still?  It is a learned book by Dan Diner, a professor at Leipzig and Jerusalem, leftish in his views but right there to confront the progressive orthodoxies about Islam and its relationship to the cultures of others.  The book's central chapter focuses on the Muslim panic after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, a panic that still continues in the ongoing terror in Islam of foreign phenomena generally.

Diner's scholarship dissents a bit from Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong?  Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (also available as a Kindle Book) but extends the argument further, as well.  Politically, it starts off with the first United Nations Arab Report on Human Development, an intellectually liberating departure but predictably stopped in its tracks, stopped dead in its tracks, as it happens.  In a way, it examines some of the evidence and conclusions that Arab scholars were loathe to put forward.

By the way, I once made the observation about Bach and other composers of Christian religious music not being especially welcome in Arab cities, and I was reproached by a know-it-all Jewish lady informing me that there was an annual Bach Festival in Bethlehem.  Assuming her certainty to mean she was right, I apologized for my misinformation.  Then, coming home at night, I looked the festival up on google and found that, indeed, there was one in Bethlehem but it wasn't the holy city in historic Palestine but the one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to which German immigrants flocked in the 19th century.

(I suspect -but do not actually know, although I have checked- that Daniel Barenboim's youth ensemble, the West-East Divan Orchestra composed of Israeli, Palestinian and not exactly publicized but many-more-than-you're-supposed-to-think European youngsters, also does not have it in its repertory, out of deference to the Muslim musicians, any religious music, certainly not by Jewish composers and also not by Christian composers either.  I hope I'm wrong.  But I doubt it.)

In any case, here's a Jerusalem Post review by Ury Epstein, the music critic of the newspaper.  Epstein writes that the performance "did full justice to the monumental work." And more. Of course, the scheduling of the St. Matthew was no accident. Put on the calendar just before Passover, Good Friday and Easter, it expressed all of the emotions evoked by the passion itself, the terror and the yearning, the hope for salvation. This, in a mostly Jewish city with only a relative handful of Christians (less than 14,000), where among the Jews there is a considerable portion of ultra-orthodox who do not step out of their little universe except if their rabbis allow them to use the computer for business.

But there were many religious men with skull caps on their heads and religious women with skirts inordinately below to the knee so identifying them as pious was easy.  The Crown Auditorium was full, which means 800 attendees in Jerusalem (plus almost 3000 in much more secular Tel Aviv later in the week.)  In fact, two large and professional vocal groups sang in performance, one the New Vocal Ensemble and the other, the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, some of them with kipoth on their heads.  Epstein observes their effectiveness "in the frenzied outcries of the fanatic mob:"  "Let him be crucified."

So why did the Jerusalem (and Tel Aviv) audience attend and give the performers a long, very long and resonant ovation?  Because, despite what you read in the cliche mongering press about Israel being close-minded and intolerant, phobic and repelling of difference,it is an exemplary instance of western liberality and openness.  Maybe too exemplary for its own safety.  But that's their decision, and the dye is cast.

Botstein has made a rich reputation for himself with oratorios and other religious scores, and he has brought along the Jerusalem Symphony in this regard.  It is a tribute to the conductor and his orchestra that they have been invited to open the annual Bach Festival at Leipzig's St. Thomas Kirche, the church at which Bach was "cantor."  So he is described in the festival program.  The program also notes that, "By inviting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Bach Festival is marking its closeness to Israeli artists."  Actually, this is also an act of solidarity by the German people with the people of Israel in opposition to the mobs -mostly of Muslims, and their left-wing Mitl