February 23, 2020

Top Israeli composer takes a ‘Journey’ to Los Angeles

Israeli urban legend has it that great musicians from the former Soviet Union who made aliyah first had to pick up brooms instead of instruments, working as street sweepers as they sought work in their talents. The story of Josef Bardanashvili’s rise to become one of Israel’s foremost composers lends some credence to that legend. 

In 1996, a year into realizing his Zionist calling at age 47, this famous Georgian composer had no choice but to supplement his music with a job as a manual laborer at a supermarket in Tel Aviv to pay his mortgage.

“I didn’t have the language. I couldn’t teach. [I was] a musician, so, at the same time, I wrote music,” Bardanashvili said in fluent Hebrew during an interview with the Journal near the Tel Aviv office for the Israeli Ministry of Culture, where he was about to serve as part of a jury to select the winner of The Arik Einstein Prize for composers over age 60 — an indication of how far he’s come since then.

He got to stop stocking shelves rather quickly. Musical placements in theater and commissions started rolling in, and, two years into his aliyah, he became the recipient of a prize —– the first of many — from ACUM, the Israeli artists rights agency, for a composition he wrote for Israeli operatic sensation David Daor.

Years later, Bardanashvili reinvented the stature he had enjoyed in his hometown of Batumi, where he served as director of the Batumi College of Music. Today, he teaches at music academies throughout Israel and composes regularly for theater, film, and ensembles in the Jewish state and abroad. On Nov. 11, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Angelenos can witness another of his triumphant crescendos when “A Journey to the End of the Millennium” will be the Israeli centerpiece of the nationwide tour of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), organized by American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the philanthropic organization’s 35th anniversary festivities. Bardanashvili is flying in for the concert, hoping also to catch quality time with a daughter and grandchildren who live in Los Angeles.

The piece — selected personally by IPO maestro Zubin Mehta, a longtime colleague of Bardanashvili — is a symphonic treatment of the composer’s groundbreaking Hebrew opera, which was commissioned 10 years ago by the New Israeli Opera on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Through his signature polystylistic approach, combining elements of classical, romantic, liturgical, folk, vanguard and jazz, Bardanashvili sought to dramatize the conflicting traditions and beliefs of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews as portrayed in the A.B. Yehoshua novel of the same name and on which the opera was based. 

“It’s a big honor — and it’s a big honor for Israeli music,” Bardanashvili said of his inclusion in the program. 

Israeli “classical” music (a term that, Bardanashvili points out, is often used anachronistically) is often overshadowed by the general public’s preoccupation with popular music. Bardanashvili hopes to be instrumental in raising the profile of contemporary Israeli classical music, as well as the next generation of Israeli composers.

“We have many successes, but little is written about it,” he said, citing one of his students, Avner Dorman, as an example of an Israeli composer who enjoys success in the United States. “We’re more nestled in our own world, but we are the story of the birth of music.”

The melting pot that is Israel, he believes, cooks up a diverse, rich musical culture worthy of international attention. “The synthesis creates something crazy, big,” he said.

This synthesis has been reflected in Bardanashvili’s own life and music. He came to Israel in the footsteps of his family, a proud, traditional Jew from a land he loved and still loves for its beauty and the opportunities it gave him as a composer. He continues to receive commissions from the country of his birth, Georgia. 

“Even if I weren’t successful here, I’d be very happy,” he said. “As the Jewish saying goes: ‘Change your place, change your fortune.’ I wanted to be in a different place, part of my nation. It’s important to me.” 

A self-proclaimed “man of the sea,” Bardanashvili currently lives in Bat Yam, a coastal city near Tel Aviv, which he chose because it reminds him, in name and topography, of his hometown of Batumi, overlooking the Black Sea. He counts another significant achievement, a creation that mirrors his mixed ethnic music. 

“My children are now Israeli — with the Georgian beauty.”

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 11. For more information, visit thewallis.org.