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Bern’s Biennale blows away perceptions of Jewish culture

Bern's Biennale is a two-week celebration of Jewish culture. Freie Akademie

The Biennale of Jewish culture, which opened this weekend in Bern, offers a breathtaking echo of timeless music and tradition: grand classical concerts, New York artists with cutting-edge videos shot in tiny subterranean galleries and libraries, unrehearsed readings.

The festival’s organisers have dug deeply into Jewish history to come up with artists, alive and dead, somehow linked to Jewish culture for the two-week celebration. It is somewhat misleadingly named “What is Jewish music?” given that music is only part of the offering.

Stefan Schmidt, the festival’s organiser agrees that Jewish music is “just the beginning” of what’s on offer. The aim of the Biennale is, above all, to “stimulate cultural dialogue”.

Surprising sounds

“We have some music in the program which people will be genuinely surprised to find in this context,” Schmidt explains.

The range of composers on offer defines definition, with Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel and Leonard Bernstein thrown in with lesser-known composers such as Vladimir Vogel. In addition, DJs are offering the latest sounds. An unsuspecting audience would probably never guess that Jewish culture is what binds these musical artists together.

“I think it’s dangerous to define Jewish music. One can find [Jewish] elements
here and there, in a place in the piece, but it’s not definitely idiomatic for the music,” says Israel Yvnon, the conductor of the Biennale’s opening concert.

“So sometimes we’ll play music with Jewish elements, but we’re also playing music written by Jewish composers, who might have been born Jewish but weren’t necessarily busy grappling with this question of identity. “

Yvnon says he is surprised at the enthusiasm with which Swiss musicians from the Bern and Biel Symphony orchestras have taken to playing unfamiliar, and often challenging, pieces of music.

“They’re doing great. It seems to me that the younger generation is very developed in a way that musicians from 20 or 30 years ago weren’t – they don’t put up any barriers in their minds to the music,” he says. “And they are very capable too – a lot of the Biennale’s music is far from easy.”

The Reading Room

One innovative event is an interactive “reading room”, where a dozen people from Bern gather daily to simultaneously read extracts from archival material relating to Jewish history.

Sound and light technicians mix and project the voices at different intervals and the words are flashed onto the walls of the reading room. The event is entirely unrehearsed and the 380 participants are ordinary people with no experience of public reading.

“You can almost imagine being in a old reading room, and everyone’s sitting down with documents at the reading tables and suddenly all these people start reading what they have in front of them, seemingly at random,” says Arnold Dreyblatt, an award-winning artist and the designer of the installation.

Evoking history

“There are moments when it’s very dense, with lots of voices, and others with only one voice. It’s also very important for ordinary people to read unrehearsed so that it stays fresh.”

Dreyblatt says his aim was to create a “ritual”, based on Jewish praying practices, by having three readings a day.

Archives evoking different aspects of Jewish history are selected for each one of the ten days of the festival. For example, on October 13, the theme is Jewish refugees from 1930-1950, and the following day it’s diaries, letters and chronicles of Jews in Switzerland.

“I wanted to work with material dealing with foreigners in Switzerland and Swiss people going to other countries,” says Dreyblatt. ” We have all sorts of original material say from immigration offices in Switzerland, or Bernese people who immigrated to the States in the nineteenth century.”

Dreyblatt hopes that each session will be fresh and spontaneous and that the audience – who are allowed to walk around the desks during the readings – feels thoroughly immersed and stimulated.

by Vanessa Mock

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