Andrew Downes' Trip to Israel, January, 1989

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Andrew being presented with gifts by the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry after the performance of his Sonata for 2 Pianos in 1989 in Israel

Article written by the composer.

Read his handwritten notes for this account

Read Cynthia Downes' Blog post about this trip

I am a composer and recently had the good fortune to be able to visit Israel as the guest of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry to attend a concert given by the celebrated piano duo, Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir, and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In the concert one of my pieces, Sonata for Two Pianos, was performed. 

All this came about from my point of view because two years ago I composed the Sonata for Two Pianos for a charity concert given by another well known piano duo, Margaret Newman and Joseph Weingarten, to raise funds to help Jews held in Russia against their will. The concert was organised by the Interdenominational Society for Soviet Jewry and took place in the Adrian Boult Concert Hall in Birmingham. 

My Sonata is a tribute to the long history of the Jews, their sufferings and their triumphs. 

Readers may like to read of my impressions of Israel. I outline below some of the experiences which the notes I made in a brief diary now conjure up for me. 

I travelled to Israel by El AI, probably the safest airline in the world due to their very stringent security system, and was subjected to the 'third degree' at customs. I had to open all my baggage. Putting everything back successfully proved a nightmare, my wife having packed everything for me like sardines in a tin. Seeing my fumbling hands the young female customs officer assured me: 

"There's no need to be so nervous. We're only doing it for your own good." 

I was nervous because of my back massage machine (which I had decided at the last moment my ankylosing spondilitis could not do without). It looks as if it could contain any amount of plastic explosives. 

I flew in a Boeing 767, so I held my breath that no wires had been crossed ... My legs, however had to remain crossed throughout the 4hr 45 min journey because I was on the inside seat next to a crippled lady who understood no English and so I didn't like to make a fuss to visit the loo! 

Finally at Ben Gurion airport I found Renee Johnson, the concert organiser, and Schmuel Ben-Tzvi, the director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, waiting for me. They were extremely welcoming and friendly and drove me to the Basel Hotel in Tel Aviv, which was most comfortable and friendly too. 

Once in my hotel room I plugged my massage machine into the shaver point (the only point which would fit my multi-country adapter plug) prayed it would not blow up, collapsed on to it on the bed and quickly fell into a welcome sleep. 

Andrew's hotel room in Tel Aviv


Next morning at 8am I rang Bracha Eden in Jerusalem to arrange to attend a rehearsal of my Sonata, and then went down to the hotel dining room to sample my first taste of Israeli food. I had to put a piece of bread in a strange toasting machine which went round like a water wheel, ejecting toast at irregular intervals. It was very delicious, however, with their white butter and strawberry jam. Next I rang the wife. I was really missing her and my two daughters by this time, and regretting not having brought them with me, especially when I took my first walk that morning along the beautiful sea front in gorgeous weather like a warm English Summer day. There were palm trees waving in the breeze and pavement tables and umbrellas in front of inviting cafes.

Tel Aviv, Israel, 1989

At 12 noon Renee Johnson arrived to take me to Tel Aviv University for lunch with Joseph Dorfman, the director of the Academy of Music there. Before lunch we went round the delightful campus which is situated on cliffs overlooking the sea and is secluded in a jungle of palm trees with clearings of lush green grass and brightly coloured flowers, all landscaped since the war, thanks to a brilliant system of irrigation. Students lay all over the grass in the warm sun - amazing since it was January! 

Joseph Dorfman proved to be a very amiable and generous man. We ate a delicious lunch consisting of a range of beautiful salads, a gherkin burger, fish, soup, fresh fruit salad and coffee. Between mouthwatering mouthfuls we discussed the setting up of student exchanges between Birmingham Conservatoire, where I am Head of Creative Studies, and the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. We decided that the best approach would be to run a competition in both institutions to find a group of about five students who would visit each other's countries, give recitals, attend classes and generally form impressions and relationships which would do nothing but good for Anglo-Israeli relations. We would need to find a sponsor who would be willing to provide about £5,000 for a scholarship which could either be called the Soviet Jewry Scholarship or be named after the sponsor. Joseph Dorfman would like to come to Birmingham himself in October to give some lectures to our students - and after our meeting he was due to fly to the USA! 

Late that afternoon I was free to walk along the beach and enjoy the lovely views and sunshine, although a wind had got up by this time, like the one in my stomach after the gherkin burger.

Tel Aviv beach, Israel, 1989

One of the delights of my trip was to find that there were lots of very good Italian restaurants in Tel Aviv. That evening I completed a day of 'binges' with a lovely plate of spaghetti bolognese. All this lovely food goes completely against the wife's diet for my ankylosing spondilitis and was the first of several superb meals which I should avoid really. If you want to sample the delights of Italian food outside Italy, Tel Aviv's the place. 

I had the next day until the evening to myself and so took a taxi to Old Jaffa. On the way the driver told me of the terrible antisemitism which he had encountered in London. I couldn't help but compare and contrast the warmth and friendliness which I had so far experienced here. I was dropped near to St Peter's Monastery high on the cliffs above the port and the artists' quarter. There was a wonderful view of the sea reflecting the deep blue sky. the warmth of the sun and atmosphere lifted my spirits considerably. 

The view from the steps up to St Peter's Monastery, with Tel Aviv in the distance.

I visited the Arab flee market, holding tightly to my wallet. It was a dirty, noisy place with a cacophony of Arab music and stalls selling anything from World War 1 pornographic literature to the latest digital computers. It was fascinating. 

I changed some travellers cheques at the Israel Discount Bank. The transaction took ages. The bank clerk was rather dour, but I said 'Shalom' a few times and he cheered up. 

With the extra cash in my pocket I avoided the flea market and got hopelessly lost trying a different way back to St Peter's Square through a very squalid Arab-type area of the old city and began to get somewhat apprehensive, hot and bothered. Just as I was feeling my ankylosing spondilitis coming on with a vengeance I spotted St Peter's Monastery in the far distance up a steep hill. It was with great relief that I struggled up it. I finally plonked myself in a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sea. It was called Nidi Yamit, a wonderful Shangri-La with sea birds and ladybirds flying everywhere. To boot I was served by a beautiful, full-bosomed waitress and had a great big plate of lettuce, cucumber, green peppers, olives ... and chips. This place is a must for all visitors to Old Jaffa. 

I got a taxi back to Tel Aviv and tried to phone the wife. It was engaged for ages. I concluded that she must be talking to the mother-in-law. I hoped I wasn't paying for the call, my boy ... 

I went for a cup of tea on the beach. The waiter brought me what looked suspiciously like hot water. I wondered if it was a strange Israeli tea with no taste, but the waiter finally realised his mistake and brought a tea bag, with many apologies. 

I then got dressed up for a Sabbath dinner at the apartment of Renee Johnson (the Concert organiser). At her apartment I met Anna Rosnovski, sister of the refusnik who was to arrive from the Soviet Union the following night; Eva Ben-Tzvi, a noted opera singer, and her husband Samuel Ben-Tzvi, the Director of the Council for Soviet Jewry; and also Joseph Holstein, a journalist. Renee cooked a beautiful dinner: salad, soup, halibut, a variety of unusual vegetables, ice cream and coffee. This was rather difficult for her, the Sabbath having begun at sunset. She had to prepare everything in advance and put the cooker on a timer. It was preceded by the Sabbath blessing of the wine and the bread, which was sung by Joseph Holstein in a strange and beautiful Jewish mode. 

We had a long discussion about anti-semitism and the possible reasons for it, and we read some of Elena Keiss's poetry. Elena Keiss is the refusnik who was due to arrive next night with her husband Georgy. It was in celebration of their homecoming that the concert in which my Sonata for Two Pianos was to be played had been organised. The poetry which Elena wrote while in Russia is moving and profound. I immediately felt that I wanted to set some to music and decided I would ask her when I met her. Anna said she felt sure her sister would be extremely pleased. 

The Sabbath continued until sunset the following day so no toast for breakfast at the hotel. The toaster didn't have a timer! We did have coffee, however, so they must have had some system for boiling the water. 

This day I relaxed ready for the reception of Elena and Georgy Keiss-Kuna in the early hours of the following morning. Most of the shops and restaurants being closed, I walked along the Tel Aviv beach. It was in fact raining and quite windy, but at the same time warm. It is a beautiful beach, completely free of litter and 'presents' from dogs. I came upon a seedy hotel, reminiscent of a British Rail refreshment room, for coffee and a very posh Italian restaurant for lunch. The rain made me feel homesick though and I wanted my wife and children. 

The reception for Elena and Georgy began at the Hilton hotel at midnight. Only the immediate families were allowed to meet them at the airport and one can only imagine what an emotional and moving time this must have been. A press conference with TV cameras and journalists was all set up at the Hilton and we had quite a long wait in this soft and luxurious hotel. In a vast ballroom a wedding was taking place at the same time, with about 400 guests and sumptuous food fit for any 'Royal' banquet. A most surprising feature of this grand occasion was that the women were at one end of the room, dancing folk dances together, and the men the other, talking, some dancing; and the two "camps' were separated by a floral screen. The couple passed between them. I am told that this is usual at Jewish weddings. 

Elena and Georgy Keiss-Kuna finally arrived at 3am and the press conference ended at 4.30am!

On the Sunday morning I was awoken after three hours sleep by a phone call from Bracha Eden asking me to go to a rehearsal at her place that day in Jerusalem. Being very tired(!) I took a taxi to Jerusalem. It cost me 75 shekels, my boy, (about £25!), which is why I decided on a bus for the return journey (5 shekels). The hour long drive took us through beautiful terrain: between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurian airport over flat land covered with orange and olive groves and amazingly green vegetation; then, as the land began to rise towards the Judaen Hills, through more barren and spectacular landscapes with many ancient Arab villages dotted on top of the hills. 

I asked the taxi driver to drop me somewhere in the old city of Jerusalem. I was immediately overcome by the feeling of immense age and history which radiated from these ancient streets. Around every corner there is another amazing sight. I shall never forget the beautiful Church of the Holy Sepuchre in its valley, nor casting my eyes on the ancient Western Wall of Solomon"s Temple (the Wailing Wall). But within the peaceful atmospliere of this holy place wandered security forces, with guns at the ready, and several pitiful Arab beggars. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Bracha Eden lives in a beautiful tree-lined area of Jerusalem called Rech Abia. The taxi driver couln't find it for a long time. I gathered his Hebrew utterances were curses. Bracha's beautiful apartment is built on two levels, the upper level forming a music studio housing two Steinway pianos. Bracha and Alexander Tamir turned out to be two of the kindest and most gentle-seeming people I have ever met. Their playing of my Sonata for Two Pianos was quite spellbinding. Their understanding of my music was perfect. 

They told me that they loved the piece and found it surprising that a Gentile could convey such a Jewish atmosphere. I was, of course absolutely delighted, especially when they said that they planned to perform the work many times and that it was, in fact, now part of their repertoire. They have also agreed to conduct a Masterclass and recital at the Birmingham School of Music in January 1990. 

Alexander, and his affectionate labrador, took me to meet Mendi Rodan, Head of the Jerusalem Academy of Music (who is also conductor of the Brussels Symphony Orchestra and the Tel Aviv Sinfonietta). He is a charming man and once again very keen to develop exchanges between students from Jerusalem and Birmingham. He looked at some of my orchestral scores (which I just happened to have with me!) and expressed interest to the extent of planning to perform my Symphony no.2 in Jerusalem! I was delighted at his reaction. 

I rounded off this very eventful and exciting day with a great big plate of spaghetti bolognese and chips back in Tel Aviv in a beach restaurant.

Monday I went in search of Five Piano Pieces Op 34 by Paul Ben Heim, which my student, Martin Riley, asked me to get for him. I had been told to try Gidon Steiner, who sells vast amounts of unusual music from his basement in a side street near the Israel Philharmonic Hall/National Theatre complex. This involved a beautiful walk down the lovely Dizengoff Street lined with trees and cafes. 

Unfortunately Gidon Steiner was not in, so, after a Turkish coffee which tasted like sewage, I went to a nearby record shop which advised me to make for Carmel market and Allenby Street where I would find the publisher of Paul Ben Heim. I crossed a vast area of delapidated market stalls displaying magnificent arrays of exotic fruit and vegetables and anything else you can think of, and held tight on to my wallet. I got the music and was glad to walk. back to the coast through tumbledown streets of bread sellers and goldsmiths. I found a rather snooty restaurant and felt embarrassed eating spaghetti napolitana with chips on the street. 

There was then a very long walk along the beach with hot sun all the way and the sea a most gorgeous Mediterranean blue. 

Tuesday was the day of the concert in which my Sonata for Two Pianos was to be performed. Being rather nervous I took a trip back to Old Jaffa, to wander round the port and take my mind off the evening! 

The port is rather decayed and dirty but amply-redeemed by its gorgeous views over the sea and Tel Aviv in the distance. From the port you can climb up a steep flight of steps with very ancient ruins on either side, interspersed by palm trees and arrive first at the artists' quarter, honeycombed with its studios and displays of sculpture and pottery, and then further up the beautiful St Peter's Square (Here I stopped off at the sumptuous Taj Mahal restaurant for coffee. A very rich and bossy Indian proprietor spent the whole time I was there phoning all over the world on a flashy gold cordless phone. The lavatory was also gold-plated). 

The classy Taj Mahal Restaurant

Further up the steps again you arrive at one of the highest points of the old city where there are many more ancient ruins, including the remains of an amphitheatre, surrounded by lush and beautiful gardens. After this you can make your way down to the Arab part of this city. As I did so I was spellbound by the Moslem call to prayer with its haunting incantations. 

I walked back to Tel Aviv after this along the coastal side of an unpleasant dual carriageway, hot and dusty and heavy with traffic. I would have taken a taxi if I could have got to the right side of the road!


The concert that evening was wonderful. It took place in the Concert Hall of the Israel Philharmonic Guest House. The Guest House itself is quite unique in that it is a beautifully furnished and comfortable family house designed to give a restful and welcoming stay to visiting performers. Murray Perahia was staying at the House with his family. 

Bracha Eden and Alexander played my Sonata quite superbly. The performance was full of poetry and a deep understanding of its idioms and themes. The reception from the audience was very gratifying. I was very grateful for this, but also both overwhelmed and shocked, first at being presented with a beautiful book with an inscription from the Society, and then at being asked to make an impromptu speech. 

The beautiful gifts presented to Andrew at the performance of his Sonata for 2 Pianos

A framed line drawing of a tree with the inscription: "Trees planted in Israel in the name of Andrew Downes by the Interdenominational Society for Soviet Jewry".

An embroidered silk unlevened bread case.

During the interval Elena Keiss and I discussed the possibility of my setting some of her deeply moving poetry to music. She was very taken with the idea. Her sister, Anna Rosnovski expressed the wish also to play my String Quartet no.2 with her Quartet from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I had told her about it, and it was after hearing my Sonata for Two Pianos that she said she would like to do it! 

Altogether, therefore, I found the whole evening an immensely fulfilling and emotional experience. 

There were TV cameras and microphones there making programmes, and several of us gave interviews. I do not know when these programmes were to be broadcast, but Renee Johnson has promised to keep me informed. 

After the concert we had a treat of Israeli traditional dancing, a wild and exciting end to the evening. 

Schmuel Ben-Tzvi took me back to my hotel and not long after I received a telephone call in my room from someone who said she was calling from the Foreign Office. She asked me if a Jacob Koggan was with me and became rather aggressive when I told her that I'd never heard of this person. She took a lot of persuading that he was not in the room with me. Next day I found out that Jacob Koggan is a Soviet Jewish scientist who defected whilst attending a conference in Paris and had been brought in great secrecy to Israel. I had been phoned up by the KGB ... 

Next day I was invited with Renee Johnson to attend a rehearsal and concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. Zubin Mehta had attended some of the concert the night before, but had been taken ill and had left - just before my Sonata! I hoped to meet him at this rehearsal therefore, and I was not disappointed. 

The playing in the rehearsal was wonderful. The string playing especially had a warmth and depth I had never heard before. There was a sense of freedom and personal fulfillment in the playing. I think this came about because the players were not (or perhaps refused to be!) discouraged from arguing with the conductor during the rehearsal over the interpretation of the piece they were playing! And so I think they felt they played a greater part in the resulting performance. 

I met Zubin Mehta after the rehearsal. He was most friendly and cordial and very apologetic at having had to leave the concert the night before. He takes an active part in the Society for Russian Jewry, and thanked me very much for my Sonata and for my support. He took an interest in the scores which I happened to have with me (!) and kept copies of the scores of my two symphonies and my Centenary Firedances, saying he'd have a closer look at them. 

We had lunch with Anna Rosnovski in the National Theatre. She said that as well as playing my String Quartet in Israel, she intended to come to England during the next year with a viola player and would love to play the Quartet with two players from the CBSO. She would also be very happy to give a Masterclass at Birmingham Conservatoire. 

The concert that evening was extremely interesting. It began with the Brahms St Anthony Variations - an immensely warm and moving performance. This was followed by Schoenberg's Variations. I was amazed to hear the 3500 strong audience hiss and stamp during it. I was told afterwards that Israelis do not like Schenberg, and that Zubin Mehta is trying to educate them into it. This, however, has caused something of an outcry from the large concert-going public. No protests though at the final piece - Chopin's Piano Concerto no.2 with Murray Perahia as soloist. His performance was brilliant with a lyrical and poetic flow and an amazing beauty of tone and touch. 

The concert was very memorable and more than made up for the fact that very unfortunately I had to miss a second performance of my Sonata for Two Pianos by Bracha and Alexander on the very same evening in a University town to the south of Tel Aviv...


Next day I had to prepare for the journey home, and went shopping for some souvenirs and presents for the folks back home. I bought a miniature Menorah, embroidered cloths for the Passover bread and some beautiful antique Jewish embroidery. 

That final evening Renee and Joseph joined me at my hotel and we spent a very pleasant evening in discussion and argument on all kinds of subjects. I enjoy their frankness and openness and respect for other points of view. I told them for example of my concern about the close relations between Istael and South Africa and that I could not understand how a country whose origin in modern times was based on a rejection of the horrific nationalism of the second world war could give any kind of support to a regime which seems to be based on a similar philosophy to that of Nazi Germany ... 

We remained good friends to the last, however! Renee and Joseph left at about 10pm, after we had made our fond farewells and promised to keep in touch and to continue to forge links between our two countries, with the furtherance of the Soviet Jewry cause very much a priority. They thanked me once again and I thanked them for all they had done to make my trip so memorable and exciting. 

Next morning I was at the airport at 7.I5am for the flight horne. I had a terribly long wait with my baggage and hard questioning from from three different people. They opened all my luggage, and I was embarrassed by my dirty washing. 

The flight horne seemed long. It was wonderful to see my beautiful wife at last waiting for me at Heathrow, and my two lovely kids again when we arrived back at Hagley. I assured them that we'd all go back again, soon, and see the rest of this marvellous country together. 


More info on Sonata for Two Pianos
Read Andrew Downes' handwritten notes for this account
Read his Cynthia Downes' Blog post about this trip

Return to 'About Andrew Downes'

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