I was 10 when I first attended a chamber music course in the idyllic medieval abbey at Leiston, near Aldeburgh. My family lived in the Highlands of Scotland, and homesickness hit even before Mum and Dad headed back up North. I cried so much that they spent hours in a nearby lay-by deliberating whether or not to about-turn and rescue their abandoned son. That they eventually continued on the road ahead was the beginning of my path to being a string quartet player. My sobs were even heavier when, a week later, they separated me from this newfound haven of musical peers.
In dorm 8 with me were a violinist and a pianist who remain to this day two of my closest friends. Dorin, a prodigiously talented Transylvanian violinist on his maiden voyage away from home, didn’t speak a word of English but smiled with relentless positivity, and kept under his bed what appeared to be a wartime’s supply of Romanian brand cola, popcorn and sweets. I thought him so brave, so decided I should be too.
Then there was Ilan. Up until that point I’d never knowingly met a Jewish person before, Fort William not exactly recognised as a cultural melting pot then or now (even in comparison to a classical music summer camp). Here was my first example, and I liked what I saw. Boy, could he play the piano! We’d spend break times either sight-reading sonatas or contesting epic table tennis battles the likes of which hadn’t yet been witnessed by mankind. Soon I’d visit his home in London, where his family often acted in mysterious ways, such as singing round the dinner table of a Friday evening or raising voices and arms in heated debate over the most mundane of situations. That first time, we ate salad after the main meal. I took this to be Judaic law, only to later learn they’d just forgotten to serve it. When I went up to the Big Smoke to study I decided to live just down the road, and still do.
Earlier this year, Ilan married an Israeli girl, and emigrated to the land of milk and honey (but not his mother’s legendary cheesecake). The nature of our on-the-road string quartet career, with concerts organised far in advance, meant, to my deep sadness, that I could not attend their wedding. As fate would have it, it’s only a few months later, and the Castalians are on a flight to Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel.
We arrived in expectation of strict questioning at the Israeli Border. Having cunningly spotted the shortest immigration line, I soon found myself in a queue of Interpol’s ‘most wanted’ – a weary onlooker as my colleagues sailed through to the baggage hall. At last, after the chaps in front of me had spent an age being declined entry, I was beckoned forward.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?”
“I’m playing concerts organised by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.”
I shook my head.
I should explain that we’d been informed that we didn’t require visas for this trip. Yet, here I was, being asked for mine.
“Visa?” “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have one”
“Visa?” “I don’t have one!”
“Did you arrive with Visa?”
All this was being asked of me by a grumpy, mumbling officer with a thick Israeli accent. I was beginning to sweat. I’d clearly come up against someone with a sadistic penchant for deportation.
He asked me one last time, slowly now, his temper rising: “WIZZAIR?”
A “W” becomes a “V” in the lips of a native Hebrew speaker and the closing “R” had become lost somewhere in the back of his throat. All he wanted was to know which airline I’d flown in with. I nodded, and was through. Shalom, Israel!
One grows up in the West viewing Israel through a camera lens. Ilan’s family, with relations in the country, had long educated me not to be so closed-minded. However, it still seemed an exotic destination, and not one that appeared in the school holiday travel brochures. Our taxi deposited us at what by the darkness of night seemed a third-world back street, with litter spewing out of open garbage bins and stray cats outnumbering any other life form.
We needn’t have feared. Our accommodation was a glorious old Ottoman-period house, from which, by the light of day, we could gaze upon the Mediterranean. This being the month of Ramadan, the Muslim population of Jaffa – the old town just south of Tel Aviv – thronged to the beachside park at nightfall, filling the air with the smell of barbecued meats and the sound of raucous family celebration. The flea market, only a few minutes’ humid walk away, sang with the hustle-bustle of an older world. Us boys (‘The Lads’ as we’re referred to in the quartet) sat sampling Middle-Eastern culinary wonders, a couple of Hemingways far from home. I had to persuade Chris not to buy an oriental rug, but we did purchase art materials, watercolouring and pastel-ing memories of our travels. That really is entering the spirit of a bygone era.
Such was his annoyance at coughing crowds, Arthur Rubinstein is quoted as complaining that “when Israelis get a cold, they don’t go to a doctor but come to my concerts”. One suspects if he were performing today, the great pianist would have said something similar about mobile phone calls.
However, we were overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of those who came to our first concert in Tel Aviv, and our following recitals in that city, Na’an and Haifa. The audiences of each country we visit do seem to be linked by certain characteristics, if you’ll permit me a little generalisation. Here we found intensely attentive listening and outbursts of ovation. I think the highlight was when I announced it was our Israeli debut and there was an en masse response of “WELCOME”.
Ilan accompanied us for much of the trip – listening, noshing, swimming, informing and exploring in this new land for us and new life for him. From 10 year-olds in Suffolk to 30-somethings in Israel. And all because of the music (and the ping pong). Let’s keep playing, shall we?