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My friend Sharon, and guest artist Lev Atlas

A force of nature. FON. There’s no other way to describe my friend Sharon, an international human rights attorney who practices, lectures, and consults all over the world. Sharon wanted me to meet Lev Atlas, an incredible musician and long-time favorite performer on Arran, our small island off the west coast of Scotland.

She made it sound like the most natural thing in the world to ring up Lev and ask him to do a concert on Arran. At my house. SCoJeC (The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities) had some government funding to put toward the essentials—advertising and bagels. All we had to do was put up posters and make desserts. Piece of cake—preferably vegan and/or gluten free and/or kosher—right?

So I made a poster, and Sharon squared things with Lev. He confirmed that he’d have a few days between two European tours, and agreed to come.

I’m not sure if other venues he played required this, but when Lev arrived, I asked if he’d mind assembling some of the concert posters onto garden stakes and putting them along the route to our house. He proved remarkably efficient, and was soon back ironing his shirt for the performance.

And what a performance! Lev charmed us with his stories of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union, where it was almost impossible for Jews to attend university. Jewish children were expected to learn an artisan trade such as shoemaking. The one exception was music training, so parents anxious to obtain opportunities for their children handed them a violin. Lev told how he sneaked out to play with local children one day, and broke his collarbone. His father informed him that the rest of his bones would also be at risk if he didn’t manage to practice at least four hours a day. Lev practiced.

Although currently principal viola at the Scottish Opera Orchestra, it was his vintage violin Lev held up, inviting us to see how the top was mottled and bumpy with wear. “It looks like lizard skin,” he said. Clearly, that violin had been played outdoors in all weather, an essential accompaniment to weddings, funerals, and life events.

Klezmer, he went on to tell us, is the merge of two Hebrew words meaning “instrument” and “song”, and is often described as being as close to the human voice as possible, conveying both joy and sorrow.

Then, because Lev happened to mention the day before the concert that it would be nice if someone played the guitar—nobody who knows FON-Sharon will be surprised to hear she picked up the phone and arranged it on the spot—Tim Pomeroy, internationally acclaimed artist and locally beloved musician, offered some enchanting folk songs along with their history.

I was sitting on the stairs, so didn’t get a chance to take pictures. I wish I could share the magic of this incredible night. But the best I can do is invite all who are interested to get on our mailing list (arran@scojec.org) and join us for upcoming events.

I did have a few things I learned from the event.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.—attributed to Mark Twain

Top 10 things I now know about house concerts.

  • 10. If you offer them food, the tourists will come. If you offer them drinks, the Scots will come (bringing their own, of course, and additional to share because…Scots!). And if you offer them music, your friends and neighbors and brand new friends on Arran will come.
  • 9. There IS such a thing as too many bagels. If you never expected so many people and you only brought fifty bagels from the kosher deli in Glasgow, cut them in half. This would NOT work in America, where everyone would automatically take two halves. At least. But the polite Scots assumed the serving size was half a bagel, and that was all they took. (At risk of mixing religious metaphors, we had a loaves-and-fishes moment when we were clearing up and found enough leftover bagel halves for the next day’s brunch…)
  • 8. Corollary to #9: There is no such thing as too much salmon. Farmed salmon is a tricky issue, especially here on Arran. But if you don’t put out smoked salmon with bagels and cream cheese, I think a group of Jewish bubbes (grandmothers) will come to your house and ceremonially confiscate your menorah. So I was careful to ensure that we had responsibly-sourced* wild Atlantic salmon.

**[Okay, sure—according to that movie, there’s no such thing. This was clearly a case where my ignorance was bliss.]

Five dozen homemade cupcakes that I told the Hub I’d counted so he shouldn’t try to nab any in advance? Well, we do have a few of those left. Let me know if you need one…

We put out three packages of salmon. They evaporated. Then three more. Gone. Then a giant emergency-backup slab. Given all the leftover bagels, I have no idea where all the salmon was going, and I did NOT ask. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as too much vegan. Or kosher. Or gluten-free. Gigantic salad bowl packed with enough veggies to feed a green army? Gone. Vegan carrot cake and peanutbutter cookies? History.

  • 7. Drinks? Hell, yeah. If your liquor cabinet is a bit bare, here’s an idea. Host a free event in Scotland, and invite people to bring their own drinks. At the end of the concert, we had enough leftover booze to start our own pub. Or have another concert. Scotland!
  • 6. If you concert, the people will come. Or not… Two months before the concert: 6 reservations. One month before the concert: 12 reservations. One week before concert: 23 reservations. Two days before the concert? 50 reservations. The day of the concert? My phone rang off the hook with people begging to come. Sadly, I had to explain that it was just a house, and already overbooked. Concert? 63 people.
  • 5. Chairs? A nice option, but not a necessity. We could fit about half the people in our living room. The rest (with connecting window open) sat out on the porch, in the hall, and on the stairs.
  • 4. You didn’t buy enough… No matter how many disposable plates, cups, and plastic utensils you steel yourself to buy—knowing you’re going to recycling hell for it—you won’t have enough. Soon your regular dishes and cutlery will be pressed into service. [Tip: Have a quick poke through the bin bags before they go out, and you’ll recover a surprising amount of your non-disposable stuff. You can either see this as a bit demoralizing—people thought your dishes and cutlery were trash—or as a wakeup call that maybe it’s time to lay in that nice new set from Anthropologie.]
  • 3. Don’t forget the Albanian Sex God. Our friends in Glasgow who were picking up our kosher supplies got an urgent reminder to bring Tomor. Sharon and I were mystified, so we googled.

    “TOMOR: An immortal sex god who loves to cockslap his citizens.” —Urban Dictionary. Wow. This concert was going to be LOTS more exciting than we were expecting.

    Sadly, we discovered that in Scotland, Tomor is actually this. And I’m not EVEN going to speculate on what the Albanian Sex God might use it for…

  • 2. Here’s a fun game.  Find your guest’s used bottles/plates/cups/etc before the dog does. For reasons best known only to them, our visitors felt compelled to stash plastic cups in the fireplace, empty bottles in the ironing basket, or squish their used plates into the miniscule bins in the bathroom. (News flash: they don’t fit.) But our guests were equally quick to adopt innovation. Once one empty beer bottle was placed on a windowsill, it was inevitable that every sill soon sported a jaunty lineup of dead soldiers.
  • And the number 1 thing I now know? There’s no such thing as too much toilet paper. I put out two extra rolls in each bathroom, but had to replenish halfway through. How? Why? I really didn’t want to know, and especially refuse to to speculate on the involvement of Tomor in either form…

Lev Atlas is currently Principal Viola of the Scottish Opera Orchestra and lecturer in Strings at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. A virtuoso Klezmer and Eastern European music performer, he is a living encyclopaedia of hundreds of traditional tunes and has influenced many musicians across Europe.
Lev has enjoyed an outstanding career as a classical musician in his native Russia, then USA and now the UK. A member of the international award winning Rostov String Quartet and first prize-winner of the International Shostakovich Competition and grand prix winner of the Borodin Quartet Competition, Lev has recorded extensively with Koch Swan International in Vienna, MCA Classics in New York, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and WCBH Boston. His solo and lead performances include Wigmore Hall, Great Hall, Moscow State Conservatoire, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Usher Hall, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and Atlantic City Music Festival.
In 2013 completed his PhD and was awarded a title of Doctor in Music and Philosophy by the University of Saint Andrews and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for his research, titled “In the Shadow of Shostakovich”.