Israeli rockers, Bay Area orchestra will mix it up onstage

Like most rock bands, the Israeli quintet Knessiyat HaSekhel (Church of Reason) features the typical lineup of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards.

But when the musicians headline Israel in the Gardens at 3 p.m. on the main stage at Yerba Buena Gardens, they’ll get a little help from their friends. The Magik*Magik Orchestra, a Bay Area–based ensemble, will provide classical uplift to the band’s hard-wired intensity.

That means adding to the mix seven violins, three violas, two cellos, a trumpet, trombone and a French horn.

Though Church of Reason and the orchestra won’t meet until a day or so before the concert, that’s not a problem, the musicians insist.

Knessiyat HaSekhel (Church of Reason) headlines Israel in the Gardens. photo/anthony dawton

“A guy in our band who deals with classical instruments will come earlier and work with them,” said Church of Reason bassist Ran Elmaliach from his home in Israel. “Then we join them and rehearse. We’re used to this. We do this in Israel all the time.”

That’s going back a ways. Church of Reason has been an enormously popular band in Israel ever since its 1993 debut album, “Whisper Word.” Fronted by charismatic lead singer Yoram Hazzan, the group went on to record six more albums, including its biggest hit, “Hands Up,” from 2004.

It was 2007’s “Autobiography” that gave them the idea that orchestral instruments and classical arrangements might augment their neo-grunge sound.

“We discovered that the more the songs are intimate and small, the better they sound with a big orchestra,” Elmaliach notes. “It amplifies the emotions.”

The Magik*Magik Orchestra is the perfect complement to the Israeli group. Instead of sneering at rock as a troglodytic subgenre of music, the players dig it. In fact, accompanying rock bands is all they do.

“The people in our [orchestra] are between 18 to their early 30s,” says Minna Choi, a pianist and founder of Magik*Magik. “It’s the music they listen to on their commutes. It’s not a leap. It’s in their blood.”

To date, the ensemble has accompanied artists such as Sting, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, bluesman Keb‘  Mo’ and local favorite John Vanderslice.

Choi says the music of Church of Reason should go nicely with Magik*Magik’s string and horn arrangements.

“The music is super high energy,” she says of the band, “with the whole crowd singing along. The lead singer seems like a total entertainer. For orchestras, it’s always good to have a really strong leader.”

That they have in Hazzan. Elmaliach calls him “the most charismatic man you ever met in your life,” though he is quick to add: “Off stage he barely speaks.”

All five members of the band can rock the house. Founded in their hometown of Sderot in the early 1990s, Church of Reason took its name from a line in the early ‘70s U.S. classic book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

At first they were a quartet with no drummer, playing a homegrown version of post-punk spiked with ethnic sounds of the region. After relocating to Tel Aviv, they went on to release a string of successful albums and played in Israel’s top rock venues.

Their breakout hit “Hands Up” actually had an unsuccessful go-round before topping the Israeli charts in 2004. It bombed when the band first recorded it, but believing in the song, the group re-released it later to great acclaim.

As for explaining the band’s longevity, Elmaliach has a fairly succinct answer.

“It’s a mystery to us,” he says. “In Israel there are few bands that survived as long. We still enjoy what we do, we still enjoy one another, people still come to see us: What more can we ask?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.