It is a sunny morning in Soho. On the hotel terrace where Howard Jacobson is eloquently considering what it means to be a Jew, the clinking of coffee cups and the odd Yiddish imprecation mingle with the sights and sounds of London’s most cosmopolitan strip of earth.
Thematically and literally, this is familiar territory. Many have been the discussions with this most articulate of writers trying to identify the elusive essentials of being Jewish. And, however much this feels like putting up a tent in a hurricane, it is always stimulating, always fruitful.
‘Mahler helps us make sense of our modern world,” explains Norman Lebrecht. “Uniquely, he is a composer who was derided in his lifetime, ignored for decades afterwards but ultimately displaced Beethoven at the box office.”
At 62, Lebrecht is one of the world’s most prolific and widely read commentators on music and culture. Before immersing himself in the arts, he studied Talmud and rabbinic debate — knowledge which has stood him in very good stead, especially when it comes to Mahler, whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated this year.
Justin Bartha may not be a household name, but the 31-year-old outshone J-Lo and Ben Affleck in Gigli, played the missing groom in 2009's surprise comedy hit The Hangover, and provided Nicolas Cage with a wise-cracking sidekick in the family-oriented National Treasure adventures National Treasure. If you still cannot put a face to the name, then his latest film (not to mention its poster), The Rebound, should change that.
She is president of an international festival, founder of the world's leading piano competition and a world-renowned teacher who will work in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Hanover and Leipzig this year alone. At the age of 90, Dame Fanny Waterman shows no sign of slowing down.
Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota is for many one of the most important and influential people in art, regularly securing a top three placing in Art Review's annual list of the art world's most powerful figures. But he is also subjected to virulent criticism from a number of quarters, in particular from the Evening Standard's provocative art critic Brian Sewell, who regularly uses his column to lambast him for "furthering so many worthless careers".
Sha'anan Streett, the frontman of Hadag Nahash - the biggest hip-hop band in Israel - is hung over. And the waitress in the Jerusalem cafe clearly knows it. "Black coffee followed by a big green salad?" she suggests. He gives her a wry smile. "You know me too well," he replies.
Then he turns to me, sotto voce. "Last night," he murmurs, "too many substances." He motions to his "f*** the police" T-shirt. "This is my own design," he tells me.
Neil Gaiman has been described as a writer of extraordinary imagination. This imagination has been responsible for producing decades' worth of award-winning fantasy and science-fiction work, for readers of all ages. His novels, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline and The Graveyard Book have all been New York Times best-sellers. He is well known for his graphic novel series The Sandman, for which he has a cult following, but he is also a prolific creator of poetry, short stories, journalism, song lyrics and drama.
"Well done. You found it." Edmund de Waal seems genuinely surprised that I've managed to locate his studio, in south-east London - left at the charity shop, past the Co-op, the kebab house and launderette and right, down a dusty path, past cars being fixed with much drilling and banging.
It is a world away from the palatial homes in 19th-century Paris and turn-of-the century Vienna of the Jewish Ephrussi dynasty, the subject of his family memoir. Houses full of beautiful art collections, libraries full of precious books.
In 1975, after a run of three commercially successful albums on the back of his best-known LP, Transformer, Lou Reed committed commercial suicide by releasing Metal Machine Music, a double album which consisted of 65 minutes of atonal guitar feedback and white noise. Although it went on to sell a respectable 100,000 copies, the rumour that Reed actually recorded it as a way of getting out of his contract with RCA Records has persisted ever since. In the end, RCA were forced to apologise publicly for even releasing it.
Every so often, along comes a recording that stays alive in your mind long after you have heard it. One that arrived recently was a CD of Mozart's piano concertos, played and conducted by the young Israeli pianist David Greilsammer, with an orchestra mysteriously named Ensemble Suedama. The strength of purpose of Greilsammer's interpretations made the disc stand out as something out of the ordinary.