January 25, 2007
No ordinary orchestra—in war and in peace, the Israel Philharmonic plays on
(Page 2 - Previous Page)With the opening of the Mann Auditorium, the mood was optimistic. Fresh new faces made their debuts with the orchestra, including violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, and pianist Daniel Barenboim. The roster of great conductors to wield their batons in Tel Aviv grew to include Georg Solti, Antal Dorati, Eugene Ormandi and Lorin Maazel.
But perhaps the biggest turning point came in 1961, when a young, out-of-work conductor named Zubin Mehta, living in Vienna, received an urgent telegram from "PALPHILORCH" to substitute for Ormandy in Tel Aviv. Just 25 and not knowing who "PALPHILORCH" was, he nevertheless accepted.
That first concert established a bond that grew into what Mehta described as a "lasting marriage." Mehta conducted Stravinski, Kodaly and Dvorak, but it was his interpretation of Anton Brukner's work that made the most lasting impression on the Israeli critics.
"The concertmaster from the old days [Kaminski] was there," Mehta remembered in an interview in Tel Aviv last month on the eve of the Israel Philharmonic's gala 70th anniversary celebration. "It was a Hapsburg orchestra, mostly Polish and Viennese. The string section was much warmer back then. We are still trying to recreate it. They were much more virtuosic. One has to mold them into an orchestra" Born in Bombay, the same year as the Israel Philharmonic, Mehta, a recent Kennedy Center honoree, has adopted the Jewish people as his own. His commitment to the orchestra has been tested by time, trouble and conflict. When the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, Mehta famously flew to Israel on a cargo plane full of ammunition.
"My place is here with my musicians," he said, gesturing widely. "When there is trouble, I always come back to Israel."
The Six-Day War also prompted the return of another friend. At the end of the war, Bernstein returned to conduct Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony" on Mount Scopus, with violinist Stern as soloist, for the Israeli soldiers and hospital patients, many of whom had been recently wounded in the war. Barenboim also returned during the Six-Day War, along with cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. The two were subsequently married in the newly liberated Jerusalem.
After the war, Mehta led the orchestra at its only appearance in Bethlehem, conducting Verdi's "Requiem."
He was appointed music director in 1969. The war of attrition had begun, and many of the orchestra's musicians were serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) artillery corps at the Suez Canal.
"My musicians would get blistered hands and ear damage," he remembered, "so I went to Moshe Dayan and asked for them to be assigned somewhere else -- so they were sent to the 'quiet north,' guard duty on kibbutzim."
Not all of Mehta's appeals to Israeli leaders have been so successful. In 1978, he went to Menachem Begin at the Regency Hotel in New York and asked him, "Why don't you send the orchestra to Cairo as a goodwill gesture?"
Begin responded, "Who are you?" Mehta said. Someone had to explain what the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was to the prime minister.
But the philharmonic emerged from the war of attrition with even more prestige. In 1971, it was invited to play for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, and then came a long debate over whether or not to play in Berlin.
A quarter of a century after the fall of the Nazis, the notion of performing in Hitler's capital was still a difficult subject.
Finally, the decision was made to proceed, and at the end of Mahler's Symphony No.1, the German audience was on its feet crying out for an encore.
Mehta called out "Hatikva," and thus Israel's national anthem was triumphantly heard less than 500 feet from the Reichstag, where, slightly more than 30 years before, orders for the extermination of the Jews had been issued.
Mehta's work in Israel has impacted his other conducting assignments.
In 1976, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, when it was negotiating an American Bicentennial tour of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet representative was in Los Angeles to sign the contract for the tour, Mehta joked, "I would like to thank the Soviet Union for sending so many talented violinists to Israel." The representative was so offended, Mehta remembered, that he disinvited the conductor.
In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic gave Mehta the honorary title of music director for life. In 1988, Bernstein was named conductor laureate at a ceremony in Tel Aviv. Bernstein cried at the ceremony, and a year later he led the orchestra in his "Kaddish Symphony" at a Berlin festival, one of his last appearances.
Historic tours continued. In 1989, the orchestra that was founded by a Polish Jew toured Poland for the first time. At Auschwitz, the orchestra remained silent to honor the gravity of what happened there. It visited the Soviet Union in 1990 and went on to visit China, Japan and the land of Mehta's birth, India, for the first time in the 1990s. During the tours, routes would often become circuitous to avoid flying over hostile countries.
With the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, Mehta once again left other conducting dates to return to Israel to conduct amid the Scud missile attacks. Then, in the optimistic peace of the Oslo accords, Mehta organized a concert for 500 Israeli and Palestinian children.
Finding neutral ground was not an easy task, but it was finally agreed upon to hold the concert at the Jerusalem YMCA. For a brief moment, children from Israel and Palestine sat in peace and harmony, listening to the heroic sounds of Beethoven.
The second intifada shattered that harmony in 2000. "It used to be a 'Labor' orchestra" said Mehta, shaking his head. "As citizens of Israel, the whole orchestra has moved to the right because of the intifadas."