January 25, 2007
No ordinary orchestra—in war and in peace, the Israel Philharmonic plays on
(Page 3 - Previous Page)But despite the intifadas, bombings and rocket attacks, many in the orchestra seem committed to creating peace through music. In 1999, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with his close friend, Palestinian activist Edward Said. Every summer, that orchestra brings together a group of talented young classical musicians from Israel and Arab countries.
Mehta said of his friend's orchestra, "This is the only forum where Israelis, Syrians and Lebanese are sitting in harmony."
In 2002, Barenboim and Said were recipients of the Spanish Prince of Asturias Awards for their work in "improving understanding between nations."
Barenboim has used the spotlight to express his criticism of Israel's presence in the West Bank, claiming that Israel is "losing moral capital" with its policies there. In May 2004, he received the Knesset's coveted Wolf Prize and used the opportunity to make a political statement, asking, "Can the Jewish people, whose history is full of suffering and persecution, allow itself to be apathetic about the rights and suffering of a neighboring people?"
But Barenboim's greatest controversy came in July 2001. Since 1981 he had been building his reputatation for conducting Richard Wagner's operas at Beyreuth, Chicago and Berlin, where he earned a reputation for his interpretations. He announced a summer concert with the Israel Philharmonic of Wagner's work, breaking one of the orchestra's greatest taboos. The orchestra has had a de-facto ban on Wagner's work from the founding of the State of Israel, because Wagner was regarded as Hitler's favorite composer, even though he died 50 years before the Nazis came to power.
When Barenboim announced the concerts, protests erupted and tempers flared. Ultimately, the Israeli government stepped in to hold talks with the conductor. After heated discussion, Barenboim agreed to change the program to something "safe." But at the end of the performance, after calls for an encore, Barenboim stepped onto the stage and announced his intention to play a piece of Wagner's music, adding that anyone who would be offended was welcome to leave. After a speech, often broken by catcalls and heckling, in which Barenboim explained his position that there are many Jews for whom Wagner has no Nazi associations, the conductor turned to the orchestra and began "The Ride of the Valkyries."
The public was outraged. Avi Shoshani, secretary general of the orchestra said, "At the time I supported his decision to play Wagner. But after meeting with many Holocaust survivors and looking into their eyes, I knew that it was not worth it, hurting these people, our audience, just to play this man's music." Barenboim's Wagnerian episode will not be repeated by the Israel Philharmonic. The de-facto ban has been reinstated.
Today, even after 70 years, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra still bears up under a rigorous schedule, touring for two months out of each year. It also receives less state support than many European orchestras: Only about 15 percent of the annual budget comes from the Israeli government. The rest is made up through subscriptions, concert sales and private donors. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic by comparison, received just 1.5 percent of its funding from the government.)
"We don't believe in miracles," Shoshani said. "We depend on them. Last year we started with a $1 million shortfall, so we set up a tour that made money. They travel every night, perform every night, rehearse every day and travel again."
The orchestra works every night except Shabbat, since many of the musicians are religious Jews. One time they flew to Alaska and forgot about the international dateline, inadvertently traveling on a Saturday afternoon. Mehta was hard-pressed to calm down some of the distressed players, but in the end, they understood that no one intended for them to break the Sabbath.
"There are a lot of divisions in Israeli society," Mehta said of the makeup of the orchestra. "They are a cross-section of Israeli Ashkenazi society."
Roughly half of the orchestra's 110 musicians are native-born Israelis, while the other half are recruited from other countries. Two of the musicians are Christian.
"I have this dream that an Arab Israeli boy will sit in the orchestra," Mehta said.
The 70th anniversary of the orchestra was especially meaningful to Uzi Shalev, assistant principal bassoon and chairman of the Musician's Council. He celebrated his last day with the IDF that morning, retiring after 20 years of service to his country. After spending the morning with his military unit, the Julliard-trained bassoonist played in the orchestra at the concert that night, just as he had done for his entire military career.
Throughout the orchestra's history, many of its musicians were also in the IDF. This close bond between musicians and the IDF is expressed in one of their admission policies: In Israel, any IDF soldier in uniform is allowed free admission to any Israel Philharmonic concert.
Shalev told The Journal that making connections with Jews all over the world has highlighted his 20 years with the orchestra: "I feel that we are the orchestra of the Jewish People. When we were in Australia, that fell on Rosh Hashanah. They invited us to their synagogue."
Orchestra management agrees. General manager Shoshani said, "It is the national treasure of Israel. When we go to Buenos Aires, the 150,000 Jews there are all of a sudden taller and brighter." Shoshani considers the orchestra to be Israel's ambassadors, saying, "What the IPO does in one night is more than an embassy does in three years."
Discussions with Shoshani always come back to the musicians, most of whom have been recruited by Mehta. "He has the final word on who gets engaged ... it's a much better orchestra now," Shoshani said.
Both Shoshani and Maehta speak with pride about their brass section. But it is the string section that creates the strongest impression of the orchestra. Many of the violinists are from the former Soviet Union. "Russian is the official language among our string players," Shoshani joked, adding, "We are known for our string sound."