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Jewish Journal

No ordinary orchestra—in war and in peace, the Israel Philharmonic plays on

by Carvin Knowles

January 25, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Leonard Bernstein with the Orchestra in 1948

Leonard Bernstein with the Orchestra in 1948

If it were a novel, no one would believe the 70-year saga of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with its astonishing cast of famous characters, including Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini and Albert Einstein. But it's all true. It's a history ripe for Hollywood: An orchestra that has lived through wars and constant strife, performed on battlefields and had more than its own share of internal drama and turmoil.

Even before there was an Israel, there was an orchestra in Israel. It was the brainchild of Polish-born violin virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, who, in 1934, at the height of his career, resigned from the Vienna State Academy to devote his time and efforts to creating the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel Aviv. Huberman had long been outspoken in his stand against fascism, and he had seen the devastation of the riots in Vienna earlier that year.

I was there ...

Upon reading our coverage of the history of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jewish Journal Contributing Editor Tom Tugend wrote this note to the editors:

This great piece on the Israel Philharmonic reminded me of my own encounter with the orchestra and Lenny Bernstein.

It was back in October 1948, when I was serving as an American volunteer in the Israeli army during the country's War of Independence. With a two-day pass in hand, I hitchhiked to Jerusalem, where the Israeli equivalent of the USO scrounged up a ticket for the evening's performance of the Israel Philharmonic at Edison Hall, with Bernstein as the guest conductor.

The audience was a curious mix of black-tie patrons and soldiers in fatigues. Bernstein raised the baton for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, stirring at any time, but never more so than for a people engaged in a life-and-death struggle.

Toward the end of the first movement, machine gun fire started crackling from the Old City, held by the Jordanian Legion, and continued intermittently through the rest of the performance. What would have been a distracting disturbance at any other time, melded with the music as entirely appropriate to the mood and circumstances of the occasion.

Lenny and the orchestra never missed a beat.

Best,

Tom

He saw his mission as both cultural and political -- with the creation of a Palestine symphony orchestra, he announced, he would "unite the desire of the country for an orchestra with the desire of the Jewish musicians for a country."

During the next 28 months, he devoted much of the proceeds of his sold-out concerts to the founding of the orchestra. In addition, he enlisted the aid of his fellow Viennese Jew, Albert Einstein, to help raise funds. Huberman rearranged his touring schedule to accommodate Einstein's fundraising banquets, while convincing 75 first-chair Jewish musicians from major European orchestras to immigrate to Palestine.

In February 1936, Toscanini was music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and considered the greatest conductor in the world. Having fled the Italian fascists himself, he agreed to conduct the opening concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, declaring it his duty to "fight for the cause of artists persecuted by Nazis."

On Dec. 26, 1936, Huberman's vision became a reality, when Toscanini stepped onto the podium with the words, "I am doing this for humanity."

The premiere of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra included works by Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and -- as a taunt to Nazi Germany -- Jewish composer Mendelssohn.

Toscanini described it as the happiest moment of his life and one of the highest points of his career. After conducting four concerts in Palestine and four in Egypt, he refused any payment or even reimbursement for his travel expenses. He was so impressed with the orchestra and its "unique audiences" that he decided to return the next year. The press lauded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra as an "orchestra of soloists."

In 1942, the orchestra performed for Allied forces and for soldiers of the Jewish Brigade in a 1944 concert conducted by concertmaster Joseph Kaminski in the Western Desert.

A young Leonard Bernstein made his first appearance in 1947 with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel Aviv, beginning a relationship that would last throughout the composer-conductor's lifetime. His first tour included dates in Jerusalem, where, even though the war had not yet begun, bombs could be heard detonating during the concert.

On May 14, 1948, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra appeared at the official ceremony of declaration of independence at the Tel Aviv Museum to play "Hatikva," the new national anthem. The orchestra proudly changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and through the summer, the musicians traveled in armored cars to play in a besieged Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

An inspiration and comfort to all, Bernstein returned in November to conduct the orchestra in front of 5,000 soldiers on the Negev dunes, after the battle for Beersheba. Playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," he led from the piano amid the rubble of war.

On another date, in the middle of playing a Beethoven concerto in Rehevot, an air raid siren loudly interrupted the music. Bernstein stopped and said, "Whoever has to leave, leave now." No one left the concert. Bernstein resumed playing, finishing brilliantly to the roar of a standing ovation.

For the next two years, Bernstein would serve as the orchestra's musical adviser, and in 1950 he headlined its first American tour, along with fellow conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Izler Solomon, who had been with the orchestra from the beginning.

The 1950s saw a growth in the prestige of the orchestra and the beginnings of many lifelong friendships with great musicians, among them Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz and Zino Francescatti, who remained in Israel even after the outbreak of the Sinai War in 1956.

The orchestra made its first recordings for DECCA in 1954, consisting mainly of works by Jewish composers Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, conducted by Paul Kletzky. That same year, Philadelphia philanthropist Frederick Mann unveiled plans for a 2,800-seat concert hall that would become the orchestra's home in Tel Aviv.

In 1957, Bernstein conducted at the inaugural concert at the new hall, with an appearance by pianist Arthur Rubenstein. And in a memorable gaff, in an address to the audience, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion thanked "Leonard Rubenstein and Arthur Bernstein."

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