January 25, 2007
No ordinary orchestra—in war and in peace, the Israel Philharmonic plays on
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.
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." 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." 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." Cellist Felix Nemerovski is even more direct in describing the string section: "The Russian tradition has the warmest sound of any orchestra. You will not hear a warmer sound anywhere in the world. It is a truly Jewish sound."
Carvin Knowles is a film composer, graphic designer and writer living in Hollywood. His award-winning art has graced the cover of The Jewish Journal for the past 10 years. For this story, he traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored, in part, by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.