March 2, 2000
Zubin Mehta and His World Class Orchestra
The Israel Philharmonic has always been an orchestra of immigrants.
Founded in 1936 as the Palestine Symphony, by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the orchestra was specifically created to help Jewish musicians escape the Nazis. Many of the founding members, among the most accomplished German-Jewish musicians of their day, had already been forbidden to perform in Germany; most had been dismissed from their posts by the Reichsmusikkammer in 1933. Some 15 years later, renown conductor Leonard Bernstein led the refugees in concert on the sand dunes of Beersheba for 5,000 soldiers during the War of Independence.
Since then, the history of the orchestra has been closely tied to the history of the Jewish state: Holocaust survivors joined the orchestra in the late 1940s; and conductor Zubin Mehta, now the IPO's music director for life, hastily left a Metropolitan Opera tour to catch the last plane to Tel Aviv during the Six Day War in 1967.
When the 25-year-old Mehta first arrived as a guest conductor in 1961, he encountered only a straggling orchestra of central European emigres, he once told the Journal. Over the years, he hired more than 95 performers to create his own world-class symphony, one that was predominantly Sabra until the arrival of a more recent, and dramatic, emigration to Israel.
"Since the 1960s, the Russian aliyah has been our major aliyah, with waves in the late '60s, '70s and late '80s," said Avi Shoshani, the orchestra's secretary general. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union are renown for their musicianship: "We used to joke that any Russian who stepped off the airplane without a musical instrument was a pianist," Shoshani says.
The result is that up to half of the orchestra's 108 performers are now emigres from the former U.S.S.R.; Russians especially dominate the string sections, Shoshani says. The rest of the symphony consists primarily of Sabras, with a few Poles and about 10 American-born musicians (clarinetist Richard Lesser used to play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic).
Perhaps the most prominent Russian in the orchestra is Yuri Gandelsman, the principal violist, who once belonged to a legendary Moscow group. The principal cellist, Marcel Bergman, is Russian and so are both the concertmasters: Lazar Shuster, who arrived to the orchestra in the late 1960s; and Ilia Konovalov, who arrived several years ago and is in his early 20's. Konovalov does not come to the IPO from another world-class orchestra; rather, the wunderkind was recommended to Mehta by his famous Vienna-based violin teacher.
"Ilia is very unusual," Shoshani says. "He is a brilliant musician, really the quality of an international soloist, but he has decided to become a concertmaster instead."
Shoshani says there is no rivalry between the Philharmonic's diverse musicians, because "music is an international language." And despite the fact that the orchestra has absorbed wave upon wave of immigrants, it continues to retain its image as a group made up of "individual personalities," Shoshani says. "It's a special kind of music-making. Everyone has his own opinion, and the conductor has to convince the musicians of his opinion and vice-versa."
The musicians "like to talk," Mehta has said, with a smile. "If they don't like a certain tempo, they'll tell you."
Mehta, once the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will be back in town to conduct the IPO in concert on March 9, 7:30 p.m. at UCLA's Royce Hall, with violinist Isaac Stern as the guest soloist. Tickets, $20 to $75, are available at (310) 825-2101. For information about the gala supper with Mehta after the performance, $1,000 to $2,500 per person, call (310) 454-7191.