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On the verge of war, a little night music: The Israel Philharmonic plays L.A.

by Danielle Berrin

July 18, 2014 | 4:26 pm

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta presents lifetime achievement award to film composer Hans Zimmer

In the silence between movements, one could almost hear the rockets raining down on Israel and Gaza.

For some, it was hard to think of anything else at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual Los Angeles benefit, a snazzy black-tie affair, held at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on July 16.

But for Israel’s national orchestra, it was a night like so many other nights. While Israel’s military prepared to respond to enemy rocket fire with a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the country’s top musicians powered through a selection of film scores by the evening’s honoree, film composer Hans Zimmer. And as it has done so fluently since the orchestra’s 1936 founding, musicians played through the pain, focusing instead on the nearly 500 concertgoers who had donned their red-carpet best to support them. 

Before the performance, Protagonist CEO Matti Leshem, the evening’s co-chair, began by offering a prayer for peace, and acknowledging that orchestra members had left behind families “under the threat of Hamas rockets” in order to perform.

The 1-hour and 45-five minute program was conducted by Zubin Mehta, the IPO’s 52-year veteran conductor, and featured some of Zimmer’s best-known work, including compositions from “The Da Vinci Code,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Sherlock Holmes,” as well as Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony no. 8 in homage to Zimmer’s German heritage.

In a segment that felt eerily symbolic, the orchestra plunged into the score from “The Dark Knight Rises,” a Batman film about the intractability of evil, with ecstatic ferocity.    

Afterwards, attendees gathered under the open sky for a candlelit three-course meal prepared by chef Wolfgang Puck.

If it felt at all strange to celebrate, no one said so.

“The Israel Philharmonic has a history of ‘the show must go on,’ performing even when there are terrible things going on,” said E. Randol Schoenberg, an attorney and president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “Wherever there are people, there is music. It was in the ghettos and the concentration camps; it’s part of the human experience. If we stop playing music, we’re dead.”

Actor Joshua Malina, star of ABC’s hit series, “Scandal” attended the event with his wife, costume designer Melissa Merwin. Raised by observant parents, Malina is one of a handful of Hollywood celebrities who publicly support Israel. On the red carpet, he stressed that the evening was about art, not politics.

“Whatever ‘side’ you’re on, this is a night of artistic endeavor and not worthy of protest,” Malina said, adding that he is concerned about the violence and casualties on both sides. “Last night before bed, my son and I said the shema, and after, we said a prayer for the people in Gaza and the people in Israel.”

“I think of the mothers and the children,” Merwin chimed in. “On both sides. I can’t stop thinking about them.”

At the bar, where a long line of people waited to order novelty drinks such as watermelon sangria and spicy cilantro martinis, HBO vice president and senior counsel Tommy Finkelstein considered the disconnect. “You obviously think about it,” he said. “But the Israelis live their lives and do the best they can. And so do we.”

Behind him, Adam Irving, a documentary filmmaker who was volunteering for the evening said he wanted to support Israeli culture and hadn’t given the conflict a single thought. “I didn’t make the connection, to be honest. Being here makes it very easy to forget what’s going on; so I haven’t had that on my mind at all.”

For the most part, guests preferred to focus on the opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance and avoided more difficult subjects.

At a long communal dining table parallel to Canon Drive, a group of the IPO’s younger supporters sat together eating salmon and fava bean puree. Waiters passed around a desser buffet of mini-parfaits and pastries.

“I thought it was profound actually when we had a moment to say that all these musicians did leave their families,” said Natalie Gerber, a mother of three and former consultant with McKinsey and Company. “We can try and pretend to be normal, but at the end of the day, these are fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, and they did have to leave their families, which is not an easy thing to do. It put it in perspective.”

Her husband, Jonathan Gerber, a CPA and founder of the Modern Orthodox overnight summer camp Moshava Malibu, added: “I think it speaks to the resilience of Israel and the Jewish people; that in spite of everything going on around you, you never forget, but you always continue to live.”

At a table across the way was Merrill Greenberg, a member of the orchestra who plays the English horn. A native New Yorker who made aliyah to Israel 41 years ago, Greenberg explained the group's performance as a symbolic act of defiance. 

“I think it’s great that someone will open up the newspaper tomorrow and read something positive about Israel,” Greenberg said. “It will show people that [Israelis] love Western culture and that we represent the state, and the good things Israel has to offer. We’re not suicide bombers.”

Still, Greenberg admitted that it is sometimes hard to enjoy the glamour of it all when he fears for his loved ones back home.

“My Internet phone is right in my pocket and I’m checking it every five minutes,” he said. “I can tell you that.”

As the evening wound down, Mel Keefer, husband of Joyce Eisenberg- Keefer, one of L.A.’s major philanthropists, said the event offered a communal response to an Israel under siege.

“It shows our resolve to overcome anything,” explained Keefer, a benefactor of the Israel Tennis Centers Foundation, a social service organization for at-risk youth. “And I don’t feel guilty about it. I was born and raised in America; I’m an American. I support Israel, but I don’t know what else I can do. I’m too old to go over and do anything physically. So the best I can do is support ‘em.”

One of the last to leave, philanthropist Younes Nazarian lingered at a table wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses. He leaned back exultantly, smiling.

“Anything coming from Israel, I love,” Nazarian said. “Why? Because that country supported me, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, everybody. Because [for] 2,800 years [my family] was in Iran... Nobody accept me as an Iranian. When I come to Israel, I feel it is my county.”

Before he could continue, IPO conductor Zubin Mehta walked by.

“Zuby! Zuby!” he called out. “Remember me? My name is Nazarian.”

“Ah, yes, how are you?” Mehta replied.

The two began chatting.

“I want to say,” Nazarian began, “our dear Zuby is Persian, from Paras [Hebrew for Persia]. Nobody believe it!  They say he’s Indian…”

“I am Indian,” Mehta said, “but with a Persian background.”

Mehta is Indian Parsi, distinct from Irani, but probably a distant descendant of Persian Zoroastrians. Tonight, however, he had his eyes set on Armenia.

“We were going to Armenia but they have no money to pay us,” Mehta said complainingly, and perhaps strategically, as Nazarian is an IPO benefactor. “I would love to go to Yirevan.”

The leader of the orchestra seemed least affected by the raging drama back home.

“We’ve been [performing] the last 12 days in Israel,” Mehta said. “But you know what is wonderful? That not one person stayed home. They came every night. Full houses. Every night.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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