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Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra

Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra

With a free evening from Hartman this past Monday, Steve and I treated ourselves to a performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at the International Convention Center, known to most as “Binyanei Ha’uma,” which is across from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. The IPO usually performs at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium at the Cultural Center of Tel Aviv, but since last night’s performance was in Jerusalem, it saved us the drive. Maestro Zubin Mehta conducted the orchestra, along with the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir and an assemblage of magnificent soloists, in a concert performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s opera, “Un Ballo In Maschera” (A Masked Ball) – a story of palace intrigue and affairs of the heart. Verdi originally intended the protagonist to be the King of Sweden, but the court censor nixed that idea, and relocated the story to center around the governor of Boston, MA, in the 18th century. Admittedly, a pretty ridiculous premise; but Monday’s performance was absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent singing and playing all around.

The great conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted the first performance of the IPO on December 26, 1936. Originally called the Eretz Yisrael Symphony Orchestra, the name was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with the formation of the state in 1948. The orchestra was founded by violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew who had fled from the Nazis to Palestine. Its general manager was Leo Kestenberg, a German Jew forced out of Germany by the Nazi regime. In fact one of the primary intents of the orchestra was to provide professional opportunities for many Jewish musicians forced out of Europe and elsewhere, as the world moved closer to conflagration. During WWII, the orchestra played no fewer than 140 performances for Allied soldiers, and in 1942, arranged a special performance for the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade of El Alamein. Since that time the IPO has played numerous performances for IDF soldiers all over the country.

In 1988 Leonard Bernstein was named the IPO’s Laureate Conductor. Seven years earlier, in 1981, Steve and I had the pleasure of attending an outdoor concert of the IPO in Jerusalem, which Bernstein conducted. In honor of Former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolek, the program included a segment of Viennese Waltzes by Johann Strauss. It was an incredible moment – sitting in a valley known as the “Sultan’s Pool,” packed to the gills with enthusiastic music lovers, just outside the Old City Wall, which was specially illuminated for the occasion, listening to Strauss waltzes conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Now what could be better than that?!

Honorary Guest Conductors of the IPO have included William Steinberg, Kurt Masur, and currently Yoel Levi. In 1968, Bombay-born Zubin Mehta became the orchestra’s Music Advisor, and in 1977, its Music Director. Mehta was born in the same year as the orchestra. Next year they will both celebrate their 80th birthdays. Mehta and IPO have a seemingly organic relationship, and he has earned the respect and affection of all its players.

An interesting controversy arose in July of 2001 during a performance of the IPO conducted by the Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim, who lived in Israel for a number of years as a young man. At a certain point during the concert, Barenboim announced to the audience that he intended to conduct the orchestra in a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Tristan und Isolde.” In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, the orchestra adopted an unofficial ban on Wagner’s music, because of Wagner’s own rabid anti-Semitism, and because his music served as a personal inspiration for Hitler. When Barenboim announced his intention, he acknowledged that many people there might be offended, particularly survivors of the Holocaust and/or their descendants. A 30-minute heated debate ensued in the theater, and a number of people walked out in protest. The music was played anyway. But then in May of 2012, the IPO announced its decision to lift the ban on Wagner’s music, and on June 18th of that year, held a program dedicated to a discussion of Wagner, which it called: “An Academic Musical Encounter: Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” The IPO concluded that with the passage of time, and the expanded understanding of Herzl and Toscanini’s own more positive relationships with the music, the artistic value and lush beauty of Wagner’s music no longer should be banned from its programs.

In April of 2013, the IPO played a concert in Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The concert began with playing of “Hatikvah,” sung by the Polish National Opera. The Israel Philharmonic playing Hatikvah. . . in Warsaw. . .

Can the wounds of history be healed? Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered categorically. But there have indeed been times when human beings have found a way to live, even with those wounds, in the ultimate pursuit of peace. In these two particular cases, it was through the potential for human creativity and the universal language of music. On Monday night in Jerusalem, Steve and I heard an Israeli orchestra, with soloists from Spain, Albania, the United States, Germany, Russia, and Italy, led by a conductor from India, performing the music of an Italian composer. At least within this context, we may find a note of consolation and hope.