Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – Music

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JERUSALEM, January 29 – The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrating its 70th anniversary, is one of the centerpieces of Israeli cultural life, a distinguished institution that resonates powerfully with the Jewish diaspora whose sympathy and support remain so important to this small Jewish state.

But as it prepares for a short American tour that begins Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, the orchestra everywhere shows the same evils as traditional orchestras and special problems that arise from Israel’s special nature.

Its audience is passionate but aging, with a marked musical preference for the lush and the familiar. But the orchestra has been part of the state from the start and has gone through its crises, and the quality of its playing makes it one of Israel’s most visible and beloved cultural symbols, capable of attracting stars. world music.

At his 70th anniversary concerts here last month, guest performers included Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin, Kurt Masur and Valery Gergiev, almost all of whom have had a long relationship with the orchestra and have agreed to playing for nothing but expense, said Avi Shoshani, executive director of the orchestra.

Originally called the Palestine Philharmonic, the orchestra was the inspiration for Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish-born violinist who wanted to create a home for Jewish musicians who saw no decent future in an increasingly fascist and anti-Semitic Europe. Arturo Toscanini, who had fled Mussolini’s Italy, conducted the first concert in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, refusing the honoraria and announcing: “I’m doing this for humanity.

The orchestra became the Israel Philharmonic with the founding of the Jewish state.

“A very small country wanted an orchestra, a theater and an opera,” said Mr. Shoshani, who has worked there for 33 years, since the age of 25. “I am not sure today that the priorities are the same.

Credit…Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

But the orchestra was one of the first world-class institutions in the new state, and it was important to Israelis in difficult times. In 1948 Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem for the soldiers and the wounded. In 1967 he returned during the war to conduct Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and the “Hatikvah” national anthem.

During the 1973 war, when Israel felt it was close to destruction, Mr. Zukerman, Mr. Barenboim and other friends of the orchestra, like Isaac Stern, came here to perform in solidarity. in a dark room, then played for soldiers in hospital units for burn victims.

The current music director, Zubin Mehta, an Indian Zoroastrian, is appreciated for conducting a concert during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was launching Scud missiles at Israel; spectators wore gas masks.

Mr. Mehta – now 70 years old, like the orchestra – remembers being unemployed in Vienna in 1961, at age 25, when he received a confusing telegram inviting him to conduct a concert with the ” Pal. Phil. Orchestra.”

“I didn’t know who the orchestra was,” Mehta said. “I had to ask around.” It appears that the telegraph operator has not updated the name. Mr. Mehta has been with the orchestra almost continuously since then, having become Music Director for Life in 1981.

That year he caused great local controversy by playing music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the end of a concert, thus breaking the informal ban on the music of this notorious anti-Semite which had lasted since the Hitler came to power. Mr. Mehta first gave a short speech on democracy; two members of the orchestra were excused from playing. Some in the audience left and many protested loudly. Ten years later, a Wagner program proposed by Mr. Barenboim was postponed and ultimately aborted.

Wagner aside, Mr. Mehta recognizes the conservative taste of the public. In a recent post-concert interview, he conceded that if he had programmed Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31) after the intermission, the hall would have been empty. Still, he gave audiences a quick but charming exposure of the piece before the orchestra played it.

Credit…Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

“The people have lived in a state of terror and anxiety for 50 years, listening to the news every hour, and they don’t want to come to a concert hall and have to focus on contemporary music and be careful,” said M. says Mehta. “They want to sit down and listen to their favorites.”

Leon Botstein – the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, and the musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which is less famous but more daring in its repertoire – is softly critical. “This is an extremely conservative concert culture, a legacy of the Central European audience,” he said. “The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is the best example.

But there have been harsher criticisms. Writing in the Haaretz newspaper last month, Noam Ben Ze’ev urged Mehta to step down, saying the orchestra “has failed in the really important missions: to train Israeli soloists, to produce young conductors and performers. in-house composers, introduce a daring new repertoire and recruit a new young audience.

Works composed by Israelis make up barely 1% of a new CD collection released by the orchestra – over 900 minutes of music to commemorate the anniversary – Mr Ben Ze’ev complained, adding: ” Nostalgia and the past is what the orchestra has to offer.

But the difficulty of selling innovation to an older audience is a common complaint among most orchestras around the world, even those with much higher government grants than the Israel Philharmonic.

Exceptionally, the Israel Philharmonic manages to pay half of its annual budget of around $ 16 million through ticket sales and some 26,000 subscribers, with an additional 15% of the budget coming from the state, Mr. Shoshani said. (In Europe, orchestral budgets are typically 80 percent or more subsidized by governments, he added, trying not to sound ungrateful.) Most of the rest of the orchestra’s budget comes from individual donors, many of them Americans.

Israel’s tax system, unlike that of the United States, gives little respite to charitable giving, and corporate sponsorship is relatively new here. A rare deal with Bank Hapolim provides for a contribution of $ 1.5 million spread over five years.

The orchestra is also involved in a brawl over its home, the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, a building with an outdated fan-shaped hall, too many seats, and indifferent acoustics. A plan to reshape the hall, change the ceiling and reduce the number of seats to 2,400 from 2,700 is controversial, and the city will only cover a quarter of the $ 40 million cost, Mr. Shoshani, leaving it to him to find the rest.

Yet as the country goes through a difficult winter of self-research – with the aftermath of the Lebanon war, a faltering and unpopular government, and charges of rape and sexual harassment leveled against the ceremonial president – the Philharmonic Orchestra Israel is a constant source of pride. .

Israel Zohar, 62, has played the clarinet for the orchestra for 38 years. The highlight, he said, was a tour of Germany in 1971, the orchestra’s first visit after the Holocaust and the founding of the state. Several players were Holocaust survivors, and there was a fierce debate over whether to go.

The orchestra performed music by Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Mahler, and in encore, “Hatikvah”.

“For one of the first times in my life, I had tears,” Mr. Zohar said. As he played, he added, he said to himself: “We live.”

The current US tour kicks off with Carnegie’s concert, conducted by Lorin Maazel, and another Thursday, conducted by Mr. Mehta.

There are concerts in Los Angeles next Monday and Tuesday. But Mr. Shoshani is particularly proud of the San Francisco concert on Sunday, where Mr. Mehta will conduct works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and Berlioz.

“It’s Super Bowl Sunday,” Mr. Shoshani said. “And I’m told the concert is sold out.”

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