Israel Philharmonic is 70

A Country’s Cultural Centerpiece Comes Calling

By Steven Erlanger, NY Times, January 30, 2007

JERUSALEM, Jan. 29 — The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrating its 70th anniversary, is one of the burnished 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 on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, the orchestra shows some of the same ills as traditional orchestras everywhere and special problems that stem from the special nature of Israel.

Its audience is passionate but aging, with a decided musical preference for the lush and the familiar. But the orchestra has been a part of the state from the beginning and has lived through its crises, and the quality of its playing makes it among Israel’s most visible and beloved cultural symbols, able to attract global musical stars.

During its 70th-anniversary concerts here last month, guest artists included Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin, Kurt Masur and Valery Gergiev, who nearly all have had long relationships with the orchestra and agreed to play for nothing but expenses, said Avi Shoshani, the orchestra’s executive director.

Originally called the Palestine Philharmonic, the orchestra was the inspiration of 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 Dec. 26, 1936, declining a fee and announcing, “I am 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 house,” said Mr. Shoshani, who has worked there for 33 years, since he was 25. “I’m not sure today that the priorities are the same.”

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

During the 1973 war, when Israel felt that it was close to destruction, Mr. Zukerman, Mr. Barenboim and other friends of the orchestra, like Isaac Stern, flew here to perform as an act of solidarity in a darkened hall, then played for soldiers in hospital burn units.

The current music director, Zubin Mehta, a Zoroastrian from India, is beloved for conducting a concert during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when Saddam Hussein was lobbing Scud missiles toward Israel; audience members wore gas masks.

Mr. Mehta — now 70, like the orchestra — remembers being jobless in Vienna in 1961, at 25, when he received a puzzling telegram inviting him to direct a concert with the “Pal. Phil. Orchestra.”

“I didn’t know who the orchestra was,” Mr. Mehta said. “I had to ask around.” It seems that the telegraph operator had 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 a great local controversy by playing music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the end of a concert, breaking the informal ban on the music of that noted anti-Semite that had lasted since Hitler’s rise to power. Mr. Mehta first made a short speech about democracy; two orchestra members 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 finally aborted.

Wagner aside, Mr. Mehta acknowledges the conservative taste of the audience. In a recent postconcert interview, he conceded that if he had scheduled Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31) after intermission, the hall would have been empty. Still, he gave the audience a quick but charming exposition of the piece before the orchestra played it.

“The population has lived in a state of terror and anxiety for the last 50 years, listening to the news every hour, and they don’t want to come to a concert hall and have to concentrate on contemporary music and pay attention,” Mr. Mehta said. “They want to sit back and listen to their favorites.”

Leon Botstein — the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which is less celebrated but bolder in its repertory — is gently critical. “This is a tremendously conservative concert culture, a carryover from the Central European audience,” he said. “The Israel Philharmonic is the best example.”

But there has been harsher criticism. Writing in the newspaper Haaretz last month, Noam Ben Ze’ev urged Mr. Mehta to resign, saying that the orchestra “has failed in the genuinely important missions: nurturing Israeli soloists, producing young conductors and in-house composers, introducing a daring new repertoire and recruiting a new young audience.”

Works composed by Israelis make up barely 1 percent of a new CD collection released by the orchestra — more than 900 minutes of music to commemorate the anniversary — Mr. Ben Ze’ev complained, adding, “Nostalgia and the past, that is what the orchestra has to offer.”

But the difficulty of selling innovation to older audiences is a common complaint among most of the world’s orchestras, even those with much higher public subsidies than the Israel Philharmonic.

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

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

The orchestra is also embroiled in a fight 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, alter the ceiling and reduce the number of seats to 2,400 from 2,700 is controversial, and the city will cover only a quarter of the $40 million cost, Mr. Shoshani said, leaving him to find the remainder.

Still, as the country goes through a difficult winter of self-searching — with the aftermath of the Lebanon war, a faltering and unpopular government and accusations of rape and sexual harassment leveled against the ceremonial president — the Israel Philharmonic is a steady source of pride.

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

The orchestra played music by Jewish composers, like Mendelssohn and Mahler, and as an encore, “Hatikvah.”

“For one of the first times in my life, I had tears,” Mr. Zohar said. While he was playing, he added, he thought to himself, “We live.”

The current American tour begins with the Carnegie concert, conducted by Lorin Maazel, and another on Thursday, led by Mr. Mehta.

There are concerts in Los Angeles on next Monday and Tuesday. But Mr. Shoshani is especially proud of the San Francisco concert on Sunday, when 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.”

Dina Kraft contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.


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