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Arts & Culture As It Turns 70, Israel Philharmonic Relishes Role As Musical Ambassador

December 27, 2006
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Zubin Mehta was a jobless wunderkind conductor in Vienna in 1961 when he received a curious invitation to lead a concert of Dvorak and Stravinsky with a symphony the telegram labeled the “Pal. Phil. Orchestra.” “I did not know who the orchestra was,” said Mehta, who was 25 at the time. “I had to ask around.”

It turned out to be the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but the telegraphic service had not updated its name in the 13 years since Israel had become a state.

The orchestra has since become Israel’s premier cultural institution, albeit with less funding from the state in recent years. Its players and Jewish communities abroad see it as the orchestra of the Jewish people.

Now one of the world’s top conductors, Mehta has been with the orchestra almost since he came aboard, first as music adviser, then music director. In 1981 he became music director for life.

He is now 70, the same age as the orchestra, and the gregarious maestro is overseeing the philharmonic’s celebratory anniversary concert series.

The series in Israel will include musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman, and conductors Kurt Masur and Valery Gergiev. Several performances in early 2007 will be held in the United States, including at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

One of the signatures of the orchestra has been its ability to attract some of the world’s top names in classical music, beginning in its early years with Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Rubenstein.

The orchestra was the creation of Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish-born violin virtuoso who under the shadow of Hitler convinced 75 top Jewish musicians from European orchestras to come to Palestine. The Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, the most famous conductor of his time, led the first concert in Tel Aviv on Dec. 26, 1936.

Toscanini, who had fled fascist Italy and saw in the new orchestra a voice against the darkness descending on Europe, said he would not accept payment.

“I am doing this for humanity,” he announced.

The orchestra has played through the founding of the state, wars and diplomatic tours, all the while growing and improving. It has been used by the Israeli government as a diplomatic tool, showing another face of Israel beyond conflict.

Edwin Seroussi, chairman of the department of musicology at Hebrew University, said part of the orchestra’s appeal is its dramatic history.

“It has a lot to do with the creation of something out of nothing, which is in a way a metaphor for the whole State of Israel,” he said.

The orchestra’s improvement in recent decades is attributed in large part to Mehta’s abilities to scout and cultivate new talent.

There is also the “family” of the orchestra, which includes the violinist Zukerman, who’s in Israel to perform the Bruch violin concerto as part of a gala concert.

Zukerman first performed with the orchestra at age 11 — a Mozart concerto, he recalled.

On Monday, as Zukerman warmed up during a rehearsal, he recalled the autumn of 1973, when he and other members of the philharmonic family, including Barenboim and Isaac Stern, flew in to perform as an act of solidarity during the Yom Kippur War.

Zukerman recalled the blackouts and how the musicians scrambled to play whatever pieces they had brought with them in their hastily packed suitcases.

They performed at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, the orchestra’s home since 1959, but under low lights because of the blackouts and to the smattering of audiences that ventured out to hear them.

They also brought their music to hospitals, playing for soldiers injured in the fighting.

“Music in a time of war is the most important thing there can be,” Zukerman said before playing another bar of Bruch. “It’s a human shelter.”

Some of the orchestra’s most dramatic moments have been set against the backdrop of war.

In 1948, Bernstein conducted a concert on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem for soldiers, including wounded hospital patients. In 1967, during the Six Day War, he returned to conduct Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” and lead the orchestra in the national anthem, “Hatikvah.”

Stern rushed to Israel during the 1967 war, as did Mehta, who had been abroad at the time.

Mehta, much adored in Israel, is often remembered for conducting a performance during the Gulf War in 1991. Audience members, who had ventured out of sealed rooms to hear the orchestra, wore gas masks.

“I feel my place is here with my musicians,” he told a group of journalists this week.

The philharmonic’s concerts typically focus on standard classical pieces, although works by several emerging Israeli composers are performed each season. Mehta says Israeli audiences are especially conservative.

“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,” he said. “They want to sit back and listen to their favorites.”

Helping boost the orchestra since the 1970s has been the immigration of many top players, especially string musicians, to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The unofficial language of the string section is Russian, jokes Avi Shoshani, the orchestra’s longtime executive director.

A mix of languages is nothing new for an orchestra whose founding members spoke more German, Polish, Hungarian and Yiddish than Hebrew.

It was from those founding players, many Jews of Polish descent who had been living in Vienna, that Mehta learned to speak Yiddish. He also has tried to preserve their warm string sound, which is among the orchestra’s hallmarks.

Uzi Shalev, 45, the orchestra’s first bassoonist, studied at Juilliard in New York City but never considered playing for any other symphony.

“The orchestra is Israel’s No. 1 cultural and musical ambassador all over the world,” Shalev said. “We feel we are the orchestra of the Jewish people, and Jewish people everywhere — in Argentina, [North] America, South America and European countries — really do their best to host us, to make us feel at home. There is a real sense of pride in the orchestra.”

Shalev recalls performing in the Soviet Union in 1990 when the orchestra toured with Yitzhak Perelman, who played Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto.”

“Many Jews had previously been forbidden contact with Israel. We were a symbol,” he said.

Their tour was greeted with roaring applause by audiences, many of whom were Jewish.

Keeping the orchestra running can be a logistical and financial juggling act, Shoshani said. As state funding for the arts has shrunk over the years, only 15 percent of the orchestra’s annual budget comes from the Israeli government. About 50 percent is from subscription sales; the rest is raised by philanthropists in Israel and abroad.

The orchestra’s vast network of friends associations in countries like the United States, Australia and Argentina has been vital to its success.

The orchestra keeps to a tight concert schedule in Israel and around the world. The players fly on charter flights and stay in three-star hotels.

For Israel Zohar, 62, a clarinetist who has been with the philharmonic for 38 years, the highlight of his career was a 1971 tour of Germany, the first by the orchestra since World War II. As an encore, Mehta conducted “Hatikvah.”

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

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