The Sound of (Classical) Music

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, December 24, 2010

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, a milestone in a triumphant history linked with the names of famous conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, and Zubin Mehta. But it faces rough sailing ahead.

Now one of the world's leading ensembles, the orchestra was originally established by Jewish musicians who fled the anti-Semitic storms of Europe during the 1930's and brought Western classical music to what in a few years' time would become the Jewish state. The initial force behind it was Branislaw Huberman, a virtuoso violinist and outspoken anti-fascist who in 1934 left the Vienna State Academy for the land of Israel. Toscanini, himself a refugee from fascist Italy then living in New York, and widely regarded as the best conductor in the world, presided over the opening concert in 1936 on the sands of Tel Aviv.

Over the next decades, high drama would continue to mark the orchestra's iconic moments. During Israel's War of Independence, Leonard Bernstein led a Jerusalem performance with the sound of bombs exploding in the background. After the Six-Day war in 1967, he conducted from atop the liberated Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. In 1971, the orchestra performed in West Berlin, responding to the audience's call for an encore with a spirited rendition of the Hatikvah national anthem—half a block from the site of the Reichstag where in 1939 Hitler threatened the extermination of European Jewry. During the Gulf War in 1991, the Indian-born Zubin Mehta, now a half-century with the orchestra, rushed back to Israel to concertize amid Scud missile attacks before an audience wearing mandated gas masks.

For many, the Israel Philharmonic embodies not only the quintessence of the Zionist vision but a no less quintessential image of Israel as the plucky champion of Western civilization in a hostile region. It is often called the country's premier "cultural ambassador," one of the few examples of soft power wielded by Israel on the global stage. But times have changed. Anti-Israel activists, well aware of the orchestra's reputation, have been staging demonstrations at performances outside of Israel. At a 2007 concert led by Mehta in Los Angeles, security was increased and parking was forbidden underneath the hall, with the consequence that the "cultural ambassador" appeared as another outpost of "fortress Israel." One reviewer who found the performance cold couldn't resist the temptation of reading politics back into the art. Mehta, wrote the critic,

conducted in his best command-the-troops manner. The troops more or less followed. . . . The message . . . is that these are not times to let down your guard. Not for a second. Not even when playing Schoenberg or Ravel on the other side of the world.

So much for soft power.

Meanwhile, inside Israel, the orchestra has sometimes been taken to task for a lack of Zionist pride. In July 2001, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim (also known for his ostentatious partnering with the late Edward Said) tried to overturn its unwritten ban on performances of the music of Richard Wagner, a favorite of the Nazis. Addressing the audience, Barenboim invited those who might be offended to leave the hall, then turned to the orchestra and launched into The Ride of the Valkyries. The Philharmonic's secretary-general originally supported Barenboim's move, but when the public furor became too much he was compelled to backtrack. The ban remains in place.

Another line of criticism has it that the Philharmonic, as one of the most important musical institutions in Israeli society, is insufficiently Israeli in its choice of repertoire. Consider the set of CD's released in 2006 to mark its 70th anniversary. Of the over 900 minutes of music on the disks, as a critic in Haaretz pointed out, only 1 percent was written by Israeli composers. When it comes to nurturing native talent, he concluded, the IPO has completely failed.

As if all this were not enough, the orchestra is also taken to task for having excessively conservative tastes. In this year's program, aside from a symphony by the late Josef Tal, the fare is mostly made up of the standards: Mussorgsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Mahler, and so forth. Where is the innovative spirit that enables traditions to expand?

Mehta has openly agreed with this critique. But the basic constraint is not artistic but economic. Almost half of the Philharmonic's annual budget derives from subscriptions and sales of individual tickets; if the orchestra challenges its audience too much, it's liable to lose an essential source of income. As things stand, the number of subscriptions has already gone down from a high of 36,000 in 1986-87 to 27,000 today.

The steady falloff in subscriptions is of course not a particularly Israeli problem. Like other classical orchestras around the world, the IPO is contending with the steady decline in the popularity of classical music and struggling to find ways of reaching new audiences. To this end, for the past decade it has been putting on "The Philharmonic in Jeans"—complete with celebrity emcees, free beer, and a live band before and after the show.  

Still, while working overtime to pitch its product in a saturated market where classical music is becoming increasingly marginal, the IPO also plans on marking its 75th anniversary in typical Israeli fashion: by pretty much ignoring the barrage of criticism from both within and without. Instead, it will continue doing its thing, which is playing classic classical music—oftentimes lush, perhaps too comfortable, and not particularly Israelibeautifully.

Watch a preview of the 2010-2011 season of the Israel Philharmonic, with Zubin Mehta and others:  


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