Instruments of Their Own Discord

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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This is not the column I meant to write this week, not with the world falling apart. But I am driven to write as I do by a passing paragraph in a New York Times review of a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I’ll get to that review and what it suggests about Israel itself in a bit. First, though, context.

The very first post-independence tour of the IPO to the United States was in 1951, and its first performance was at Constitution Hall in Washington.

Constitution Hall had become notorious when its owner, the Daughters of the American Revolution, refused to allow Marian Anderson, the supremely gifted African-American contralto, to sing on its stage. That led Eleanor Roosevelt, along with some thousands of others, to resign from the DAR.

Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior, then invited Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Seventy-five thousand people came to hear her; she opened her concert with “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”

Four short years later, however, she did sing at Constitution Hall, invited to a Daughters of the American Revolution benefit for the American Red Cross. And a dozen years after that, she became the first African American to perform with the Met.

Israel was not yet three years old on January 7, 1951. Fervent Zionist though I already was, Israel was still a very distant land, rendered hazy by layers of myth barely punctured by the occasional newsreel. So I was thrilled that, through good fortune, in the form of a generous relative, I was in Constitution Hall that night. The hall was packed; senior government officials and members of the diplomatic corps and, of course, Washington’s Jewish elite.

And here was the orchestra, whose first concert, back in 1936, had been conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini. Anticipation rose as the players tuned, and then as Serge Koussevitzky, that night’s conductor (it would be Leonard Bernstein the next night), took the podium. Perhaps the program listed what was next to happen, perhaps not; in either event, nothing could have prepared me for the sudden full-bore rendition of “Hatikvah.”

And oh, how real it all suddenly became: There was, there really was, an Israel — before us was the proof — and it had an anthem, and, here in Washington, thousands of people, and not all of them Jews, bolted to attention when the anthem began. Then, of course, stayed standing, hands on hearts, as this Jewish orchestra played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

By the mid-1990s, I’d heard the orchestra a bunch of times, usually while in Israel. I missed the fabled Bernstein concert at the end of the 1967 war, Mahler’s 2nd performed “Me’al Pisgat har Hatzofim” (“Atop Mt. Scopus”), but I was there for the festive 50th featuring Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman and two or three other world-class Israeli violinists. The orchestra was always good, rarely great, but one listened as much with one’s heart as with one’s ears.

And then one summer in the 1990s, the IPO came to Tanglewood. I decided to go, more out of sentiment than out of fondness for the scheduled program.

The lights dimmed, Zubin Mehta came onstage, accepted the audience’s applause. But instead of then raising his baton, he turned to the stage entrance. Out of that entrance emerged the most immediately recognizable performer of classical music in the world, Itzhak Perlman.

He made his hobbled way to center stage, and said approximately these words: “I was in the neighborhood when I saw that ‘my orchestra’ was going to be here tonight, and I couldn’t not come, so I called Maestro and asked whether I could perhaps play something, and he agreed, so we will now do the Bruch Concerto.” Rarely has a sentimental journey been so amply and appropriately rewarded.

Which brings me to the orchestra’s 70th anniversary tour, now in progress. In his review of its Carnegie Hall performance last week, Times music critic Bernard Holland had this to say: “The Israel Philharmonic would sound more like other orchestras if its members played together, which they do not. Articulation even in broad passages is rarely consensual; rapid ones produce a voluptuous haze. Mr. Mehta conducted with furious precision, but no one seemed to pay much attention…. An enormous amount of work might get this orchestra playing as tightly as others, but then it would no longer be the Israel Philharmonic. The messiness seems more a choice than a failing.”

How can one read those words and not take them as a metaphor for all Israel? They remind us of Chaim Weizmann’s classic observation to Harry Truman: “Mr. President, you have it much easier than I do. You head a nation of 150 million people; I head a nation of a million presidents.”

One sees it in the carnage on Israel’s highways, caused principally by drivers who drive as if they were soloists, indifferent to what other drivers are doing. And in politics: Of Israel’s 12 prime ministers, there have been only three who have managed to conduct the affairs of state with genuine authority: David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. To the others, “no one seemed to pay much attention.” Least of all, to Ehud Olmert, widely viewed as both interim and inept.

A “voluptuous haze”? No, the haze that now covers Israel is not voluptuous; it is miasmic. A new Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Bernstein or Mehta would help; so would a nation of more citizens, fewer presidents. Less charming, perhaps, but leave charm to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Israel needs a different kind of music.

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