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The concert opened with “Festival Prelude” by the Israeli composer Noam Sheriff, who had been commissioned to write a piece for the original opening of the hall, in 1957. It was exuberant and nostalgic, and Sheriff was brought onstage at the conclusion of the piece. Then came the moment everyone was there to hear. Slowly, Itzhak Perlman made his way to the chair near the conductor, putting one crutch in front of the other, using all the power of his upper body to will his legs to follow him. The Beethoven violin concerto was simply magnificent, and when Perlman was finished, the audiences could not stop applauding this remarkable, gifted musician.
I looked at my program to see what would follow the intermission. I groaned inside. Mahler. Not only Mahler, but 70 minutes of Mahler. The truth is that for most of my adult life, my father and I had argued about Mahler: He loved him, and I didn’t. He would play his symphonies and try to get me to understand; I never did. But I wasn’t about to leave this evening until its end, and that meant staying to hear Mahler. So I stayed. Despite the fact that it was after 10:30 p.m. (and my jet-lagged bedtime) when the orchestra began the play, I was mesmerized from the first notes. Much of the time I was on the edge of my seat, so thoroughly engrossed in the music that I scarcely noticed the time. Or that I hadn’t eaten dinner. Or anything else, for that matter.
What made it so special? Was it that the acoustics are so good that I was finally able to hear Mahler’s true genius, played by a magnificent orchestra? Was I finally old enough to appreciate the complexity and depth of the music? And did I mention that it happened to be my father’s yahrtzeit? I have no doubt whatsoever that his spirit opened my ears and hovered over the concert hall, and that the orchestra played for my father alone, without even realizing it. And he gave them an eternal standing ovation. May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Joy Levitt is the executive director at the JCC in Manhattan and founder of the Jewish Journey Project.