The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is older than the State of Israel. It was the brainchild of famous Polish-born, Vienna-based violinist Bronislaw Huberman. A perspicacious virtuoso, Huberman persuaded about 75 musicians from major European orchestras to make a bee-line to Palestine. It wasn’t out of fear of impending danger; it was just a nice cultural idea that he had formulated in 1931, when he was more Zen than Zionist. But by the time of Hitler’s rise, it had become an urgent mission.
So a day after Christmas 1936, the Palestine Orchestra was born. The concert in Tel Aviv was led by Arturo Toscanini, who felt that this “orchestra of émigrés” made a powerful anti-Nazi statement. The orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with the formation of the new state in 1948.
Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, the IPO has a rich and strange history, playing through wars and cease-fires. Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern and Arthur Rubinstein are among the soloists who have performed with the orchestra. Since Toscanini, others who have raised their batons range from Leonard Bernstein to Serge Koussevitzky, from Sir Georg Solti to Carlo Maria Giulini. But the orchestra is perhaps most identified with Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta, who is as old as the orchestra and is now its oldest member.
“They first called me as a substitution for Eugene Ormandy, who canceled in May of 1961,” Mehta said in a phone call from Tel Aviv, where he recently led a concert. “I accepted because I was penniless and without work in Vienna.”
The orchestra kept inviting the young, talented conductor back, again in 1963, ’65 and ’66. The big breakthrough was when he substituted for Giulini, going on tour with the IPO to Australia and New Zealand, which afforded Mehta the opportunity to get to know the musicians personally. He has been their music director since 1969, and was declared music director for life in 1981. Mehta, who comes from a long line of Parsis — “the Jews of India,” as he once put it — is fiercely committed to the orchestra and never fled during difficult times, as a few have.
“The orchestra doesn’t even look over its shoulder,” Mehta said. “This last July, they played concerts in Haifa and 15 minutes before the concert, a Hezbollah rocket fell a kilometer away. They didn’t even think of canceling the concert or think that the public wouldn’t come.”
One of Mehta’s most memorable moments, after giving more than 2,200 concerts with the IPO over the years, was going to his home country in 1994.
“Going to India with the orchestra, after years of the two countries not having diplomatic relations, was a moment of great pride and joy to me personally,” Mehta remembered. “It was something very honest, sincere and politically fruitful for the country.”
Given his long track record with the IPO, how has the ensemble changed in 40 years, aside from the inclusion of a late-night, informal concert-cum-disco called “Jeans”? “When I fist came, the violin section was extremely good, as it is today,” Mehta said. “But other sections were not. So all of this has been brought up during the times. It’s a pretty equally balanced orchestra today. And the repertoire has increased, except for Wagner.”
Ah, the Wagner Question. The antisemitic genius, a favorite of Hitler’s, has been banned from the IPO’s repertoire. The few attempts made to play his music have resulted in fierce debate and protest. Daniel Barenboim tried about 10 years ago, Mehta in 1981.
“As a musician, I think the orchestra has to play Wagner,” Mehta said. “We play all the children of Wagner — Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler. But since there are survivors who were forced to hear Wagner’s music in the death camps, we don’t want to insult them. We have to respect that. But sooner or later, we’ll do it.” (There are no longer any Holocaust survivors among the orchestra’s musicians.)
Since Jewish tradition encourages argument, this might make Mehta’s job as conductor more difficult.
“There’s a healthy debate,” Mehta said, “which of course, as a benevolent dictator, I’m at liberty to stop whenever I want.” So maybe his views on Wagner will someday prevail.
Wagner, of course, does not appear in the new 12-CD box set, “The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra — 70th Anniversary” (Helicon), the earliest recording of which dates back to 1954. The IPO’s anniversary celebrations in Israel take place between December 17 and December 31, including chamber and solo recitals. Most will take place in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, built in 1957, and feature artists such as Evgeny Kissin, Gil Shaham, Yefim Bronfman, Julian Rachlin and Mischa Maisky. Mehta conducts the big gala concert December 26, which includes Bruch’s Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Barenboim. Honorary conductor Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in both Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw” and Beethoven’s Ninth on New Year’s Eve.
The IPO will also go on a tour of the United States in early 2007, featuring two concerts in New York City at Carnegie Hall. On January 30, the New York Philharmonic’s own Lorin Maazel will conduct Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the superb Maxim Vengerov as soloist, as well as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” On February 1, Mehta will conduct a Weber overture, Berlioz’s “Sinfonie Fantastique” and Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder” with baritone Thomas Hampson. Then it’s off to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mehta hopes one day that the mostly Jewish ensemble (which includes several non-Jewish Americans), an emblem of Israel that has played “Hatikvah” all over the world, will open its ranks to, if not Palestinians, Israeli Arabs — getting closer to Barenboim’s reconciliatory ensemble, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which performs December 19 at Carnegie Hall. Mehta also feels it’s important for the IPO to play in Bosnia one day soon. He has a special understanding of the power of music.
“For two-and-a-half hours every evening, we have peace,” Mehta said of the concerts. “Tonight we played Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Schoenberg’s Variations. I don’t know if the Variations brought much peace to the listeners, but the Brahms sure did.”
Robert Hilferty is a writer living in New York.