When Polish-born, Vienna-based violinist Bronislaw Huberman assembled an ensemble 70 years ago, he could never have foreseen the irony in naming it the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. Huberman's idea, fueled by impending cataclysm, was to persuade about 75 Jewish musicians from major European orchestras to flee to relatively safe Palestine. But 12 years later, when the State of Israel was born, Huberman's group took on a new name: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, the IPO has grown into one of the world's top virtuoso orchestras, playing through wars, cease-fires, and peaceful times pockmarked with the terrorism. The orchestra's American tour, which includes stops at Carnegie Hall tomorrow evening and on February 1 with conductors Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta, offers a chance to explore the cultural, ethnic, and religious questions raised by the orchestra's evolution and its home country's political instability.
The orchestra's program for its American tour is robust: Mr. Mehta will conduct the Overture to "Der Freischutz" by Weber, Berlioz's "Sinfonie Fantastique," and Mahler's Ruckert Lieder with baritone Thomas Hampson. Mr. Maazel will conduct Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 and Violin Concerto with dynamic violinist Maxim Vengerov, and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." But while it doesn't lack for content or variety, the work of one composer remains noticeably absent. The famously anti-Semitic Wagner was on the listening menu for the orchestra's December 1936 inaugural concerts, held in Tel Aviv and conducted by the great anti-Fascist Arturo Toscanini, but Wagner became composer non grata after Kristallnacht, two years later. Though long-dead Wagner had nothing to do with the situation, he had been axed from the IPO's repertoire indefinitely.
Today, the Wagner question still percolates with paradoxes. Pinchas Zukerman, whose musician father was in Auschwitz (and who ironically survived the camp by playing Beethoven and possibly Wagner), performs Wagner outside of Israel but never within. "It's mainly emotional," he says. Mr. Mehta, who was appointed Music Director for Life in 1981, has been faced with this issue repeatedly since his impassioned involvement with the orchestra over 40 years ago. "As a musician, I think the orchestra has to play Wagner," he said. "Sooner or later, we'll do it."
Daniel Barenboim, the Argentinian-born Israeli musician, tried to perform Wagner in Israel as recently as 2001 with his Berlin Staatskapelle, but was forced to alter his program. He kept a small amount of Wagner on the program but gave the audience an option to leave after a long, heated discussion.
"The next day, there was a big political scandal," Mr. Barenboim said. "I was accused of cultural rape. Now, I think I know more about culture than I do about rape, but in any case, I was accused of putting the two together!"
Mr. Barenboim is a kind of reconciliation activist. He first performed with the IPO in 1953, has given concerts throughout all the major wars, and participated in the orchestra's 70th anniversary in Israel as both conductor and pianist. He performed the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier not only in Tel Aviv, but also in Ramallah to an audience of Palestinian Arabs.
Mr. Barenboim pushed the envelope when in 1999 he co-founded, with late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Jewish and Arab musicians from the Middle East. In its recent Carnegie Hall concert, the group played the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde as an encore, which came at the specific request of the Jewish members. So the tide is turning — and not only for Wagner.
"One of the main reasons we started all this is that I believe there is no military solution to this conflict, and that the destinies of the two people is inextricably linked," Mr. Barenboim said. "The music helps that because in an orchestra you learn to hear one another."
In recent years, the IPO has begun to embrace this sentiment. While the group started out, by both definition and necessity, as an all-Jewish ensemble performing "Hatikvah" — the Israeli national anthem — during concert tours, it now has handful of non-Jewish members (including, of course, Mr. Mehta). But what about Palestinian Arabs? The IPO has the wheels turning, but despite its program designed to train Palestinian Arab students with the purpose of preparing them to audition for the orchestra, the prospects of Palestinian Arab IPO members are weak. "Unfortunately, politics steps in," Mr. Maazel said. "They get something going, and then there's some kind of war or attack, and the parents become fearful."
The orchestra has also occasionally invited Arab musicians as soloists, and has commissioned peace-mongering pieces. In 2001, it commissioned and performed young composer Gil Shohat's "Hymn for Happiness" which included a children's choir of 600 Jewish and Arab children and an ensemble of traditional Arab instruments.
"But this is a subject that goes far beyond the orchestra," Mr. Barenboim said. "The problem with the State of Israel today is how to deal with 22% of the population that is not Jewish," he said. "But I think the orchestra is doing a very good job. Zubin Mehta has said that he will not rest until the first Palestinian Israeli becomes a member of the orchestra."
Until that time comes, there is much healing power to savor in exquisite music making.
"For two and a half hours every evening," Mr. Mehta observed, "we have peace."
The IPO begins performances tomorrow evening (Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, 212-247-7800).