February 4, 2007, Updated September 14, 2012

Celebrating its birthday in style – ‘Some have said they had no idea people played classical music in Israel. The IPO certainly gets that message across.’The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) has long been known as one of the world’s great classical ensembles. It plays to sell-out audiences wherever it goes and has always been a wonderful ambassador for Israeli culture across the globe.

Last month the IPO marked its 70th anniversary with a gala concert in Tel Aviv and is currently touring the United States as part of its birthday celebrations, with two concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, two in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.

IPO secretary general Avi Shoshani was suitably enthused about the trip, particularly in view of the milestone birthday.

“It is always a wonderful experience to play in the States,” Shoshani told ISRAEL21c. “We have always been received with great warmth wherever we go there.”

Shoshani notes that one of the great added values of the IPO’s endeavors is the universality of their appeal and their quintessentially apolitical nature.

“We have never had any problems with our concerts, regardless of events in the Middle East,” Shoshani continues. “People connect only with the music and the way the orchestra plays. Unfortunately, many people around the world only see the bad things in this region on CNN and BBC and they don’t realize people mostly just get on with their lives in Israel. I have had people come up to me after a concert and say how grateful they were to the orchestra for showing them a positive side to life in the Middle East. Some have said they had no idea people played classical music in Israel. The IPO certainly gets that message across.”

The IPO started life on December 26, 1936 as the brainchild of Polish-born violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Observing the unfolding of events in Nazi Germany, Huberman left Vienna, where he was living at the time, and relocated to pre-state Palestine. With the rise of Nazism all Jewish musicians in Germany were summarily dismissed from their jobs and Huberman persuaded some of them, and members of orchestras elsewhere in Europe, to join him in establishing an orchestra in Palestine. All told, Huberman brought 75 musicians with him, effectively saving them from the horrors of the Holocaust.

For the inaugural concert of the then Palestine Orchestra, Huberman asked one of the greatest conductors of the time, Arturo Toscanini, to officiate. Toscanini, who was musical director of the acclaimed NBC Orchestra, and had fled fascist Italy, accepted the invitation with alacrity, saying: “I am doing this for humanity.” Toscanini even waived his conductor’s fee.

Initially the IPO comprised Jews from numerous countries, and very little Hebrew was heard at rehearsals in between the mostly Polish, Russian, German and Hungarian dialogue. Toscanini’s successors to the podium included such luminaries as Sir Malcolm Sargent and Paul Ben-Haim, and the orchestra soon began to perform abroad, including World War Two tours of Egypt where it played for Allied Forces soldiers and members of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army.

The roster of stellar soloists who have performed with the IPO over the last seven decades reads like a Who’s Who of top classical musicians. Isaac Stern, Yitzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim and Shlomo Mintz have been regular features at IPO concerts while Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta are the conductors who are associated most closely with the orchestra. Bernstein first conducted the Palestine Orchestra in 1947 and worked with the IPO throughout the rest of his life. India-born Mehta, from Bombay, first conducted the IPO in 1961, when both he and the orchestra were 25 years old. He has served as music director since 1969, and was appointed music director for life in 1981.

Today the IPO gives over 200 concerts a year, all over the world. Despite its reputation, however, it has not always performed in state-of-the-art auditoriums. Its first home was the 900-seater Ohel Shem hall in Tel Aviv. Because of the venue’s limited capacity, concerts often had to be repeated in order to satisfy public demand. Stern, a frequent guest soloist from the orchestra’s earliest days, disliked the acoustics at Ohel Shem so much he dubbed it the “hall of shame”.

Since 1954, the orchestra has resided at the luxuriously appointed, acoustically advanced 2,760-seater Mann Auditorium in the center of Tel Aviv. It has recorded dozens of works, most notably by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvorak. Under Mehta’s direction the IPO has gained and maintained a reputation for spirited performances.

Yaakov Mishori, who was principal horn player with the IPO for 37 years and a member of the IPO management board for 18 years, has gathered an enormous amount of anecdotal material on the orchestra and recently published a behind-the-scenes peek at the ensemble comically entitled Smiles, Pranks and Coughs at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Among the many vignettes he recalls, is a time when Bernstein disappeared from view in the middle of a concert. “He jumped up into the air to punctuate a particularly forceful part of a symphony,” says Mishori, “but he then vanished. He’d fallen off the podium. Two of the musicians helped him regain his feet and the rest of us carried on regardless.”

On another occasion the orchestra had to pull out all the stops to make sure a concert took place at all. “It was in the early sixties, in Vienna, when Zubin Mehta was just a youngster,” Mishori recalls. “Mehta conducted the first concert which was to be followed by another concert with the great Josef Krips conducting us. As Mehta was worried about the competition, the day before the Krips concert he hired three buses to take us to a nearby town where we sampled some of the local, very strong, wine.”

There was a rehearsal schedule for 10 am. the next morning but when Krips arrived he found only a handful of musicians there. “The rest of us were still fast asleep,” Mishori continues. “Someone told Krips the rehearsal had been rescheduled for 11 o’clock and we somehow got out of bed and shook off our hangovers, and made it to the rehearsal room. Actually, the concert was one of the best we ever gave.”

Pranks notwithstanding, the IPO should continue to accomplish its ambassadorial role with aplomb on their anniversary tour in the US this year, just as it has for the last 70 years.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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