'I wandered through this new gorgeous building and I simply could not believe that this was our new concert hall, that this was ours," recollects veteran Israeli composer/conductor Noam Sheriff as he speaks about his first impressions from Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv back in 1957. This Saturday evening, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates the 50th anniversary of the auditorium's opening, which has served as its home for the past half century.
Leonard Bernstein conducted the historic opening night, with Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern and Paul Tortellier performing as soloists. This time, Zubin Mehta will stand on the conductor's podium alongside French pianist Helen Grimaud, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and British cellist Steven Isserlis playing solo parts. The program, however, will be exactly the same as it was 50 years ago.
Sheriff also remembers the first rehearsal. "I sat in the concert hall and I recognized the music...I was quite moved."
The piece he heard was in fact his own, submitted in an effort to win a place in the evening's repertoire. "Frederic Mann contributed a check [for the Auditorium], but it was insufficient, so the Tel Aviv Municipality added the additional sum necessary and announced a contest to find the best new piece. It was open to everyone, and since it was anonymous, I thought - why not to participate?"
Sheriff locked himself in a room and started writing. "My father once asked me how I orchestrate. I explained that I simply hear the orchestra in my head. Another time my cousin told me that the title I gave the piece was too banal - I called it "The Festive Overture," using very plain Hebrew words. He suggested changing it to "Festival Prelude," which sounded more solemn in Hebrew, and I agreed."
Sheriff submitted his piece and then completely forgot about it. To his surprise, he received a letter from the jury saying that the committee had chosen his piece for the opening concert. Sheriff recollects: "Later I discovered it was Bernstein's choice - he went through all scores himself. When Bernstein was told that the piece he chose had been written by a young unknown, he replied: "I couldn't care less. This is the music I want to conduct." And although the old guard could hardly digest the fact that the prize went to somebody, who does not belong to the local music industry, Bernstein greeted the 20-year-old and told him he was happy that a young composer's piece would be performed. "Don't tell me anything about your music, I know the business," he added.
"Composer Paul Ben Haim, who was my teacher and a jury member, told me that he didn't realize it was mine. He didn't recognize my style - suddenly, it was so different. By today I believe that this is one of my best scores. From my early days I taught myself never to give up. I dedicated the piece to my beloved philosophy teacher in university, Jacob Fleischer."
At the party, which followed the concert, Bernstein introduced Sheriff to David Ben Gurion and his wife. "This is the young composer, whose piece was performed tonight," he said. "Oh, I am so happy to meet you, Mr. Bloch," said the First Lady, who mistook him for the late Ernest Bloch, the author of "Schelomo," which was also performed that night. "Since then, I've been known in the orchestra as Mr. Bloch," smiles Sheriff. He's also become a recognized name himself - his "Festival Prelude" was performed in Pittsburg, Chicago, Australia and other places, as well as his many compositions, which were premiered or performed at Mann Auditorium.
"It is hard to overestimate the importance of this Auditorium, which is the home for the excellent Israeli Philharmonic," says Sheriff. "Many outstanding conductors and soloists have performed here. Nowadays, they speak about its acoustics, and although there are some problems, it could be improved with a minimum investment. After all, the famous conductor Sergio Celibidache used to say quite reasonably that there is no bad acoustics, there are only bad orchestras and conductors."
The concert program features "Consecration of the house overture" by Beethoven, "Festival Prelude" by Sheriff, "Schelomo" by Bloch, Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto," and Beethoven's "Piano Concerto no. 5" ("Emperor"). The concert starts at 8:30 p.m.