A classical concert series 7 decades in the making

Founded in 1936 by refugees from Hitler's Europe, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will mark its 70th season with a series of celebratory concerts.

zubin mehta 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
zubin mehta 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the playful shrill of a flute sounds out against the bombast of a trombone, the soothing moans of the violin and the soft banging of the timpani create a sense of drama in Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. This unconventional cacophony isn't characteristic of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but it's Monday morning, and most of the musicians are on a break from rehearsal, with just a few continuing to practice alone on stage for their evening performance of Schoenberg and Brahms. Click for upcoming events calendar! Sounds like these have accompanied Zeev Dorman, a bassoonist and the current chairman of the IPO's board of managers, for the past 37 years. Now a veteran member of the orchestra, Dorman recalls the musical monopoly the IPO held when he first joined the orchestra in 1969. "We were the only show in town," Dorman says, speaking to The Jerusalem Post at the Mann Auditorium, the IPO's home since 1957. The creation of new listening media, diminished interest in classical music among younger music fans and a growth in the number of orchestras and ensembles in Israel have continually pushed the IPO to renew and reinvigorate itself, Dorman says. "The orchestra has to be better and the impact has to be much stronger" than in the past, he says. The IPO's 70th anniversary is being used to demonstrate to local and world audiences that although the IPO may no longer be the only show in town, it will continue to be among the most relevant, active and celebrated. "The first [priority] is to keep up the standards of the orchestra," says IPO musical director Zubin Mehta, who was honored at the White House and received a lifetime achievement award Sunday at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "I believe we've not only succeeded in doing this, but also in raising the standards of the orchestra through the years." The orchestra's 70th birthday will be marked with a series of 12 concerts held between December 17 and 31. Headlining the concerts will be world-renowned soloists and conductors who have accompanied the IPO throughout the years, among them Daniel Barenboim, Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev, Kurt Masur, Gustavo Dudamel and Yefim Bronfman. "We want to create a feeling of internationalism," Zubin said. At the same time, the lighting of a hanukkia during the first week of the concerts will add a uniquely Israeli tone to the festivities. Mehta, who turned 70 earlier this year, is as old as the orchestra, and his career at the IPO spans four decades. The IPO's 70th birthday celebrations will demonstrate Israel's continued cultural vibrancy despite the summer's war and the fighting of the last six years, he hopes. Established in 1936 as the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the IPO was founded by Polish-born violinist Bronislaw Huberman as a performance vehicle for Jewish musicians fleeing Europe. The celebrated Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini oversaw the orchestra's first concert in 1936, telling audience members he was "doing it for humanity." Since Israel's founding, the IPO has represented the country at a range of international festivals, recorded with world-renowned musicians and played for soldiers during Israel's wars. Among the orchestra's most symbolic performances outside Israel have been shows held in Germany, Poland and the former Soviet Union. Baruch Gross, an IPO cellist and member of the board, joined the orchestra in 1974, a year after immigrating to Israel from the USSR. He considers the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union a milestone in the IPO's development. "In the late 1980s, when many musicians from the previous generation retired, we were worried about the future, because the young generation hadn't produced many players of string instruments. Then a miracle occurred, and the immigration from Russia in the 1990s filled the rows." Today, musicians from the former Soviet bloc make up about 40 percent of the orchestra. Gross says the IPO's audience has also changed considerably. "The audience was different [when I first joined the IPO]," he says. "People would come to the concerts with the scores. It was an audience that came from central Europe with extensive musical training." The number of IPO subscriptions now stands at approximately 26,000, as opposed to 30,000 in 1974. Gross attributes this drop, in part, to what he sees as the neglect of musical education among younger people. To counter this decline, the IPO has instituted several programs to raise interest among teenagers and those in their 20s. Five Thursday evenings a year, an "IPO in Jeans" program hosts celebrities who present classical works, then offers young listeners a post-concert party with a DJ, dancing and beer. To groom an even younger generation of potential concertgoers, the IPO also sends its members to perform and speak in front of elementary school students, who later attend IPO concerts. The orchestra's 70th birthday has attracted attention outside Israel, with the European television network ARTE scheduled to broadcast a celebratory concert featuring Barenboim and violinist Pinchas Zukerman. A video exhibition about the history of the IPO will be shown on six plasma screens each night of the 12-concert series, and will also travel with the IPO to European festivals next summer. Locally, Helicon Records has produced a special 12-set CD of the IPO's most noteworthy performances, and Channel 1 will broadcast the opening concert of the anniversary series on December 17. Conducted by Mehta, the concert will feature works by Mozart, Schumann and Brahms, with special guest performers to include pianist Evgeny Kissin, violinist Julian Rachlin and cellist Mischa Maisky. The IPO has marked each decade of its existence with gala concerts, and members say the orchestra's sound has only improved with time. "Maturity in music is always good," Gross says. "It's like wine."