The Human Spirit: Music and missiles

As the evening of music approaches, missiles are being fired at Tel Aviv. It feels right, even patriotic to go.

Zubin Mehta (photo credit: Reuters)
Zubin Mehta
(photo credit: Reuters)
The first time I realized that going to a concert could be an act of patriotism was in 1973.
I was new to Israel. The Yom Kippur War had surprised veteran Israelis, not just me.
I experienced my first siren alerts. The unmistakable sound had to be a mistake, I at first thought. But unlike the practice drills we’d had in Connecticut, the sounds of war were real.
The front felt far away. Only later would we learn how precarious our situation was.
It took me days to realize that my parents in the US might want to hear from me. I had no phone, but called collect from a friend’s house. Only when I talked to them did I realize how ominous it all had been.
Then I heard that Isaac Stern was playing his fiddle at the Jerusalem Theater – an act of solidarity with classical music.
All these years later, I remember how heartening it was.
A collection was taken at the door to buy woolly hats for soldiers at the different fronts. Our windows were blacked out; the streetlights were turned off. We used flashlights in the streets, and came to hear the stirring music.
I was even younger back then than most of the men and women I met last week at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, during Operation Protective Edge. I’d received a notice from the Israel branch of the University of Pennsylvania alumni association about a concert in Tel Aviv.
It was part of the Philharmonic in Jeans series, a program intended to encourage younger folks to attend.
The program was supposed to be Dvorak’s New World Symphony, with a special event demonstrating conducting preceding the concert. What could be nicer? As it turned out, I was too old for the special event. Fifty is the upper age limit to take advantage of the reduced-price tickets and enrichment program offered by the Young Friends of the Arts, the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that aims at lowering the mean age of classical concert- and opera-goers; it had hooked up with the alumni association. As they politely put it, the group brings “mid-career professionals together with the Classical Arts”; they made an exception and let me come.
I’ve made the arrangements before Operation Protective Edge. As the evening approaches, missiles are being fired at Tel Aviv. It feels right, even patriotic to go.
In the heart of Tel Aviv, outdoor cafés are nearly full with diners. Bikers on motor-powered two-wheelers are circling through the plaza in front of the former Frederic Mann Auditorium, now called the Charles Bronfman Auditorium. Pretty cheeky – no one seems concerned about the rockets.
The 70 or so other participants in the Young Friends of the Arts events are gathering in a small auditorium. “Mid-career” is stretching it; they are in their 30s and 40s.
These young, attractive Tel Aviv lawyers, organizational consultants and hi-techies are a mix of singles and married couples, native-born and immigrant Israelis.
They’ve put in a hard day’s work, and some have hired babysitters. They’re showered and fresh for an evening of the arts, casually but stylishly dressed, in a mix of jeans and T-shirts and chic sundresses, sandals and high heels. Although you can overhear conversations in Hebrew, German and Russian, the lingua franca is English.
No one seems fazed by the threat.
The founder of Young Friends of the Arts is Jacob Bryce, 41, an ebullient Australian oleh who works in venture capital.
On moving to Israel, he was impressed by the arts here and surprised that more peers didn’t take advantage.
Surprised and worried. He doubted that such a high level could be sustained in the future unless there was more interest among the young people he met. He decided to do something about it, and organized the group. “You have to start somewhere,” he said.
Programs would feature background and backstage tours. Tickets prices would be held down. They’d do opera, dance, theater and classical music, meeting and networking at the same time.
Daniel Moran, 32, a management consultant, says he’s actually met clients while improving his understanding of the classics. Leehee Goldenberg, a Canadian-born Israeli lawyer, says she’s typical of the group members. She went to a few events and liked the mix of culture and networking so much, she joined the board. A favorite program was the fusion of the Mayumana percussion group with classical ballet, including a pre-performance briefing and backstage party.
Tonight’s pre-concert program begins with champagne and cheese, then moves on to a workshop on conducting given by Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra conductor David Sebba, himself a young person.
There are perfunctory warnings about possible rocket attacks. We’re in a downstairs room; it’s as good as a shelter, someone says.
Sebba charmingly reveals some of the secrets of those who wield the baton. It could be a seminar in leadership. A good conductor needs to show he is the boss, but at the same time inspire those who follow him to trust him. If they’re not playing their best and being creative, the symphony will be pedestrian.
Sebba makes it look easy, but the volunteer conductors from the audience try to follow with varying levels of success.
Waving the baton turns out to be harder than it looks. As they say, “What you see from here you don’t see from there.”
The connection between music and the national mood is a part of life in Israel.
Life. When you turn on the radio, even if you’ve somehow missed the sad news of the day, the choice of somber ballads gives it away. The president, prime minister and chief of staff sing their favorite cheerful Hebrew songs to celebrate Independence Day.
But then there’s the spunky music of protest, the music that’s played because the show must go on even when skies are clouded with missile fire. Israeli musical artists are quick to volunteer in bunkers and beleaguered towns the way Isaac Stern did, to bring the restorative sounds of music.
The concert still has yet to begin, and in the lobby a rock band plays oldies but goodies while oldies but goodies are dancing to Elvis and early Beatles. The gray-haired dancers who take to the floor are still hip and agile, despite hip replacements.
From their age, one can see most of them served in the Yom Kippur War.
The Young Friends of the Arts are clearly in the minority here.
At last, the concert begins, well after 10 p.m. The eminent Zubin Mehta is conducting, and nearly every seat in the auditorium is taken. Once again, there is an announcement instructing us to remain in our seats if Hamas sends a rocket our way.
Without explanation, Mehta has shifted the evening’s program from a single symphony. For instance, he includes an unscheduled overture by Rossini, the same overture played at the orchestra’s first concert in 1936 in Tel Aviv.
The Israel Philharmonic itself was born as an act of protest. A Polish Jew named Bronislaw Huberman, who played a violin concerto by Brahms before Brahms himself, recruited musicians from across Europe. Among them were principals who weren’t allowed to perform anymore.
Come to Tel Aviv, he urged them in the face of growing anti-Semitism. Huberman built an orchestra and saved their lives.
Revered conductor Arturo Toscanini accepted the invitation to conduct and refused to accept payment. “I am doing this for humanity,” the Italian maestro insisted.
Today, young Sabras studying in Tel Aviv are among the brilliant soloists.
With Young Friends in the audience and young stars on the stage, there seems to be hope for the arts after all.
The last number Mehta has chosen is called “Thunder and Lightning,” a polka by Johann Strauss II. Says Mehta with a smile, “Not the sounds outside.”
Young and old sit back to listen and enjoy.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.