Think about it: The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem

The audience that attends the concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem is undoubtedly unique.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Andres Mustonen (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Andres Mustonen
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
The audience that attends the concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem is undoubtedly unique.
The old-timers, who attend the concerts all over the country, still constitute a large share of the regular audience in Jerusalem as well. They continue to come, even though some of them are disabled and arrive accompanied by caregivers, and sometimes even in wheelchairs. For the old-timers, attending the concerts is part of who they are, either because they are true classical music lovers, or because they are members of the bourgeoisie, for whom being seen at the IPO concerts was always considered a status symbol.
In the 1990s, when my mother was already very old and had begun to suffer from dementia, I used to travel to Haifa, where she lived, to take her to the IPO concerts, since that remained an activity that was familiar and comforting to her.
As elsewhere in the country, besides the old-timers, there are many middle aged music lovers – usually people who have had a musical education of one sort or another, and for whom classical music is an integral part of their culture and everyday life. Since the 1990s they include immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The latter have also been an important source of musicians for the IPO, and for the numerous symphony orchestras that have popped up and struggle to survive all over Israel.
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However, what is unique about the audience in Jerusalem are the religious individuals – mostly national religious, but even a few haredim (ultra-Orthodox) – who are highly visible. I suspect that most of the religious members of the audience were secular in the past, since classical music – a large part of which is Christian religious music – is not part of the Jewish religious culture, and most certainly not part of haredi culture.
The last concert of the IPO, conducted by Itzhak Perlman with the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov as soloist, was attended by many settlers from Gush Etzion (this was evident from the large number of buses from Gush Etzion parked in the International Convention Center car park). Not all of this audience consisted of people who like classical music, or regularly listen to it, though there is no doubt that whoever organized this cultural activity for the settlers of Gush Etzion would not have chosen a concert of the IPO if there wasn’t any demand for it.
However, the young religious man who sat to my right managed to sleep soundly through a magnificent performance of Chopin’s second piano concerto, and was busy playing with his smartphone for most of the rest of the concert.
The haredim in the audience are, of course, a much more unique phenomenon.
Here we are certainly speaking of former secular Jews, who nevertheless refuse to part with their musical past. Prominent among these is an older man who attends most of the IPO concerts in Jerusalem, sitting at the left corner of one of the front rows, sometimes in his shirt sleeves, with sheet music open on his lap and with a younger haredi man, dressed in a woolen coat, crouched over a book of Tehillim and totally oblivious to what is going on around him. What is his role? He is undoubtedly an escort of sorts – perhaps some sort of spiritual adviser.
At the last concert I managed to hold a short conversation with the haredi music lover, who introduced himself as a musician.
We spoke of the advantage of sitting in the (relatively) cheap seats at the front left when Perlman is conducting, since Perlman – who suffered from polio as a child – conducts while seated on a heightened platform, and is clearly visible in full profile from this vantage point.
As a frequent concert goer, I must say that I find the experience of hearing the IPO in Jerusalem quite refreshing, despite the shortcomings of the International Convention Center, precisely because of the diversity of the audience. I find the monolithic nature of the audience in Tel Aviv a little boring.
Nevertheless, even in Jerusalem one cannot escape two facts: the first is the paucity of young people in the audience, and the second is the fact that there are very few Mizrahim in attendance.
The dearth of young people does not necessarily indicate that fewer young people in Israel are exposed to classical music, but the fact that the tickets to concerts in general and those of the IPO in particular are expensive (in Jerusalem, the cheapest ticket for non-subscribers is NIS 130).
The absence of Mizrahim is also not surprising.
Classical music is a European phenomenon, and expresses the European culture to which Ashkenazi Jews have not only been exposed over the centuries, but in whose development, especially since the 19th century, some even played an active role, as musicians and even as composers.
The predecessor of the IPO – the Palestine Philharmonic – was established in 1936 by violinist Bronisław Huberman, mostly from among Jewish musicians fired from orchestras in Nazi Germany on racial grounds. The inaugural concert, on December 28, 1936, was conducted by none other than Arturo Toscanini. The orchestra and its music were and remain part of the European, Ashkenazi cultural mainstream in Israel.
If there are classical music lovers among Mizrahim, it is invariably an acquired taste, and rarely something they were exposed to at home. Unfortunately, to some Ashkenazim this indicates cultural inferiority, even though also among Ashkenazim classical music lovers are a small and apparently diminishing minority, and as the role of certain pieces of classical music glorified in the Third Reich indicates – classical music does not necessarily reflect something morally superior and sublime.
Unfortunately, the IPO has turned into a target of criticism, scorn and even mockery in the radical Mizrahi discourse in recent years – not necessarily because the persons involved do not have an ear for classical music but because the IPO represents to them everything that is wrong with the Ashkenazi cultural dominance. Moreover, they claim to be deliberately made to feel as outsiders when they occasionally attend its concerts.
Ravital Madar, who writes a radical feminist Mizrahi column in the Haaretz’s weekend Galeria magazine, claims that unless the IPO starts reaching out to the Mizrahim, the orchestra is doomed. However, her main complaint is that the fact that the cultural enterprises in Israel, like the IPO, which represent Western culture, receive much larger subsidies from the government than their Eastern counterparts (where these exist).
There is no doubt that there is an imbalance in the distribution of subsidies to cultural enterprises in Israel, but hopefully this will not be rectified by shifting subsidies away from those representing Ashkenazi culture to those representing Mizrahi culture, but by increasing the overall budget for culture.
The call to the IPO to reach out to the Mizrahim is, however, demagoguery. All the IPO’s educational activities are designed for anyone who might be interested. But what the IPO has to offer is a given commodity, which is basically Western in nature. One may criticize the IPO in that, unlike some of the other classical music orchestras in Israel (such as the Jerusalem Camerata), it does not sufficiently promote original Israeli composers (just as the Israel Museum is criticized for its limited role in promoting a diversity of Israeli art). But that has nothing to do with the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi schism per ce.
And as to the survival prospects of the IPO, there is no doubt that its managers are doing everything in their power to achieve this goal, under adverse conditions. The offer of inexpensive tickets to the Regional Council of Gush Etzion is undoubtedly one such means. I doubt, however, whether a similar offer in Dimona or Yeruham would work.
The writer is a political