Israel Philharmonic Wows San Francisco; Draws Palestinian Protest

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (c) Oded Antman
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Henry Etzkowitz and Ellen Fox

Not since the early Bernstein, have we seen such energy on the podium. A re -imagined  Star Spangled Banner kept momentum, losing the usual, bridging the awkward parts of the Star Spangled Banner into a fluid, more robust rendition. Achieving the most stirring  rendering  of  the US  anthem since John Philip Sousa, continuing power of sound from first note to last  contrasted to Ha Tikvah, Israel anthem that followed, with slow pick up ascending to crescendo in contrast to the uniform power in the US anthem.

Lahav Shani, Conductor, Photo: Oded Antman

Paying its bicentennial call on San Francisco; the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO); reached new heights of musical power and symphonic authority since its last visit. But it is Lahav Shani, the conductor, who at 43, is a master at inspiring and holding the orchestra in his hands.  You literally see him wringing the sound out of every instrument and you see each musician bending into his instrument to give their leader their very best.  Such conductorial affect has not been since the young Bernstein recruited youth to classical music, Sunday mornings, on public television, in the 1950’s. 

Inevitable Political Framing of Cultural Event

Arriving for the concert, the sounds of demonstration could be heard blocks away. Walking from the parking spot to Davies Hall; the Palestine Action Network’ (PAN)s unfurled banners came into view. Matching text with chant, PAN called out Israel’s transgressions as an occupier, holding that there should be “No Symphony for Apartheid Israel.” Arriving at the Hall, leaflets were politely offered. The first author accepted a text inviting expression of non-welcome by the San Francisco Symphony  to the IPO in protest against Israel’s persisting  occupation. As  supporters of Palestinian statehood,  we were not going to miss the IPO, an expression  of an earlier generation of Jewish nationalism in accord with Palestinian aspiration. Zubin Mehta, the IPO’s long-term conductor had hosted a Palestinian pianist as soloist and expressed the wish that an Arab member of the orchestra would be realized during his tenure. Apparently, it has not yet occurred or surely it would have googled! 

Music as Universal and Parochial: Can the two Poles be Reconciled

The tension between music as an expression of universal themes, for example Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the Beatle’s oeuvre, versus  parochial  and minority cultural expression, for example, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and similar  works that weave local folkloric themes into a broader national expression. Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia spans both genres. Which side to tilt to is a continuing debate often carried out within the selection of works for a single concert such as this evenings Mahler and Ben Haim duo. 

Davies Hall, San Francisco

Why the Mahler/Ben Haim pairing, apart from the obvious display of  their first symphonies? Mahler’s First is not the highly intellectual Mahler of later work that defines his persona as a serious, often opaque to the newcomer, atonal composer who achieved a new form of abstraction. Mahler’s initial symphony is experimental, like many initial efforts, trying different themes from the folkloric to a foreshadowing of deep atonality, which was sufficient  to inspire walkouts at its premiere performance. Mahler had Jewish roots but they were not a defining characteristic of his music. Mahler wrote his first symphony at a time when atonal music was unknown.  Even Mahler was unsure whether it should be performed.  Although perceived as dissonant at the time, even the beautiful lyrical parts didn’t connect to the whole and left  one feeling no emotion at all. In contrast, the story of Paul Ben-Haim and his entrance into Palestine and his role in founding the IPO reflected  his feelings about Eretz Israel.  The music he composed was emotional, fluid, and cohesive.  It tracked beautifully.   

Hope for Peace in Hostile Circumstances? 

Music can be a force for connection and even mutual understanding. In the first author’s view, with a right wing Israeli government installed, a successor regime to the one in place when peace with Egypt was made,  forces  are aligning for an American President in the international relations phase  of his term,  to solve an iconic problem–  institutionalization of a conflict. It should have long been settled with a creative sharing of Jerusalem, modeled on the three-way responsibility for the core physical site where three religions converge. Israelis and Palestinians share much in common in their passion for higher education and engineering. Indeed, the text of the failed Clinton accord read like a science and technology development blueprint. 

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (c)

A technological and cultural efflorescence can be projected, concomitant with a peace accord, in the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem-Ramallah corridor. The conductor mentioned a visit to Egypt, almost immediately after the orchestra’s founding, under its original name:  the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. Would that a dual identity representing Israel and Palestine be recuperated in a celebratory peace concert that looks so far off but, hopefully, may be closer than apparent.  


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