Wagner Soap Opera

It was meant to be the "not Wagner" concert: Daniel Barenboim, the pride of Israeli music-lovers, conducting his Berlin orchestra, the Staatskapelle, on the last night of this year’s Israel Festival. Little did we know.

The festival had originally announced that the orchestra would appear with Placido Domingo and play extracts from "Die Walkurie." The very idea was denounced by Holocaust survivors and other Israelis who have not forgiven Wagner, known as Hitler’s favorite composer, for being a notorious (and well-documented) Jew-hater.

Israeli MPs beseeched the festival organizers to think again; so did Minister of Culture Matan Vilnai. He didn’t want to limit artistic freedom, you understand, but this was, after all, the Israel Festival, a state occasion. Barenboim, who launched his musical career as a child prodigy in Tel Aviv, got the message. Under protest, he agreed to change the program.

So, on Saturday night in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, 2,000 of us sat down to a rich, disciplined performance of Schumann’s "Fourth Symphony" by one of the world’s great orchestras, followed by an exuberant concert version of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring." When the Diaghilev ballet premiered the "Rite" in Paris in 1914, the audience went wild, some in anger, some in frenzy. The unshockable Israelis took it in their collective stride.

The drama came later. It was planned and choreographed. Barenboim, who has been trying to break the unofficial Israeli taboo on Wagner for years, manipulated the audience the way he manipulates an orchestra. He knew exactly what he wanted. He worked, subtly but firmly, to achieve it.

Israeli concertgoers expect encores. Barenboim gave us one, Tchaikovsky’s "Waltz of the Flowers." It was familiar and soothing after the pagan brass and percussion of the Stravinsky. We were relaxed, enjoying ourselves, and ready for more.

Then, after the applause died down, Barenboim turned to the audience. Speaking quietly, in Hebrew, without a microphone, he said he was talking to us man-to-man (and -woman). He reminded us why he had canceled the Wagner. But now, he went on, the official concert was over. If we really wanted to hear Wagner, they would play it as his "personal encore." Nothing to do with the festival, nothing to do with the orchestra. If not, the musicians would pack up and go home without a fuss.

The vast majority of the audience applauded enthusiastically. Yes, please, maestro. A handful walked out, perhaps in silent protest, perhaps because they had to relieve the baby-sitter (it was after 11). Half a dozen objected. "It’s a disgrace!" the widow of an eminent rabbi shouted. "It’s the music of the concentration camps!" an elderly man bellowed. Others yelled back: "If you don’t want to hear it, go home! You’ve had your money’s worth."

The dialogue continued for half an hour. Barenboim never raised his voice. At one point, the conductor invited a persistent heckler to come onstage and "discuss this like cultured people." The man, 40-something in a white shirt and small black kippah, declined and went on shouting. Another protested in English. "Shut up," someone retorted.

One man did go forward, faced the audience and said: "I was against playing Wagner in the festival, but now I’ve heard the maestro, and I understand that he’s talking about playing outside the state event. Now I’m in favor." More applause.

A man sitting in front of me took out his mobile phone, and I heard him say, "You’d better send a crew straight away." I thought he was a television executive, but he turned out to be an off-duty police superintendent. "I told them to send reinforcements, in case hooligans attack him," he told me later. Happily, it wasn’t necessary.

Finally, Barenboim signaled the orchestra and waited, baton poised, for silence. As they began to play a love song from "Tristan und Isolde," fewer than a dozen objectors walked out, slamming doors and stamping feet.

The rest of us sat enthralled through 10 minutes of wrenching, lyrical tenderness, the antithesis of the Teutonic bombast that turns some Jews (and not only Jews) off Wagner. You could hardly hear anyone breathe, let alone cough.

At the end, the audience gave Barenboim and the Staatskapelle a standing ovation. A middle-aged woman in a long, pastel-pale dress plucked a rose from a window box at the edge of the stage and presented it to the conductor. Barenboim accepted it with tears in his eyes.

This wasn’t the first time Wagner has been played in Israel. A provincial orchestra in Rishon Letzion broke the 50-year barrier a few months ago. But this was Jerusalem, the Israel Festival (disclaimers notwithstanding). It was Daniel Barenboim, a Jewish Israeli cultural icon, and a German ensemble that was the court orchestra of Prussian emperors and East German commissars. Can "The Ring" be far behind?