December 18, 2018

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: A gift for all ‘Seasons’

When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) performs Vivaldi’s evergreen “The Four Seasons” at a benefit at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Oct. 30, the orchestra won’t be made up of its 100-plus players. Instead, the event, which is a fundraiser for the orchestra and its only Los Angeles appearance this year, will offer donors a rare opportunity to engage with some 15 members of the orchestra’s string section, as well as a harpsichordist.

The strings form the heart of any orchestra, producing its distinctive sound, and that’s especially true of the Israel Philharmonic. New York Times music critic Bernard Holland once commented on the IPO’s tonal beauty: “From top to bottom, the strings made sounds different from any orchestra I can think of. You hear it even as players tune their instruments.” 

The Los Angeles festivities will also include a cocktail party and dinner, along with introductory words about the program from conductor John Mauceri, and a reading of mood-setting poems before each season of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” by “Breaking Bad” actor John de Lancie. 

But underneath all the celebration lies a hard truth, an ongoing history that cannot be denied. 

“The Israel Philharmonic is a very specific institution,” said violinist Julian Rachlin by phone from Munich, where he is performing with his mentor, Lorin Maazel. Rachlin has toured extensively with the Israel Philharmonic as both soloist and conductor. “It is much more than just an orchestra. It is a symbol of a country that is surrounded mostly by enemies. It is the cultural ambassador of Israel.”

The great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman created the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1935 out of historical necessity, along the way saving many German and Eastern European Jewish musicians and their families — and a good part of Jewish musical culture in the process.  

“One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman, who died in 1947, said. “A first-class orchestra will be this fist.”

Renamed the Israel Philharmonic  Orchestra in 1948, when Israel achieved statehood, the musicians gloved that fist with a reputation for delivering ravishing accounts of symphonies by Brahms, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, to name just three composers who became specialties of the orchestra under renowned conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta and, more recently, guest conductors like Gustavo Dudamel.

Rachlin, now 38, has toured with the IPO since he was 15. He will conduct “The Four Seasons” at the benefit concert and perform the score’s demanding violin solos. 

“We know that Israel is always in a state of tension,” Rachlin said, “and that most of the money goes to the army, and rightly so, to defend and make sure that this country continues to exist. So there is very little state funding that goes to the orchestra.”

David A. Hirsch, president of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) board of directors, said that 30 percent of the orchestra’s budget is financed from private sources, with 14 percent coming from the government. Earned income from recordings, TV appearances, DVDs and concert ticket sales make up the remaining 56 percent.

“When the IPO travels, it brings a message of peace,” Hirsch wrote in an e-mail. “The musicians of the orchestra are priceless cultural emissaries for Israel, yet the costs of touring are astronomical.”

AFIPO fundraisers “underwrite international touring, as well as music education programs, which the orchestra facilitates for thousands of Israel’s young people annually, including immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia and children from disadvantaged homes,” Hirsch added.

At Huberman’s request, the first benefit for what became the Israel Philharmonic was chaired by Albert Einstein in New York in the 1930s. Huberman also had little trouble persuading Arturo Toscanini, a fervent anti-Nazi, to lead the Palestine Symphony’s first concert in December 1936. 

“Since then, the orchestra has relied on similar annual benefit events to help meet their annual deficit,” Hirsch said. “It would be hard for the orchestra to manage without this American support.”

Ilya Konovalov, the IPO’s concertmaster, who will perform at the New York and Los Angeles benefit concerts, called Rachlin “a fantastic musician. It’s interesting to see how he changes every time he conducts.”

The Siberian-born violinist was just 20 and fresh out of the Vienna Academy of Music when he became the orchestra’s concertmaster. “It’s a great responsibility, but when you’re 20, you’re ready to take risks,” Konovalov, 36, said. “Maybe more than I am now,” he added.

Konovalov said younger musicians are keeping the orchestra vital. “It’s an exciting period in the Israel Philharmonic,” he said. “Almost every year, we see five or six new musicians. The orchestra is more flexible than it used to be. The younger musicians are more interested in trying new things, not always playing the same material in the Philharmonic’s style, which I think will make us sound even richer.”

Rachlin agreed. “Interestingly enough, there are also a lot of Israeli players,” he said. “There is a very nice mix of the older generation, which still carry on this great tradition and have experience of the sound of the Israel Philharmonic, and younger musicians learning from them.” 

Meanwhile, Konovalov said the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is happy to be back in its renovated home, the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv. “We started our season, and it looks good. There are many new conductors, and new faces in the orchestra and audience. Many changes look promising at the moment.”

But the violinist said the financial health of any orchestra is always a work in progress. “You never know,” Konovalov said. “Every benefit concert is important. Once you think one is less important than another, you are going down.”