In the 1930s, the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman envisioned an orchestra that would enhance the prestige of Jews all over the world and become a vehicle for peace. That vision became a reality when the Palestine Symphony gave its inaugural concert on Dec. 26, 1936, with legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini on the podium. Founded by Huberman, the ensemble became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which next month celebrates its 80th anniversary in Tel Aviv.
The official anniversary festivities — a 12-day, nine-event series featuring some of the biggest names in classical music — begins Dec. 20 with a concert repeating Toscanini’s 1936 inaugural program, conducted by Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti.
For those of us who can’t make it to Tel Aviv, however, the philharmonic has scheduled a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Nov. 17, where five of its musicians will perform Tchaikovsky’s evergreen string sextet, “Souvenir de Florence,” with guest violinist Julian Rachlin.
The gala, sponsored by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, includes a cocktail party and dinner with “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen as host. (Another gala is scheduled for the Plaza Hotel in New York on Nov. 15.) Proceeds will fund the orchestra’s educational programs.
“This year is going to be even more intimate,” said Rachlin, speaking by phone from Vienna. “We are always asking ourselves, ‘Can music save lives? What is our role?’ Huberman — like Isaac Stern was to the modern violin world in saving Carnegie Hall, or like Yehudi Menuhin — was a great ambassador beyond music. He dedicated his life to a higher cause, playing a key role in making the world a better place. It is not a coincidence that Huberman’s name is still as alive today as during his life, if not more so.”
Rachlin, 41, was born in Lithuania. His parents immigrated to Vienna when he was 3 years old. “Vienna and Rome were the transit cities for all Russian Jews,” he said. “But both my parents were musicians, and when my mother quickly got a position teaching at the university, we stayed in Vienna.”
At the age of 15, Rachlin made his Israel Philharmonic debut with Zubin Mehta conducting.
Rachlin, who has participated in philharmonic fundraisers all over the world, also has been a welcome guest conductor of the orchestra for the past several years.
“The Israel Philharmonic’s cause is not just to remind people of the dark spots in history, but also to encourage younger generations,” Rachlin said. “As a language of hope, music should always be an ambassador of peace, putting people together, regardless of country or nationality.”
Rachlin said he feels especially embraced by the Israel Philharmonic’s musicians.
“It’s like I’m returning home to a family,” he said. “They never forgot I was coming during the intifadas. A lot of soloists and conductors canceled. For some reason, I wanted to go and play during the wars.”
Avi Shoshani, the Israel Philharmonic’s executive director, said Rachlin belongs to an exclusive “but quite big” club of musicians who have become ambassadors for Israel and the orchestra. “Julian is one of our main stakeholders,” Shoshani said. “He’s one of today’s leading violinists who is developing a career as a conductor. He’s also a sweet person, which makes working with him even more pleasant.”
Shoshani said the upcoming fundraisers benefit the Israel Philharmonic’s educational programs.
One of the programs, called “KeyNote,” is “one of the most important programs we are cultivating — creating small groups of musicians who are going to various schools all over the country, explaining what an instrument is, what music is, what an orchestra is,” Shoshani said. “We are teaching and preparing [students], and then we bring them over to our concert hall and they listen to a concert that they were prepared for during the year.”
A second program, “Sulamot” (“ladders”), is a joint effort with Tel Aviv University. “The program provides at-risk students with tools to climb and become better people,” Shoshani said. “It’s more about taking care of children who come from risky environments or underprivileged communities. We are only reaching about 25,000 kids, but we would love to reach 250,000.”
Like Rachlin, Shoshani is a great believer in the power of music to inspire and build community.
“Especially in Israel, music is something people want to hang on to in difficult times,” Shoshani said. “During the first Gulf War [in 1990], we couldn’t play at our auditorium because it was not safe. We played in a smaller theater in the afternoon, because in the evening one couldn’t go out in the street. And every afternoon, people came wanting to be together, hanging on to beauty — to whatever mankind is all about.”
Rachlin said that during his 27 years as a violin soloist with the Israel Philharmonic, he’s seen the orchestra evolve. “So many more young people have joined,” he said. “It’s the natural cycle of life, wonderful to see and sad, too.”
Does that mean the Philharmonic’s famously warm, rich sound might change?
“The distinctive sound doesn’t change,” Rachlin said, “because most of the people auditioning for the philharmonic grew up with that sound. For many of them, their teachers were playing in the orchestra. There is a tradition. It’s a very emotional orchestra, and step by step the new generation blends in.”
Citing the crucial role that the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra plays in the health of the ensemble, Rachlin added, “If we want the Israel Philharmonic to continue to exist, we need to raise awareness that it’s not just another orchestra, and that it’s absolutely dependent on its donors.”