Classical music is not something that most people would immediately associate with Israel, but the country is in fact home to one of the world’s best orchestras, and a vibrant classical music scene.
The country’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded back in 1936 as the Palestine Orchestra. Bronislaw Huberman, a Jewish Polish violinist, founded the orchestra. He invited leading Jewish musicians from Europe to come and join the orchestra and it is thought that thanks to his actions as many as 1000 people avoided Nazi persecution.
The orchestra gave its first concert on December 26, 1936. It was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, whom Huberman invited when he heard of his refusal to conduct in Germany in protest of the Nazi takeover.
Interestingly, the first concert given by the Israel Philharmonic included music by Richard Wagner. However, since the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938, the orchestra has maintained a ban on Wager’s work due to his antisemitism and the association of his music with Nazi Germany. This has led to a wider tradition of not performing Wager’s music in Israel, and while this often causes some debate, it is a tradition that has held since the creation of the state.
During the Second World War the orchestra performed 140 times for Allied soldiers and then following the war, in 1948, it was renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the Israeli Philharmonic that played the Hatikvah at the official ceremony of the Declaration of Independence. You can hear a recording of it in Independence Hall when you visit on your gap year. Since then the orchestra has gone from strength to strength and it is widely recognised as one of the world’s leaders.
It has regularly attracted big names to conduct and perform with it, perhaps most notably Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. Bernstein was closely affiliated with the orchestra from 1947, and in 1988 he was given the title of Laureate Conductor, which he kept until his death in 1990.
The orchestra did not have a formal director of music. Instead, it had “music advisors” until 1977 when Zubin Mehta was appointed the orchestra’s first Music Director. Just a few years later, in 1981, Mehta’s title was upgraded to Music Director for Life.
Under Mehta’s leadership the orchestra has made numerous recordings for top record labels such as Decca, toured the world a number of times, and worked with many of the top soloists and guest conductors of the past forty years. Recently Mehta announced his retirement as music director in October 2019 and he will be replaced by the young Israeli conduct Lahav Shani, who at 29 years old is already hugely respected and has worked with top orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic.
To give you an idea of how hard the orchestra has been working recently, to celebrate its 75th anniversary the orchestra visited 18 cites and gave 21 concerts in just 30 days. These included places such as Paris, London, Madid, Milan and Bucharest. The orchestra also regularly tours in the USA where it has an extremely loyal fan base.
Hopefully you will have the chance to go and listen to this wonderful orchestra while on your gap year in Israel, and if you are really lucky, you will hear them playing music from some fantastic modern Israeli composers.