Lahav Shani, Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Soothing sounds in time of war

There are expectations going back to 1948 that musicians turn up to provide relief

On Music

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In sleepless nights of the Gaza war I think about the musicians, improvising in the unfolding awfulness. A week or so after the Hamas massacres, members of the Israel Philharmonic toured hospitals in small ensembles, playing in corridors for casualties, medical staff and visitors. No one was surprised to see them. There are expectations, going back to 1948, that in times of trauma, musicians turn up to provide relief.

Grainy photographs exist of Leonard Bernstein playing piano in the desert with a small orchestra. In 1967 Daniel Barenboim brought moral support, and Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Resurrection symphony on the Mount of Olives. In 1973, Leonard Cohen camped out with a tank division.

In 1973, Leonard Cohen camped out with a tank division

In this war, the Israel Phil was back in tie and tails as soon as neutralised missile barrages permitted, and the audience surged to its halls. Maestros flew in, determined to show solidarity. Semyon Bychkov of the Czech Philharmonic conducted Hatikvah, the national anthem, with tears streaking his cheeks.

Gianandrea Noseda of Zurich Opera led the slowest Hatikvah anyone can remember, notes frozen in mid-air as participants exhaled in shock and awe. Igor Levit went straight from the airport to a hospital to play a banged-up piano. Maxim Vengerov brought his Stradivarius.

A university string quartet played contemporary music at the Tel Aviv Museum, its leader grieving for her niece, held hostage in a Gaza tunnel.

Musicians messaged me about the unparalleled intensity of their experience. A radio host called, urgently requiring a discussion of late Beethoven as light relief. Music has felt essential in this crisis, as it has done since the pre-dawn of nationhood.

The first orchestral concert was given in Tel Aviv on 26 December 1936, its players consisting of Jews sacked from German orchestras by Hitler’s decrees. They were soon joined by Austrian, Czech and Polish refugees.

The orchestra was the brainchild of Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who succeeded in charming Arturo Toscanini to visit Palestine in the thick of what the British called “the Arab riots”. It was a calculated risk on both sides.

Toscanini, eager to support victims of fascism, was a perfectionist who brutalised musicians in rehearsal. How he would respond to a ragged band of fugitives was unknown. The empathy, it turned out, was spontaneous, so much so that he returned the following year despite British warnings that his safety could not be guaranteed.

My favourite eyewitness story concerns Toscanini and Huberman, caught by a torrential downpour on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Turning into a tented kibbutz, they sheltered in the only tin-roofed structure, a communal dining hall.

Word spread that Toscanini was drinking coffee, and kibbutzniks in blue overalls besieged him with questions in German about metronome markings in Brahms’s first symphony and Berlioz’s Fantastique. “Extraordinary country,” he beamed. “Even the peasants know music.”

The Philharmonic evolved into a high-class international ensemble, run on kibbutz lines. Every player had equal rights and the manager, known as the “secretary”, had to open the books on demand to any member. Conductors were peripatetic until, in 1977, the title of music director was granted to an Indian, Zubin Mehta, who had galvanised the musicians for a decade. Mehta finally yielded the title in 2020 to an Israeli-born protégé, Lahav Shani.

Waves of immigration changed the orchestra’s sound and attitude. Always combative, the IPO became recalcitrant in the 1980s when a wave of Russians overwhelmed the string sections. That has now given way to a generation of indigenous players, conservatory-trained in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, many of them classmates of the new music director.

The atmosphere is friendlier now, less paranoid, a shift exemplified by the recent retirement of the long-serving secretary-general, Avi Shoshani. The playing is fleeter, the self-confidence more justified. One perpetual flaw, however, cannot be excused: the Israel Philharmonic has yet to admit its first Arab musician.

The subscription audience, which used to bequeath seats from parent to child down three generations, has thinned out in much the same dimensions as classical attendances in the US. But war has reminded the public of its need for live music. And not just from the national flag-carrier. The Jerusalem Symphony has a Mahler Seventh this month and the Beer Sheva Sinfonietta, on the Gaza frontline, is playing Beethoven.

The Israel Opera has revived a 2012 production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

None of this is displacement activity, or escapist. The Israel Opera has revived a 2012 production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, culminating in a mad scene where Lucia appears in a blood-soaked white gown, having murdered her bridegroom. Israelis were quick to spot affinities with the blood-soaked young women dragged by Hamas rapists from a dance festival to captivity in Gaza.

There were gasps at Lucia, but no protests. The Israel-born soprano Hila Fahima received loud ovations and the director, Omer Ben-Seadia, a kibbutz school graduate, dedicated the work to an IDF women’s observation unit that warned of Hamas’s attack plans and were ignored, paying with their blood for the dismissiveness of top brass. Everything about Donizetti’s opera felt personal and close; many spectators left in tears.

War outcomes are uncertain, with one exception. I hear from both musicians and music-lovers in Israel of a renewal of the bond between performers and public, of a recognition that music is not a luxury but an existential need. Without having to endure the nightmares of Israel and Gaza, the rest of the world needs to be reminded of what music can do for us when life itself is on the line.

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