Israeli orchestra ends half-century ban on Wagner

December 16, 1991|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Breaking a taboo of five decades and in the process causing some Jews considerable pain, Israel's premier orchestra said yesterday that it would perform a program of works by Richard Wagner, a virulent anti-Semite and a cultural hero for Hitler and the Nazis.

For many Jews, especially concentration camp survivors, Wagner stands as an enduring and hated symbol of the Nazi Holocaust, even though he died in 1883, 50 years before Hitler rose to power.

But on Friday, by a large majority, members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra voted to to hold a special concert in Tel Aviv on Dec. 27 featuring portions of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," "The Flying Dutchman" and other works.

The vote was affirmed yesterday by the Philharmonic's three directors, one of whom said in an interview that it was time to transcend this particular symbolism.

Only a week ago, noted the director, Yaacov Mishori, the presidents of Israel and the recently reunited Germany sat side by side in a Jerusalem concert hall, listening to the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I think it is ridiculous to go on as before," said Mr. Mishori, a French horn player. "We couldn't do this even 15 years ago. Now, everything has changed."

But Wagner's force in evoking the Nazi era remains powerful among many Jews, including the 300,000 concentration camp survivors said to live in Israel.

Dov Shilanski, the speaker of the Knesset, was interned at Dachau; he said he "cannot understand this pressure to play Wagner and thereby cause pain to people who have suffered more than a little."

"Where is the sensitivity, where is the Jewish heart?" Mr. Shilanski said on Israel radio.

His feelings were shared by Avraham Melamed, a violinist with the orchestra who as a Romanian-born teen-ager survived the Transnistria concentration camp in Ukraine. Mr. Melamed declined to join his fellow musicians when they gathered on Friday to vote, 39 to 12 with 9 abstentions, to put Wagner on their schedule. The pain, he said, was too great.

"I asked my colleagues to please postpone this and wait for another generation," Mr. Melamed said.

The last time that a Wagner program had been allowed on this soil was in April 1938, when Arturo Toscanini conducted what was then the Palestine Philharmonic. Another Wagner evening was scheduled for the following November, but it fell a few days after the infamous German rampage against Jews known as Kristallnacht, and so it was canceled.

In 1974, the Israel Philharmonic decided to play Wagner but then backed off out of concern for public feelings. Then in 1981, with Zubin Mehta as conductor, the orchestra broke new ground by playing the prelude to "Tristan and Isolde," not as part of a regular program but as an encore.

That tentative first step led to shouting matches and fist fights in the audience and to a walkout by several musicians, including Mr. Melamed. A few nights later, Mr. Mehta tried a Wagner encore once more but got no further than a few bars before shrieked protests from the audience forced him to stop.

Many of the main figures then are the same today, including Mr. Shilanski, who complained bitterly about the pro-Wagner campaign conducted by the Indian-born Mr. Mehta and by Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli citizen who leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and who is a frequent interpreter of Wagner's work.

Mr. Barenboim, who will lead the Dec. 27 program, has long argued that even though Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite and a Nazi icon, his music is a critical element in the repertory of any major orchestra.

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