As controversy continued to swirl around Daniel Barenboim's surprise weekend performance of Richard Wagner music in Jerusalem, the conductor has defended his decision to flout an earlier agreement with the Israel Festival as a matter of "democratic principle."
"After the first encore, I put it to the public whether they wanted to hear [Wagner] or not," Barenboim said. "The decision was theirs. It's a democratic principle - the majority rules."
Barenboim told Chicago Tribune Monday that his decision to break the longstanding, but informal, taboo against performances of Wagner - an anti-Semitic German composer who died in 1883 - in his concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra at the festival Saturday was based on principle.
The music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who is Jewish, has cast himself as a champion of moral and artistic principle, rather than as the grandstanding provocateur as he has been depicted in Israeli media. An international firestorm erupted following his playing of a Wagner orchestral piece as an announced encore.
The orchestra played the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde after Barenboim informed audience members they had the choice of staying to hear the music or leaving. What ensued was a half-hour rhetorical battle in which he was heckled, called a "fascist" and told to "go home!" About 50 people stormed for the exits, but more than 1,000 stayed for the performance and rewarded him with thunderous applause. Reaction also was emotional in the United States.
"I can't think of any situation with any composer that has triggered anything even close to this," said Welz Kauffman, president and CEO of the Ravinia Festival. "It reminds me of the issue of flag burning in the United States, which got so many people so passionately involved."
But it is yet unclear if Barenboim will succeed in breaking the unofficial Wagner taboo that has persisted in Israel for several decades. Barenboim said the concert gave him "the personal and private opportunity to express my opinion on a democratic principle."
He denied he broke his earlier agreement with festival authorities.
"The festival asked me to change the program from the Wagner we had originally planned," he said. "I said I didn't agree with the request because I didn't feel it was right. But I didn't want to disappoint the public that had bought tickets to the concert."
"I didn't come to Israel with the idea to play Wagner," Barenboim said. "The risk I took, if you will, is that maybe only 100 people would stay for the Wagner. For me, it's not a triumph we played it, and it's not a defeat we changed the [original] program. The subject is much too sensitive for that."
While Barenboim sought to portray the performance as an impromptu act, festival officials and the orchestra knew at least since Friday that he intended to play one of Wagner's works, over the express objections of the festival management, according to published reports in Jerusalem. Clearly, the orchestra came to Jerusalem with the Tristan music and had rehearsed it in Berlin, expecting to perform it at the festival, if the nod came from the conductor.
The manager of the Israel Festival, Yossi Tal-Gan, said that although the maestro believed he was striking a blow for democracy, he had in effect ignored the democratic decision of the festival administration to withdraw Wagner's music from the festival program.
"Barenboim has displayed an unfortunate degree of hubris and arrogance from the earliest days of this disagreement," said Richard Hirschhaut, Chicago regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "[He] has behaved in the most childish manner; he has gone about having his way in the most insensitive fashion."
Replied Barenboim: "If he accuses me of insensitivity, that `insensitivity' has to be shared by 90 percent of the audience. That accusation would be right if I had played [the Wagner piece] without saying anything to the public."
Answering charges that he sneaked Wagner in the back door, the conductor said it's "absolutely not true." He intended to perform Wagner all along at the festival, even after bowing to the management's demand that he drop the originally scheduled Act One from Die Walkuere.
Although Wagner's works are performed and appreciated throughout the world, the mere mention of them in Israel stirs heated emotions, given their long association with Hitler in the minds of many Israelis and Holocaust survivors. The occasional Wagner piece is heard on Israel's publically funded radio, but past attempts to perform Wagner in its concert halls have become a matter of public debate.
The Israel Philharmonic scheduled a piece for its 1966 season, but opposition kept it off the program. When Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's popular, Indian-born conductor, played a selection of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 1981 for an encore, he first invited those offended by the piece to leave. No one did.