Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra Bringing Wagner to Israel...Without Wagner?

By James Inverne on Nov 13, 2013 11:27 PM EST

How do you do a Wagner year event without, erm, playing any Wagner in public? That's the dilemma that has faced orchestras in Israel this year. 2013 is the bicentenary of the composer's birth, and most countries are replete with more performances of his music than usual. Not so in Israel, where Wagner's well-known anti-Semitism and Hitler's later championing of his music have made him the musical posterboy for the Holocaust in particular, as well as many centuries of anti-Jewish persecution in general. There has been the odd concert performance of some of his music, but it is socially frowned upon.

Yet, the Jerusalem Symphony (this following our recent story on the self-turning iPad page turner) has come up with an interesting solution. On December 18, they will hold a one-day symposium, including a concert element entitled "The Case: Wagner." It will look at the influence of the German composer--on his music, his writings and the context of his times. It will discuss whether an effective boycott of Wagner is useful or appropriate. It might decide, we hear, that Wagner is overrated or that the boycott is right. On the other hand, it might not.

But here's the rather cunning part. The concert won't actually feature any Wagner. It will be all about context. So, composers who prefigured and maybe influenced Wagner will feature--Nietzsche (yes, that Nietzche, he composed), Weber, Halévy, Beethoven, Marchner and Liszt--as will others who postdate him including Chausson, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and Mahler.

There is a curiosity and hunger about Wagner in Israel, especially in the musical community of course, but no attempt so far to play his music has really put him back into circulation there in terms of live performance (when Daniel Barenboim played an unscheduled Wagner piece as an encore with the Berlin Staatskapelle in 2001, there were loud protests from members of the audience. Another time, Zubin Mehta wanted to play Wagner with the Israel Philharmonic, and there were reportedly fights in the audience). Much of the refusal to play his music stems also from a respect for Holocaust survivors living in the country. But this idea to tackle the issue of Wagner without playing his music may lead to the most searching discussion yet of a role he may, or may not have, in Israeli society.

The two sopranos for the event will be Efrat Ashkenazi and Shiri Hershkovitz. As a postscript, it might be worth noting that attitudes about composers have been known to change in Israel. Richard Strauss was considered musica non grata after World War II, to the extent that Jascha Heifetz was once struck by an outraged audience member (the day after his concert) for playing that composer. And yet, Richard Strauss is now played in that country. Wagner's own music was not struck off the playing lists until after Kristallnacht happened in Germany in November 1938.

Conductors associated with Israel are certainly no strangers to Wagner. JSO music director Frédéric Chaslin has previously conducted Wagner's Ring Cycle. His predecessor as music director and laureate of the orchestra, Leon Botstein, recently devoted his Bard Music Festival in New York to the music of Wagner. Meanwhile, IPO regulars Barenboim and Mehta are both lauded for their Wagner interpretations (Barenboim indeed conducted all of his major operas at the 2013 Proms). Just don't expect a Ring at the Israel Opera any time soon.

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TagsJerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Wagner, Richard Wagner, The Perfect Wagnerite, Wagner @ 200, Israel Philharmonic, Leon Botstein, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta

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