Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Return to Chicago with Program of Beethoven and Bardanashvili

By Louise Burton on Nov 12, 2015 07:03 PM EST

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been a welcome visitor at Symphony Center five times since 1996. On Sunday, the orchestra, celebrated as Israel's foremost cultural ambassador, will bring a program to Chicago that includes Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica,) Ravel's La Valse and a work by contemporary Israeli composer Josef Bardanashvili. Zubin Mehta, the orchestra's music director for life, will lead this program at Symphony Center on November 15 at 7:00 p.m.

The history of this storied ensemble, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary during the 2015/16 season, stretches back even farther than the founding of the State of Israel. Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman founded the orchestra in 1936 as a haven for Jewish virtuoso musicians fleeing oppression in Europe, some 12 years before the founding of the Jewish state.

The IPO program opens with Bardanashvili's symphonic poem A Journey to the End of the Millennium, based on his critically acclaimed opera of the same name. The epic work by this Georgian-born, Israeli composer suggests a musical journey of the Jewish people from their early days through the 20th century.

Of course, the Jews have experienced several historic, world-changing journeys in their long and storied history: to Babylon and Egypt in ancient times, and finally to the Promised Land. During the 20th Century, many undertook another historic journey, returning to Israel from the far corners of Europe and Russia where the diaspora had taken them.

It is hard to imagine another ensemble more suited to the performance of A Journey to the End of the Millennium than the Israel Philharmonic, sharing as they do one of the epic journeys described in this symphonic poem.

Many musicians in the present day have made important journeys of their own to play with the Israel Philharmonic. I recently had the opportunity to talk with violinist Sharon Cohen, a member of the first violin section of the IPO for the past three years.

Cohen was born in New York City to Israeli parents, and moved with them to Israel when she was 7 years old. She has lived in Israel for many years, but frequently returned to the U.S. to study at the New England Conservatory (and, of course, to found A Far Cry.) One of the constants in her life as an international citizen has been the Israel Philharmonic.

"I grew up going to see concerts of the IPO," Cohen told me over the phone from California, during a break in the orchestra's busy tour schedule. "My grandparents had a subscription, and I used to go with them, always, as well as with my music teacher. So, in general, joining the IPO was really making a childhood dream come true."

Cohen was very excited about the chance to play in the Israel Philharmonic's hall, where she had attended so many concerts. "Playing with the colleagues I've always seen from the audience was really, really amazing," she said. "We get to play with so many different wonderful conductors and soloists. Every time I played with new conductor or new soloist, it was very special for me."

The biggest highlights of playing with the IPO? According to Cohen, it is the opportunity to play "the big Romantic repertoire, which I love: Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner."

Cohen describes Mehta's relationship with the orchestra as very unusual and close, spanning as it does more than 50 years. "Everybody knows him, musically, very well...what he likes about music, how he might do something in a concert, what to expect from him to do in a certain piece," she explained.

"When I stepped in, it was a little scary to be new in that situation, but also a good way to connect with very experienced colleagues," Cohen recalled. "I think, sometimes, even the sound of the orchestra is the sound that [Mehta] chose. He cares a lot about the quality of sound, having a very specific, beautiful quality of sound... I play in the first violin section, and we get a lot of attention from him, because he pays a lot of attention to how to lead a melody throughout a piece."

Although Cohen has musical ties to the U.S., after receiving her master's degree at the New England Conservatory, she said that she felt drawn to return to Israel.

"As [Israeli] musicians, most of us felt the need to travel away, to play with different people, to get to know the greater musical world, to study with other people, and see how things are in other places," she explained.

"For me, deciding to come back to live in Israel was out of a desire to feel at home, after many years where I felt... not at home," she said.

This sense of coming home after a long journey will be one of the threads of Jewish experience explored in Bardanashvili's evocative work.

For more information about this Symphony Center Presents concert, please visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's website,

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TagsZubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven, Ravel, La Valse, Josef Bardanashvili, Sharon Cohen, Symphony Center, EXCLUSIVE

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