THE SPINE FEBRUARY 6, 2009
I haven't blogged for more than a week, and I have missed you--whoever you are. Nearly six days in Israel and three days in Turkey. As some of you will recall, this would make it my second visit to Israel in a fortnight. Yes, I confess, I am obsessed. But, actually, I came this time with Yo-Yo Ma who was playing with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of which I am president and of which my friend Leon Botstein is musical director. I'd go any place to hear these two musicians together, one nothing less than sublime, truly, nothing less, the other cerebral and deep and daring. (In fact, I'd go any place to hear these musicians alone. And I often have.)
Behind the scenes, the program was in dispute. No, not about Yo-Yo's pieces. He could play Happy Birthday and everybody would be delighted. As it happens, he and the orchestra performed Ernest Bloch's Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody and Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B Minor, two of the great threnodic masterpieces of the repertoire. The problem was with the other pieces.
The orchestra has both subtlety and timbre. Its performers are younger than many old world ensembles, and it has been enriched over the last two decades by the arrival in Israel of more than a million Russian Jewish immigrants, half of whom and their children seem to be musicians. This is another miracle of the return to Zion. Also miraculous is that the Israeli audience is really very sophisticated.
Unfortunately, the management of the J.S.O., like the managements of many other first-rate orchestras around the world, underestimates its listeners. As it happens, this orchestra has a non-professional manager who would rather put on for the umpteenth time one of his favs, the Brahms' Third Symphony, let's say, than anything by Messaien or Bartok, Shostakovich or Stravinsky. Didn't he hear that Jews are nothing if not culturally adventurous?
Anyway, there was a fracas between conductor and manager, with the board more or less supporting its dubious appointee. He broke out in hives at the thought that Botstein was going to conduct Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Sixth Symphony. Which Hartmann's sixth what? No embarrassment not to know who Hartman was. But he was a young German composer as the Nazis came to power. I'd only heard one other composition by him, and if these two are truly exemplary of his work the conductor has unveiled an emotional genius, disciplined, angry, touching the conscience and the soul. He spent the Third Reich years in inner and outer exile, never permitting his music to be played in Hitler's empire. The orchestra knew that it was in the middle of a management struggle which, thank God, Botstein won. This after all was a conflict that involved both a brave composer and brave music. On whose side should the musicians be? They rallied around their stubborn conductor, the heroism of the composition and also its difficulty. As did the, of course, sold-out audience which was both stunned and seized. The piece was a protest against Dachau, a visionary piece before the mass murder of the Jews had begun. It actually reminded me of two choral works, Hayden's Missa In Tempore Bellum (which I produced at the Washington National Cathedral on January 19, 1973 to protest Richard Nixon's Second Inaugural), with Leonard Bernstein at the podium, and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Also music much too hard. Earlier in the day, at the dress rehearsal, the orchestra found itself facing an unprecedented full crowd. They'd heard that all tickets had been sold, and so they'd decided to try their luck. Which was on their side. In Jerusalem, rehearsals are ordinarily not open and certainly not when one of the major musicians of the age is playing. Bloch, Dvorak, Hartmann...and, yes, to save face for the management, Botstein conducted a little ditty by Mendelsohn, in honor of his 200th anniversary. An afterthought that actually started the program, the kind of piece you play for those habitual latecomers who arrive ten minutes into the program. Anyway everyone had heard it a dozen times before.
At the end, as his encore, Yo-Yo performed Bloch's A Prayer. It is a prayer for peace which I'd first heard Yo-Yo play on our visit with King Hussein at his house in Aqaba where desert meets the sea. We were there celebrating the smaller peace between Israel and Jordan. The larger peace between Arab and Jew has not yet arrived, and I am afraid that it will be very long in coming.