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Eliahu Inbal's name was already gracing the albums of the most respected recording companies in the 1960s and `70s. Barenboim, Zukerman, Perlman - practically the only Israelis shining on the international landscape during those years - were not as renowned as Inbal. He conducted the greatest orchestras of Europe, Japan and North America, and famous soloists such as Claudio Arrau and Peter Schreier sang and played under his baton.

Music store shelves filled up with his discography, which continued to grow: all of Mahler's symphonies, all of Bruckner's Berlioz's and Schuman's, and other romantic and post-romantic repertoires. And the man himself still remained a mystery: his picture on the cover of an album - a troublesome name in its Israeliness - and nothing more.

"Twenty years, so they tell me, have passed since I was last in Israel," says Inbal, in an interview at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim artists' residences in Jerusalem. "I came then with my orchestra, the Radio Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, and played Mahler and Tchaikovsky - but public opinion was against me. I was criticized in the newspapers for working and living in Germany and coming to play with Germans, and that irked me such that since then I have not come. My anger abated after awhile, and I was invited to come here many times - but I am always too busy. Now, for example, my concert schedule is full until 2007, and asking me a year in advance is not sufficient."

This year the Israel Festival extended a special request to Inbal, and he felt that he could not refuse. A few free days were found for rehearsals, following which he will conduct the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and soloists who will play Gustav Mahler's monumental Ninth Symphony (Binyanei Hauma tonight, 20:30).

A resident of the world

Inbal was born in Israel in 1936, studied at the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, and like many others went abroad to complete his studies under the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache. In his early 20s Inbal won the Guido Cantelli International Conducting Competition - first in Italy and then in Germany - after which he was appointed musical director of the Frankfurt Orchestra in 1974, a post he held for 16 years.

"I was angered by the reactions in Israel to my tour with the orchestra here, because it was not fair," recalls Inbal. "Israel has such broad connections with Germany, but when it comes to music, they make a fuss. Why?"

Perhaps because there is a special sensitivity to the combination of Germany and culture?

"But there is no such problem with cinema, nor with literature or art, only when we start to play music," he argues. "Germany will never be forgiven for the Nazi period and what they did to the world, that is clear. That memory will remain forever in the history of mankind. Although the Germans thought at one stage that there would be a kind of conciliation - they called it ausarbeite, which means digested, understood - they were proven wrong. Still they should not be discriminated against today for the events of the past. Of course we must make sure it is never forgotten, among other reasons, so that it should never happen again, to Jews or anyone else."

What about day-to-day living, as a resident of Germany - do those memories and feelings not invade your consciousness?

"Not at all. As a musician I revolve in musical, literary and artistic circles, and those circles are universal by their very nature. Man within himself is unaware of the origin of the people, their ethnic or racial affiliation, because the art itself is universal. So I am in Frankfurt or Berlin, but am I really there?"

Berlin sought me

After the end of his tenure with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, Inbal was appointed conductor over the Radio Italy Orchestra in Torino. He was also invited to be a guest conductor of the orchestras of Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Montreal, and three years ago was appointed musical director of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the most important orchestra of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"In Berlin, as in Frankfurt 30 years ago, it was not I who asked to direct the orchestra," he explains. "They sought me, the members of the orchestra chose me on their own and demanded that I be appointed. My arrival in Germany was not planned at all. When I was studying in Paris I met a German girl, fell in love with her, and we married. Since then she has been my wife, and I followed her to Germany, so my whole history with Germany is a matter of chance.

"I received an orchestra in transition," says Inbal of the Berlin orchestra. "Most of the musicians were almost at retirement age, and I had to start to build a new team of good players. Today I can testify that this is a fantastic orchestra. Of course, from a financial point of view it is very difficult for us: Berlin has three operas and eight or nine orchestras, to say nothing of theaters and museums and countless cultural institutions, and after the unification the city got into financial trouble and lost billions of dollars with the collapse of its bank. Culture, even in Germany, is the first to suffer in such situations."

The Berlin Symphony Orchestra - distinct from the more famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - has over 100 musicians, and its audience, mostly from the eastern part of the city, numbers 16,000 subscribers, far more than any other orchestra in Berlin apart from the Philharmonic. Its repertoire is mainly symphonies from the 19th century, but it is embarking on works of Haydn and Mozart on the one hand and modernism from the early 20th century, right up to today, on the other.

"I have noticed that about one quarter of the audience - perhaps a bit less - shows an interest in contemporary music, while 5 percent really understands it," he says. "The rest are hesitant, not because they don't love it but rather because they are afraid, certain that something is defective in their listening and understanding, and feel guilty that they do not identify with it. In time it will become accepted. After all, it is ultimately the audience that decides which composers will remain. It is the judge.

"In Beethoven's time, for example, there were 3,000 composers - and who decided that specifically he would remain from them all? Who chose him? Only the audience. Today there are about 10,000 composers in the world, and only a few are recognized, loved. It is a mystery. But in the end the audience manages to absorb the music, to make it part of their heritage. My duty as a conductor is to offer everything. I must not decide who will be heard and who will not based on my own taste alone."

What about the cliche that an artist's duty is first to himself, not to the audience?

"That's true, but no less so than to the composers and the music. If I do not perform, how will the audience know?"

Another saying prophesies the approaching death of classical music due to the stagnation of the repertoire and the decline of the arts in general.

"`The death of classical music' - I do not believe in that. I have been hearing that for 40 years already, and the music is alive and kicking. Even the claim of `the aging audience' is untrue. I do not see only hundred-year-old people in the audience, so I don't believe that either. I think there is a period in a man's life when he leaves classical music concerts - in his 30s, perhaps also in his 40s - and then he comes back. That is why it seems that only older people love classical music, and they will soon disappear. But this is not true."

And the time that is passing, distancing us more and more from the wonderful classical works, does that not have an effect?

"I disagree with that, too. Time is passing, but we are not becoming more distant from works of art. The distance between us does not grow, and they do not become obsolete. They are part of our culture, and we will not forget them just as we do not forget the wonderful works of the Greeks and the Romans, because man's soul is very broad. We will never reach the moment when we will have to choose between today's art and that of the past."