Yehoshua Pasternak
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra chairman Yehoshua Pasternak. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra calls its annual concert calendar "the bedsheet," because it always measures at least 50 by 70 centimeters. It has to be that big to accommodate close to 40 programs that are performed more than 100 times in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, in 10 concert series, as well as the names of so many conductors, soloists, choirs and dance ensembles, actors and others.

IPO chairman Yehoshua Pasternak, who played a major role in next season's schedule, holds the complex sheet in his hands without any trouble. It is dotted with an array of colors and filled with rows and columns of crowded text reflecting an entire year of music. Smiling, he points to a row in the bottom third of the program - a concert featuring the acclaimed conductor Ricardo Mutti and international pianist Gerhard Oppitz.

"This concert will no doubt catch the subscribers by surprise," Pasternak said. "An overture by Sinigaglia, a piano concerto by Martucci, Busoni's 'Elegiac Lullaby' and 'Intermezzi Goldoniani' by Bossi: 'What happened to the Philharmonic and Ricardo Mutti,' they are sure to ask, 'Who are these names, what are these works?' But Ricardo Mutti, whom we wanted to conduct a Mahler symphony, brought us the idea of recreating Mahler's last concert, in New York, and we couldn't refuse."

Complex craft

The concert attests to the complexity of the craft of building a concert calendar as well as the spirit that hovers over the IPO's upcoming season - the spirit of Mahler. In fact, 2011 will be marked throughout the world as the 100th anniversary since the composer's death.

"Three Mahler symphonies will be played in addition to the recreation concert," Pasternak explained, "and also two song cycles: Ruckert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder. The IPO recruited superstars for the song cycles, whose presence will lend a special tone to the new season: mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, in her first performance in Israel; and baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who since he first sang here has shot to the top of the global classical music scene."

Golden Generation

Pasternak continues his tour of next season's stars: "The conductors we view as the Golden Generation - Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Mutti, Herbert Blomstedt - these are our regulars; and there are conductors from the middle generation: Kent Nagano, Asher Fisch, Yoav Talmi; and the young ones, new faces who are conducting us for the first time - the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko and Diego Matheuz from Venezuela, another product of the 'El Sistema' public musical education system there."

The preeminent performers Gidon Kremer and Leonidas Kavakos are singled out for special mention by Pasternak among the violinists on the calendar; among the pianists he names Yefim Bronfman and Andras Schiff, as well as new, young faces such as Haochen Zhang, 20, of China ("The competition in China is vicious, and if you don't make it to the top by 20 you have failed," according to Pasternak ), Javier Perianes and Nikolai Lugansky. "And above all, we are proud of the eight soloists from the ranks of the IPO," Pasternak concludes. "It may be hard for the audience to understand the significance of getting up from an orchestra seat, sometimes one in the back, and playing on the front of the stage."

The IPO is a self-governing cooperative that hires both the artistic and the administrative officials, such as secretary general Avi Shoshani; the finance and marketing managers; and music director Zubin Mehta. As chairman, Pasternak holds the highest administrative position. He joined the orchestra in 1972, the day he completed his military service - a young trombonist from Givatayim who began his musical studies with Tzvi Tzeri and continued with Ray Parnes, then the orchestra's principal trombonist. Pasternak eventually became assistant principal trombone, sitting next to his teacher. He furthered his musical studies with the acclaimed trombone section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For the past decade he has held administrative positions within the IPO while continuing to play trombone full-time.

Can you describe what happens behind the scenes in planning the season?

"The musicians sit with Mehta and Shoshani, Shoshani reports on contacts and discussions with performers, and then the puzzle begins. Ahead of this season, for example, we began with Mutti and other great performers we had signed three and four years ago, and proceeded from there, fitting each tiny piece in place. You must consider the cyclical nature of the repertoire, match performers and conductors to the music, and find the right balance for the audience. For example, if there is to be an Israeli work conducted by Mehta, as there was this season, Moshe Zorman's 'Trombone Odyssey'; and how to include Israeli musicians and compositions.

"We have to meet a variety of tastes. Some say the orchestra doesn't progress beyond the conservative part of the repertory, despite the fact that this year's projects are proof that we do take risks: Schoenberg's 'Gurrelieder,' an expensive, enormous production with three choirs of 120 singers, last performed here in 1974; and the music of Anton Webern, or four Israeli compositions including ones by Josef Tal and Dan Yuhas. None of these is exactly a conservative work, if it were up to Zubin Mehta the program would be much more daring. We are the ones restraining him, thinking about the subscribers, the box office."

Do subscribers react to departures from tradition?

"When we present new material we get tons of letters saying 'Don't educate us, we came to enjoy ourselves.' It's true that these are usually the most opinionated among them, the ones whose perspective has been determined, and there is a majority that does not respond. We try to promote the unfamiliar, and it's often hard for the audience because it is closed and not built for that, but to the same extent we have an obligation to prevailing tastes. We can't please everyone, [all you can do] is to feel confident about our goal, and committed to our place and time."

Hostile environment

Last season saw a record 28,000 subscribers and total ticket sales of NIS 30 million. "These are the highest figures in the past decade," Pasternak says, "30 years ago we had the unnatural situation of 36,000 subscribers for long series: The audience was captive then, and there was a long waiting list because the IPO was the only game in town. It hasn't been like that for a long time, and that's a good thing because the cultural scene has become threatening and you have to try harder, to break your head to bring in an audience that can choose between the IPO and the opera and other excellent orchestras. We offer what we think only the IPO can and what defines us: great names like Zuckerman and Perlman and Mutti and Kavakas, and works like the 'Gurrelieder.'"

Another consideration in attracting an audience was the extensive renovation plan for the IPO's home, Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. The IPO led the campaign for it, but it was forced to back down in the face of massive public opposition and settled for a more modest renovation.

"The audience hears music with its eyes," Pasternak says. "We have to improve the sight lines, the visual experience, and not only the acoustics. In 1957, when the hall was built, people came from all over the country to see the marvel, and everyone said: 'We want to see the acoustics in Mann Auditorium.' Now the hall is old, archaic and leaden, and the current version of the renovation plan is quite moderate one. Anyone seeing it realizes that the changes will not be dramatic. The hall's right to exist depends on attracting an audience; it is not a museum, but a music center."

Perhaps the biggest performer name in next year's calendar is soprano Renee Fleming, considered the number-one diva, who will come for a special concert as part of the jubilee celebrations for Mehta's 50-year association with the orchestra.

How can you bring more soloists like these, whose presence is not very marked in the IPO these days?

"Conductors and soloists today are motivated more than ever by the financial angle," Pasternak says. "They don't have a warm place in their hearts for Israel they way they used to, when the world's music greats lined up to be invited. Now the criteria for an artist's appearance anywhere are, first of all, how that appearance contributes to his career, and second, how much he will make. Today we pay one fifth, or even less, of the fees in Europe and America, and we'll have to fight to raise them, a subject we've discussed with the orchestra's foundation. With soloists of Renee Fleming's stature we'll have to hold the concert outdoors, at a venue that a large enough audience to cover costs can come to."

Pasternak emphasizes the IPO's commitment to local talent. Every year there are two or three Israelis conductors, he says, and when it's possible more are added; they train in the orchestra's educational program.

"We reach out to young international artists, especially conductors, with a thought to the long run," he says, "in the knowledge, in the background, that our musical director is in his eighth decade. At some point we'll have to go forward. It's important to reach an artist at the beginning of his career, and this helps develop long-term relationships. The best-known example is Gustavo Dudamel. We have to get to know young conductors, aged 25-35, and invite those we've heard good things about."

Is there someone who has been lined up to replace Mehta?

"Absolutely not. No relationship has developed that recalls the connection between the orchestra and Zubin, who came here in 1961."