Wagner performance - Reuters - July 2011
Roberto Paternostro conducting the Israel Chamber Orchestra during rehearsal in Bayreuth yesterday. Photo by Reuters
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An Israeli orchestra on Tuesday broke a taboo as it played the music of Adolf Hitler's favorite composer, Richard Wagner, in Germany.

Some 700 spectators in Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth loudly applauded the Israel Chamber Orchestra as its 34 musicians concluded their concert with the Siegfried Idyll, becoming the first Israeli ensemble to perform a Wagner piece in Germany.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has observed an informal ban on Wagner's music because of its use in Nazi propaganda before and during World War II.

The Wagner family also had close connections to the German fascists and their ideology, and performances of the 19th-century composer are kept off Israeli stages and airwaves out of respect to the country's 220,000 Holocaust survivors.

Some 6 million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe during the war.

"Some of us were crying, it was a very historical moment," the orchestra's Chief Executive Eran Hershkovitz said. "60 years ago they killed us Jews here, 60 years ago this was a brown city and now you have our flag in the streets," he told The Associated Press over the phone from Bayreuth.

The orchestra, led by Roberto Paternostro, started the concert with Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," and played works by composers banned by the Third Reich, including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, Hershkovitz said.

"It was like a mission to be here: Playing Jewish music by Jewish musicians from the Jewish state," he added, saying the performance in Germany amounted to a "victory concert."

The musicians, many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors, had only started rehearsing the roughly 15-minute Wagner piece upon their arrival in Bayreuth on Sunday due to sensitivities in Israel. "We didn't want to harm any of the survivors," Hershkovitz said.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, however, sharply criticized the concert as a "particularly hurtful betrayal."

"The Israel Chamber Orchestra has shown itself to be tone deaf to the anguish of victims who lived through the instrumentalization of Wagner's music in the service of spreading hate," the group's deputy head Elan Steinberg said Tuesday.

Hershkovitz rejected the allegation, saying the performance demonstrates to the world the Nazis failed in their attempt to exterminate the Jews and their culture.

"Every one of us has some relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. But to be here in Bayreuth is a victory for us. To play here the music of Mendelssohn, the Jewish composer, it's a victory," he said.

Moreover, the concert wasn't the first Wagner performance by an Israeli orchestra. In 2001, world-renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim angered many Israelis when he played some of Wagner's music in Israel.

The concert took place alongside the annual Bayreuth festival, Germany's most important festival for classical music. That event was founded by Wagner himself in 1876.

Israel and West Germany established diplomatic ties in 1965, two decades after the end of World War II. Since then, Germany has become Israel's second-largest trading partner and has paid some $40 billion in reparations to Holocaust survivors in Israel.