Katharina Wagner (AP)
Katharina Wagner, great-grandaughter of Richard Wagner. Photo by AP
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In late 1938, at the opening of its third season, the Palestine Orchestra (Hatizmoret Hasimfonit Ha'eretz Yisraelit ), which would later become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, scheduled a performance of the prelude to the opera "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" by Richard Wagner. But the anti-Jewish pogroms (Kristallnacht ) throughout Germany that November and the work's popularity among Nazis prompted the orchestra's leaders to remove it from the concert.

Since then, Wagner's music has not been heard in concerts in Israel. Orchestras and radio stations banned it, and when individual conductors tried to break the boycott by performing the music in public, harsh public reactions forestalled their efforts.

The debate over Wagner and playing his works in Israel has gone on ever since. Periodically, there have been attempts to challenge the boycott.

But these never produced any change; they just sparked intensified debate that raged for a while and then died down until next time.

It seems the rational arguments for or against lifting the ban could not overcome the symbol of Wagner as a representative of the culture that produced the Holocaust, and was therefore taboo in the country of Holocaust victims.

But recently, a different kind of effort was launched, from the heart of the Wagner establishment itself. Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, decided to come to Israel in person and invite the Israel Chamber Orchestra to a historic and unprecedented concert opening the upcoming Bayreuth Festival in July.

Wagner, 32, has been managing the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany (along with her sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier ) for two years. The festival has been run by members of the Wagner family ever since the composer himself established it in 1876..

For an entire year, the visit had been planned and kept confidential. The press conference was scheduled for next Wednesday in Tel Aviv, featuring Katharina Wagner and Roberto Paternostro, the musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.

But news of the visit leaked out. Early reports in Israel were quoted on Tuesday by numerous news sites in Germany and Austria, as well as international news agencies, and this weakened Wagner's hand. An article in Yedioth Ahronoth by Noah Klieger, a Holocaust survivor and vehement opponent of the performance of Wagner works in Israel, was highlighted in reports abroad and made the Bayreuth Festival's organizers worry about protests.

At an emergency meeting Tuesday evening at the festival's offices, organizers therefore decided to cancel Katharaina Wagner's visit.

Expose the bad

"A year ago," Paternostro said, "I spoke with [Katharina] Wagner about her new ideas for the Bayreuth Festival: instituting a mini-festival of 'Wagner for children'; a 'Wagner disco' for young people at the festival; and the decision to open the festival's classified archives in 2013, the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, and expose the depths of the link between him and the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. 'I want to expose all the bad things,' she told me. During this conversation, the idea of reconciliation with Israel was born."

Paternostro, a Vienna native, is an internationally renowned conductor; among other things, he served as assistant to conductor Herbert van Karajan. He is also Jewish and has family in Israel. His grandfather and grandmother were in the Terezin (Theresienstadt ) ghetto and later sent to Auschwitz; most of his family was killed in the Holocaust.

He became the Israel Chamber Orchestra's music consultant in January 2009, and in January 2010 he was appointed its music director. "Israel has become my home, my family," he said of his new position.

Paternostro has strong opinions on the relationship between music and its context, and between music and its composer: "Were the creators of outstanding works such as 'Guernica,' the Ninth Symphony and the St. Matthew Passion necessarily compelled to be good people?"

"Once I thought that by playing Mozart's Adagio in B Minor, we could make thieves and murderers repent," he continued. "The reality is not like that. Reinhard Heydrich would take off his bloodstained uniform and go play Beethoven violin sonatas, and composers, Wagner among them, were full of evil and anti-Semitism. In Israel, too, a distinction is made between the composers and their characters, even when playing music by known Nazis, such as Carl Orff ('Carmina Burana' )."

An outstretched arm

Paternostro has conducted most of Wagner's operas, but he does not think the composer's works should be forced on Israeli audiences. "I see Katharina's step as an attempt to stretch out a hand in peace, and the Chamber Orchestra's visit to Bayreuth as an act of reconciliation," he said.

Despite the cancelation of Wagner's visit to Israel, he stressed, the Chamber Orchestra's plan to play at the festival remains unchanged. "But we will not perform Wagner in Israel," he promised. "We will not even rehearse his music in Israel - only in Germany."

The Wagner work the orchestra will play there is the "Siegfried Idyll," which is not associated with Wagner's ideology. Nor is it operatic: It is a delicate instrumental piece.

To highlight the concert's unique nature and give it historical and political balance, it will also feature a work by an Israeli composer commissioned especially for the event and two works by Jewish composers who were blacklisted by the Nazis - Mendelssohn and Mahler - in addition to the Wagner work. The inclusion of these works is a protest against the festival's dark period, when Hitler was a welcome visitor to Bayreuth and was even photographed with Katharina Wagner's father, Wolfgang, who directed the festival before her.

"Many Jews were connected to Wagner," Paternostro said. The conductor Hermann Levy, the son of a rabbi, was not only Wagner's friend, but also promoted his music and conducted his operas in Bayreuth, Paternostro noted. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, renowned conductors of the early 20th century, are also associated with Wagner.

"That's why the reconciliation with Israel is such an important step down a new road - for Katharina Wagner and the festival, and for us as well," he said.