BAYREUTH, Germany − Three years ago, internationally-known Viennese conductor Roberto Paternostro, a Jew from a family of Holocaust survivors whose grandparents were dispatched to Auschwitz and 80 percent of his family killed, was appointed adviser to and then conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
Paternostro’s friendly relations with Katherina Wagner, great-granddaughter of anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner and current director of the prestigious festival that he established in Bayreuth, led to a daring project: collaboration between the festival and the orchestra, in a concert in which it would play Wagner under Paternostro’s baton. Wagner’s music has been boycotted in the Land of Israel since 1938, when the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic) canceled a scheduled performance of his work in November of that year because of the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany.
The Israeli public has not been receptive to conductors’ attempts to break the ban and play Wagner, whose writings and music are said to have inspired Adolf Hitler. So it was with plans for the ICO to play Wagner at the festival in Germany.
But the orchestra did not give up, and this morning at 11:00, it is to play Wagner’s Sigfried Idyll along with works by Zvi Avni and Jewish composers banned by the Nazis.
How did the first Wagner rehearsal with the orchestra go?
Really fantastic. I expected the musicians to play well, I am familiar with their great capabilities, but I didn’t imagine that the starting point would be so remarkable. Everything flowed.
Did you feel that they players responded in a special way, different than with other works?
Not at all, from a professional point of view, it was like working on anything else. But after the rehearsal, several players approached me and told me how the piece had influenced them musically. They said they identified different musical elements in it, for example, in its harmonies, and their connection to works they play regularly, to [Gustav] Mahler in particular. From this point of view, the connection to his repertoire and his understanding, playing Wagner constitutes a large gain.
You began the rehearsal with a Mendelssohn symphony. Was this from a concern about starting out with Wagner?
No. We’d simply had a very long day, with a long flight and a night without sleep, and I wanted to start the rehearsal with a piece that everyone knew and had played many times, and not jump directly into the unknown. I devoted time to working on the Wagner piece because we hadn’t got any [before]; since we hadn’t worked on it in Israel at all, we came here a day early to have enough time to practice it.
Some critics say if you are already going to play Wagner, you might as well play it in Israel.
I see this concert as a starting point. There were more than a few who played Wagner in Israel and tried to break the boycott. Zubin Mehta and the Philharmonic, Mendy Rodan and the Rishon Letzion Symphony, Daniel Barenboim. We didn’t want to provoke anyone.
Nonetheless, I received many insulting responses about this concert. People said, and I won’t name names, “this man, this foreigner, is he trying to educate us and dictate how to behave.” Am I a foreigner? My family settled in Israel in the 1930s. An uncle of mine who was born in Vienna in 1941 volunteered for the army in 1967 in order to take part in the Six-Day War. Will an Israeli passport turn me overnight into someone who is not foreign, and make me kosher? It’s unfair.”
Did you have any personal hesitation, doubts about whether to play Wagner with an Israeli orchestra?
I was satisfied with it from the beginning, but nonetheless I talked about the matter with family and friends. The most significant conversation was with my mother, whom I accompanied to Yad Vashem to clarify what had happened to her aunt. In 1942, my family was taken to a building in Vienna with many other Jews, this aunt among them, and after she was taken away, my mother never saw her again. At Yad Vashem, we found out the details: she was sent away on May 4, 1942, and killed five days later in a concentration camp near Minsk. During this visit, I talked to my mother about the concert. “Wonderful!” was her response, because in my family there is a great love of Wagner.
Nonetheless, Wagner is known for both his anti-Semitism and the use the Nazis made of him.
Must everyone who produces a masterpiece like “Guernica” or “St. Matthew’s Passion” necessarily be a good person? The answer is no. Even criminals took off their blood-stained uniforms and played the most divine music. It’s true that many composers, among them Richard Wagner, were racist and anti-Semitic, but it is possible to separate a composer’s personality from his work. Israel itself has done this. Carl Orff, who was a Nazi, is extremely popular in Israel for his “Carmina Burana,” and like him, Franz Lehar, whose operettas are not banned. And for a little irony, I am not sure that everyone calling for a ban on Wagner also boycotts Volkswagen cars or Siemens products, and Siemens, it must be remembered, had its own concentration camp.
What is the deepest significance you attribute to this concert; how is it different from any other concert?
It is the beginning of reconciliation, a step on a new path, which is not completely new, because the Jewish connection to Wagner’s music, and to Wagner himself, has always been strong. The first conductor of “Parsifal,” Hermann Levy, was Jewish, the son of a rabbi, and a frequent visitor to Wagner’s home, in a corner of this garden where we are sitting. Levy came here every day during the period when he conducted the opera house so near to where we are now. Isn’t this amazing and touching, that I am speaking to you now in the heart of these places, next to Wagner’s home and the opera house he established, and not in the Dan Hotel on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv?
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