Climbing Up the Scales at the Israel Philharmonic

The aging orchestra is about to undergo a real revolution in roughly two years, when half its musicians are replaced. A conversation with some of its younger recruits.

It is hard to think of a musical event more dramatic than the establishment of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. As Europe sank, all its warning lights blinking, only three years before World War II and the start of the Holocaust, one of the world's most prominent violinists, Bronislaw Huberman, brought together a group of refugees, all of them first-rate musicians, and put them on a ship to pre-state Israel not a moment too soon. There, in the midst of the desert, he created an orchestra from nothing and convinced the greatest conductor of his time, Arturo Toscanini, to conduct its premiere concert.

And so, before Israel had a rowing team or judokas who brought it Olympic medals, basketball teams that brought it championship cups, film directors who competed for Academy Awards in Hollywood or local dance troupes who became worldwide attractions, there was the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the only cultural path to the world beyond the borders of this tiny community on the fringes of the planet. That is the legacy of this special ensemble.

Eighty years have gone by since then. Very few of the first and second generations of the musicians are still with us. The third and fourth generations have retired already, yet despite the turnover, the Israel Philharmonic is seen as an orchestra of the Old World. Its musicians have always been older people with a dignified aura (at least when they take to their seats on stage), and they have continued, generation after generation, to represent the German-Viennese classical world. In their black tuxedos they always seemed to be the Haredim of the music world, keepers of the flame, bearers of the torch and the legacy, cultural ambassadors and captains of music's flagship — in a word, conservative.

That held true until a few years ago. Suddenly, new faces began appearing among the Israel Philharmonic's musicians that would have been unthinkable at one time: young men and women in their early 20s and 30s. It seems scandalous: How can some 28-year-old kid even think of being an understudy to an orchestra musician, to say nothing of receiving a permanent position there? How can such a person have the sound, skill and experience, to say nothing of the other traits associated with orchestra players: the scheming cleverness, competitiveness and ability to play politics? Just yesterday that kid graduated from the academy — in other words, he's still in diapers, musically speaking — and now he dares to play under the batons of the world's greatest conductors such as Barenboim, Mehta and Dudamel? How does he keep his hands, or his lips, from quaking during a Bruckner or Mahler symphony?

Eight young musicians of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (at least another six couldn't make it) met one evening last August to explain the revolutionary changes that the orchestra has undergone and how they became part of it. Some of them have been playing for the orchestra for several years, some for several months, and some are still in their trial period, even before their first season. They are violist Matan Noussimovitch, 23; trombonist Nir Erez, 24; clarinetist Jonathan Hadas, 26; bassist Uri Arbel, 27; violist Lotem Beider, 29; violinist Sharon Cohen, 30; violinist Sivan Maayani-Zelikov, 32, and bassoonist Daniel Mazaki, 32. From what they have to say, it appears that even with the changes the orchestra has already gone through, it is about to undergo a real revolution in roughly two years, when half its musicians are replaced.

Beginnings

How is one accepted to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra?

Cohen: "The orchestra announces auditions for certain positions, and invites applicants to audition before the outgoing musician retires."

Noussimovitch: "Then musicians come and play for the examiners, and the first stage is held when the applicants play from behind a screen so that nobody can see who they are."

Cohen: "That keeps prejudices out. So you have to be careful not to give away anything about your identity. For example, you can't show up in high heels. You're not allowed to ask questions or even cough."

Maayani-Zelikov: "It's better that way, because then you can be less inhibited. I let myself be more free when I was behind the screen."

How do you reach, at such a young age, the kind of level that the Philharmonic requires?

Erez: "It's a matter of luck: what school you're in, what grade. For example, I grew up in a really basic system. I went to school in Lod, don't come from a musical family and didn't listen to classical music until I was 17. But the Lod Youth Orchestra offered me the chance to play an instrument. It was a social thing. Everybody started and I said, 'I'll do it.' I thought it was fun, and there were good teachers and friends — and we kept on."

Arbel: "I'm from Kibbutz Kabri. There was an available contrabass position in the youth orchestra, and people knew I played bass guitar so they offered it to me. Before then, I hadn't even seen a contrabass player. I kept on with it because I liked it."

Hadas: "I'm the most boring one here. I went to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and took courses at the Jerusalem Music Center in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, did chamber music and got a citation in the army for excellence in music."

Cohen: "I studied privately with a teacher, and when I was 12 I was placed in a quartet. That was when I realized there were other kids like me who played, and that I could become more proficient."

Beider: "I studied with private teachers from a very young age, not in any school, but I was always in youth orchestras. For example, I was in the Youth Philharmonic, which was the beginning of my relationship with the grown-up one."

Noussimovitch: "I'm from Haifa. I did the music track at the WIZO High School for Art and Design and had excellent teachers."

Erez: "I also ended up in orchestras — the Bnei Hakibbutzim Orchestra and the National Youth Wind Ensemble."

What you're saying is that there's a musical establishment that works, and with whose help you got far.

Everybody nods. "Exactly. Conservatories, music tracks in high school, various youth orchestras, courses at the Jerusalem Music Center in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, excellent teachers. And more: We all received scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. That's how it works."

Mazaki: "It costs a lot of money to study music. And instruments are very, very expensive. So these scholarships and schools are so important."

Looking out at the hall

While young people are joining the orchestra, there's still the complaint that there aren't enough young people in the audience, and that this kind of music is for only a few. Why is that?

Cohen: "People think they have no tools to listen to classical music, and they find it daunting. They assume from the start that they're not worthy of it, that they're not cultural types."

Arbel: "The formality of the classical world scares many people off. I wear a tuxedo and that doesn't have to do with anything — a concert means a lot of ceremony."

Erez: "But part of our job is to preserve that tradition."

Mazaki: "There could be more concerts of the IPO in Jeans series, and we could also wear elegant sport tuxedos."

Hadas: "Yes, that would be excellent and it would be cool — but it's still hard for people."

Cohen: "I don't think it's hard. In any case, orchestras like the IPO have always had a conflict between greater accessibility and preserving the culture."

Noussimovitch: "Why does it have to be either/or?"

Mazaki: "An audience that comes to an orchestra like this wants the kind of culture we preserve."

Hadas: "An orchestra is an amazing thing. But when I was young, I was embarrassed to invite friends from jazz and film."

Everybody nods in agreement.

Erez: "And when people suddenly realize that there's no amplification ... "

Yonat: "Right! I invited my Pilates teacher, and she said she got goose bumps at every concert and asked herself how she'd missed it all her life."

Cohen: "It doesn't surprise us that a person would enjoy the thing we most love to do."

Beider: "I don't think there's such a thing as not understanding music. It's music for everyone."

Erez: "And it depends on the level of the concert, too. If you don't play a concert well, people could think that it's because they don't understand it."

On the stage

What makes a concert turn out poorly?

Maayani-Zelikov: "When you play the same program 20 times a month and travel from one city to another on a tight schedule."

Noussimovitch: "There are people who have played the same piece hundreds of times, and they get burned out."

Mazaki: "But Itay Tiran plays the same part hundreds of times, night after night — I don't know how he does it."

But it's like that in many professions: routine, doing the same thing over and over.

Hadas: "Yes, but in most other professions there's no audience."

Cohen: "In an orchestra you think you can afford to be not at your best one time out of 100 — and that's dangerous."

Mazaki: "That's also the challenge of orchestras — to make sure that people don't fall asleep on stage."

Maybe the secret is in the repertoire.

Noussimovitch: "The Philharmonic is an orchestra for romantic music."

The musicians begin a vigorous debate over repertoire. Some of them say that an orchestra's DNA is romantic music, while others say that audiences listen to, and are capable of accepting, contemporary music in concerts.

Arbel: "Take the UEFA Champions League theme song, for example. People are wild about it."

Noussimovitch: "And there's a fear of losing audiences because of contemporary music. Budgets and deficits — when it comes to things like that, it's very scary."

Arbel: "The repertoire is also linked to the Israeli reality. It's a stressful reality. The audience isn't built for contemporary music, like in Germany for example, where they play a lot of it. Maybe we just need more time."

Which conductors did you like best from last season?

The debate heats up, with fresh disagreements coming to the surface right away. Somebody says of one conductor that his concerts were nothing more than one shoddy gig. Others jump in, asking him in amazement: What are you talking about? He was excellent!

Cohen: "Your taste is individual. It's always individual."

Erez: "One's personal experience of a concert also has to do with each musician's role. If it's really difficult, the concert will be really stressful."

Still, tell us which of the conductors you worked with this season was the greatest.

Zubin, of course! they say loudly. It could just be an act of political correctness, but other names come up as well: Vladimir Jurowski of the Russian National Orchestra, the world's hottest name in conducting, debuted with the IPO, and Christoph Eschenbach of Germany. They disagree over them as well, but all agree that one was amazing: Riccardo Muti in the Verdi Requiem.

Do you compete with each other, or do you have solidarity?

Maayani-Zelikov: "My experience in the IPO is wonderful. Everybody's friendly and I'm really happy, both socially and musically. I enjoy playing, and I was afraid I wouldn't enjoy it."

Hadas: "We want our colleagues to hear us playing well, and for that we need courage sometimes. Playing near a colleague also means a certain kind of behavior. You even need to smell good." ("But not too good!" someone else adds.)

Cohen: "Playing a solo on a wind instrument like Hadas does is completely different in sectional playing (unlike in the violin section, for example, where a large group of violinists sits two by two), and sitting next to someone you're not used to changes your playing completely."

Erez: "If you suddenly find yourself having a bad day, having missing notes or wrong entrances, you need to overcome it to give the others a feeling of security. It's important to be friendly with everybody in the orchestra, too. Tension is released during rehearsals, and people are more relaxed. But at a concert it's a battle situation: You mustn't move, you mustn't speak."

Mazaki: "It's important for concentration, to keep from making mistakes."

Playing for a living

The IPO is a cooperative. The musicians manage it via a committee they appoint, so upheavals like the ones regarding the number of musicians and the drastic generational turnover has the political potential to disrupt the balance and make changes to the repertoire, the musical interpretation and even the orchestra's general management.

Do you expect changes to come from the generational turnover?

There is a big difference between the IPO of the 1970s and 1980s and its current incarnation, the musicians say. Our generation got in by right, through auditions — no one did them any favors.

We all got fairly rich experience abroad, one of the musicians says, and we gave up options there that were much more worthwhile.

Relative to my friends I earn an excellent salary, says one musician, but relative to my friends abroad, not so much. And with such an intensive schedule of rehearsals and concerts day and night, we have to live close to our workplace, which is the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv — which means that half our salary goes for rent. But salaries can be improved, also because everyone has a perspective on how the lives of musicians abroad seem.

Cohen: "The IPO helped me financially with rent so that I would come back to Israel."

Noussimovitch: "It's important for the IPO to show us off, to show that there are young people who are open to new things, and that kind of treatment is encouraging."

Hadas: "You want your co-workers to hear you playing well, and for that you need to smell good."

Cohen: "Orchestras like the IPO have always had a conflict between greater accessibility and preserving the culture."

Shai Sakif
Shai Sakif