The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is still living in the 19th century, at least according to their current season lineup.
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The Romantic works and operas on the bill don’t share a common narrative, save for their chronological affiliation to the "long 19th century," which historians date from the outbreak of the French Revolution (1787) to the First World War (1914). Many might be recognizable, if not from their venerated position on the classics list, then at least from popular cellphone ringtones.
Overall, it's a rather thoroughly chewed-over repertoire and even the works that do seem to break away from this period – like Mahler's Symphony No. 4, "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Strauss, or "Daphnis et Chloe" by Ravel – are conservative in their tonal variation. In other words, it's all very pretty to listen to.
Sure, all of the works are masterpieces. But that's precisely when the artistic director has to step up and create a program with a deeper artistic meaning than a mere box collection of "classical music's greatest hits."
The best orchestras around the world, even in their most populist programs, continuously engage in musical and artistic debates that span well into the 20th and 21st centuries. Often, that allows for the inclusion of works by local composers who re-contextualize and breathe new life into older styles.
To be clear, classical music is such a narrow niche, consumed by a very small, specific socioeconomic group, so it's essential that the major works by Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Schubert remain present in our concert halls, as long as our orchestras are still standing. These works, along with those by Verdi, Strauss, and Mahler, are historic treasures, resurrected anew each time they're performed live. The equivalent in the other arts would be to see Kadinsky painting, or Mallarme drafting and composing his poems.
But stopping the musical debate in the 19th century – embalming it behind display cases targeted towards seniors, raises many doubts about the inclusion of the word "Israel" in the orchestra's name. Even programs targeted at a younger audience, such as the IPO in Jeans, and other marketing ploys, are nothing more than a way to recycle the same tired repertoire. How can such an archaic season be justified?
The Israeli Music Festival is not the only place where Israeli music should be heard. Such events merely place Israeli music in a cultural ghetto, insisting it doesn't deserve to share a stage with Schumann or Bach. Even if the Philharmonic performs at the same festival with an Israeli repertoire, it perpetuates the separation of the two.
There has been a huge variety of works that have come out of Israel in the past 60 years, only a fraction of which have been performed by the Israel Philharmonic – enough to allow them to keep the "Israel" in their name. But it's not just artistic curation that keeps contemporary Israeli classical music at bay: Many Israeli composers have waived the privilege of being included in the Philharmonic's repertoire after they won recognition from European and American orchestras, marketing themselves as some form of exotic Jewish (not necessarily Israeli) culture in an acceptable dose to those who fly the flag of multiculturalism.
Although two deserving Israeli composers, Yehezkel Braun and Ayal Adler, are included in the Philharmonic's concert season, their inclusion may actually do more harm than good.
Braun is a neo-Romantic Israeli whose Neoclassical syntax is closer to the 19th century
composers. But his works, which transpose the musical characteristics of Hebrew song and symphonic music and nod to his interest in national Eurocentric attributes, will be buried among the more overpowering and well-known signature pieces. Adler, in comparison, focuses on the colorful spectrum of orchestral tones, and his creation is the most avant-garde piece in what is the most frightfully conservative repertoire of the season.
Thus, Braun's pieces may be unintentionally muted, while Adler's work serves as a sort of sacrifice upon the altar of conductor Zubin Mehta, who only serves a symbolic function in a spineless and apologetic cultural establishment. The program does not include any works that explain the connection between Braun and Adler. Would you like some more Mozart for dessert?
And here's an idea for the architects of the artistic program: check the output of the European Jewish composers at the end of the 19th century onwards – you'll find interesting aesthetic intersections between European nationalism and the dilemma of Jewish artistic representation in Western music. This is doubly interesting for the music of the 1930s that was brought to Israel by those who arrived from the modernist schools. Look at what happened 50 years later and hear how the same expressions of sounds that were associated with Jewish music have been dissolved, torn, and reassembled in works by Betty Olivero, Tzvi Avni, Andre Hajdu and others.
The new season may have a flashy logo but the little that shines through is blinding. It is not enough to justify the cost of bringing glittering names to participate in a stale musical discussion.
Assaf Sheleg is a professor of musicology at the department of religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Virginia.