Wagner Gets in Through the Back Door

Some are angry about Daniel Barenboim's decision to conduct Wagner, but call it a historic occasion nonetheless.

On Friday night, at a toast to the Berlin Statskapelle orchestra at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, rumor had it that music director Daniel Barenboim was planning to perform one of Wagner's works at the Israel Festival concert on Saturday night at the Israel Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'ooma). The rumor was confirmed after the renowned Argentinian-Israeli conductor held a rehearsal of the overture to Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" with his orchestra the following day.

There was great confusion surrounding the performance of the work. Members of the orchestra feared for their reputation; they asked their maestro why it was so important to him to play Wagner, pointing out that they might suffer from harsh reactions both in Germany and in Israel as a result. But when Barenboim explained that the work would be performed if he felt it was the right thing to do at the moment, the players of course agreed to follow his lead.

The management of the Israel Festival, which hosted Barenboim and the orchestra, sent him an unequivocal message via his personal assistant - Wagner should not be played, in accordance with his agreement with the management. "I explained to him the significance of playing Wagner at the festival," says festival director Yossi Tal-Gan. "If one of his works is played, it would damage our reputation, and is likely to be seen as something we cooked up between us."

From the beginning, Saturday night's concert had been problematic: Barenboim was supposed to conduct the first act of Wagner's "The Valkyrie," but the program was changed after a public debate that raged for weeks. The audience that now filled the hall listened to the alternative program: Schumann's Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." At that point, no one in the audience could see that all the players had the notes of Wagner's work in front of them, as well.

At the end of the concert, Barenboim went up on stage smiling, and the audience received him with loud cheers. He went up again and again, bowed, and finally his orchestra played an encore, Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers."

And then the drama began. Barenboim came to the front of the stage, and asked to have a private talk with the audience - just between him and them - about playing one of Wagner's works. He said that he understood those who oppose performing it, but added that he didn't understand why a minority should force its opinion on the majority. He left the decision to the audience, and immediately arguments began in the hall. A handful of those in the audience opposed to performing Wagner, who expressed their opinion, met with hostility on the part of most of the audience. Barenboim, who in addition to being a talented musician, is blessed with a very charismatic personality, knew that it was just a matter of time before the audience was convinced, and he had the time: His flight was at 3:30 A.M.

He wasn't insulted, and he didn't leave the stage, even when cries of "fascist!" and "go home!" were heard. On the contrary, he invited those who were opposed to come up on stage and to have a civilized debate with him. He said that the official concert had ended, and that now it was a private concert, which wasn't part of the festival, and said that whoever didn't want to participate was invited to leave.

A few people left, 20 at most, but not before they tried to interrupt the performance of the overture to "Tristan and Isolde." Finally, the entire work was performed, in relative silence. Barenboim was satisfied - he had beaten them all.

But when the concert ended, a considerable part of the audience that had previously sided with Barenboim, seemed to feel confused and ambivalent. They spoke about the "trick" that Barenboim had executed, about "exploiting the festival stage and the auditorium for his own private obsession," and also about the breach of the understanding between him and the festival.

For example, Mendy Rodan, music director of the Rishon Letzion Symphony Orchestra, who himself conducted Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" in October with his orchestra, and was involved in a scandal because of it, criticized Barenboim's action: "As you know, I am opposed to any boycott of Wagner, but the manipulation carried out by Barenboim was unethical and unfair to the audience and the orchestra. I was hurt by the debate ... and I left the hall. I don't understand how a cultured person and a great artist does not abide by the agreement made with him. It shouldn't have happened."

The director of the Rishon Letzion orchestra, Ehud Gross, who also favors performing Wagner in Israel, was ambivalent this time. "Wagner and Hitler are certainly turning over in their graves when a German orchestra plays Wagner in a Jewish state, under the baton of an Israeli," he said at the end of the concert in Jerusalem. Nevertheless he added: "I have a problem with the way things were done. The festival stage, which wasn't given to them for this purpose, was indirectly exploited. From the beginning, I thought that Wagner should be played by the German orchestra, for the same reasons that were given last October by the Rishon Letzion orchestra, but the question this time is whether there was a legitimate place for a sort of private concert performed in a public hall."

Barenboim himself, after the concert, stayed in the maestro's room for quite a while, two bodyguards blocking the way in. Festival director Yossi Tal-Gan entered the room angrily: "The agreement was not to perform Wagner at this concert," he said. But Barenboim immediately replied: "I fulfilled the agreement."

Tal-Gan: "But people think that this trick was between us. The problem will come tomorrow, because they'll say that we lied to the audience, that we collaborated with you and planned in advance to do this."

Barenboim: "It's not your fault, I hope I haven't caused you any harm."

Tal-Gan: "For the three days that you played here, people told me that they haven't heard such an orchestra and such a conductor for years, but now many people feel that we exploited the concert and them."

Micha Lewensohn, the artistic director of the festival, told Barenboim that he had done something he had been asked not to do, and that he may have harmed the festival.

Later that same night, Barenboim told Ha'aretz that the members of the orchestra were afraid of the concert, and even wanted to know if it was possible not to perform the work. "They asked why it was so important to me to conduct a work by Wagner, especially after three days of magnificent success, and the great warmth that we received from the Israeli audience."

And why in fact was it so important to you to play the work?

"The festival asked me to change the program that included Wagner, and for me that is a lack of democracy," replied Barenboim. "After all, it's not Wagner who is to blame for all the to-do, but rather the association he arouses among a small percentage of the people. Associations of this kind are a terrible thing, and people have a right not to deal with them. But I don't think that they have the right to prevent others from hearing Wagner. It's simply not democratic. Paradoxically, if Wagner is not played in Israel - it's a kind of victory for the Nazis. Artistically speaking, it's very important to play him. I received many letters from people who were disappointed when we gave up on the original plan to play Wagner."

But there was an agreement between you and the festival. Didn't you break it this evening?

"We kept the agreement with the festival. The festival asked us to change the program, and we did so. If that had happened anywhere else, I would have canceled the trip, but here I didn't want to disappoint the festival and the audience. What happened this evening after the concert is entirely my responsibility. I let the audience decide, and there were four people opposed. It's a democratic principle - the majority rules. The festival management didn't even know about this. If there is opposition or anger, it can and must be directed at me, and not at the management of the festival."

When did you decide to perform Wagner at the concert?

"The idea that it could be done came to me at the airport, during the press conference, when the cell phone of one of the journalists rang, and played a Wagner melody. Then I knew that it could be done. At the concert I wasn't sure. Only after we played the Tchaikovsky encore did I make the decision to perform Wagner."

Couldn't you wait for a better time, instead of coming in through the back door?

"I don't see it [that way]. It's not a really honest public debate - there are people who allow themselves to represent others."

What did you feel when they shouted "fascist!" and "Go home!"?

"People who think I'm a fascist are unfortunate."

In the final analysis, what do you think is the significance of this concert?

"It gave me the personal and private opportunity to express my opinion on a democratic principle, according to which the minority must not be allowed to decide for the majority. Now, each one of the directors of orchestras and festivals has to deliberate as to whether to continue boycotting Wagner."

At the moment, the directors of the Israel festival are doing the deliberating, and they are very angry at their guest. "He couldn't restrain himself and abide by the agreement with us," says Micha Lewensohn. "It was made very clear to him that the festival management opposes his performing Wagner, and I thought that he would respect the request." But Lewensohn adds: "In a narrow sense, he overstepped the bounds of etiquette, and didn't keep to the code to which he committed himself. But with a little more perspective, it's an historic occasion. Nevertheless, I would have preferred that he do it through the front door."

"I'm not angry, but I'm disappointed at the way in which things were done," says Yossi Tal-Gan. "In the name of democracy and freedom of speech, he disregarded Israeli democratic procedure. ... I think that Barenboim's reputation has been damaged somewhat for the Israeli public, and I'm very sorry about that."

But for Asher Fisch, the music director of the New Israeli Opera, nothing about Barenboim's reputation has been damaged; just the opposite: "I admire his courage," said Fisch, Barenboim's protege.