Israeli Orchestra Makes Musical History by Playing Wagner Piece in Germany

The heads of the ensemble decided not to rehearse the piece in Israel, out of consideration for the public dispute over performing Wagner's work in the country.

Musical history was made here last night when an Israeli ensemble - the Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Roberto Paternostro, for the first time played a composition by Richard Wagner at the annual festival devoted to the composer's works.

Last night marked the orchestra's first rehearsal of Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," an orchestral piece, in preparation for its performance in concert tomorrow.

Wagner performance - Reuters - July 2011

The heads of the ensemble decided not to even rehearse the piece in Israel, out of consideration for the public dispute over performing Wagner's works in Israel.

Wagner was an avowed anti-Semite and his music and writings were admired by Adolf Hitler. His music has long been taboo in Israel.

Dan Erdmann, a clarinetist in the ensemble, said the concert was just the first step. "We in the orchestra have tried to treat the delicate points with sensitivity, and I hope in the future we will play [Wagner] also in Israel, Erdmann said. "However, the conflicts and emotions associated with the history of Wagner are exactly those which make it so special for us," he added.

Unlike the orchestra's usual tours abroad, the visit to Bayreuth was entirely voluntary for orchestra members, but all but one of its 36 musicians are participating.

The program for the orchestra's concert tomorrow also includes a work by Franz Liszt, a musical and ideological colleague of Wagner; a piece by Israeli composer Zvi Avni and music by the German-born Felix Mendelssohn and Austrian-born Gustav Mahler, who were both banned by the Nazis.

Tomorrow's concert makes an unequivocal political statement in trying to build bridges between Wagner and his family, which ran this summer festival in Bavaria during the Nazi era, and Israeli musical culture.

Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer and director of the festival, was unaccountably absent from a press conference here yesterday, but a letter from her praising the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the festival was read out loud.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also sent a greeting to Paternostro, reinforcing the expression of official support for the conference. Merkel apologized in advance for her absence from the concert.

Paternostro said yesterday it was time to separate Wagner's worldview from his music.

"Wagner's ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but he was a great composer," he told Reuters. "The aim in 2011 is to distinguish between the man and his art."

Paternostro's mother and other relatives were Holocaust survivors.

"I know that in Israel this isn't accepted," Paternostro said. "But many people have told me,'it's time we confront Wagner,' especially those in the younger generation."

Still, not enough time has passed for a performance in Israel, he said.

Even though Wagner died half a century before Hitler rose to power, the Nazi dictator was a fervent admirer and drew on the composer's writings in his own theories on Germanic racial purity.