As Israel’s musical ambassador, few ensembles have elicited as much emotion and controversy as the Israel Philharmonic. Formed in 1936 as a refuge for the many Jewish musicians forced out of their respective orchestras in Nazi Europe, it has toured widely, giving audiences across the globe a glimpse into their all too often troubled region of the world. Music director Zubin Mehta has held that title since 1969, and his devotion to this orchestra is both extraordinary and unparalleled.

Zubin Mehta © Wilfried Hösl
Zubin Mehta
© Wilfried Hösl
As is tradition at every concert of their tours, they began with the host country’s national anthem, followed by their own, Hatikvah – and the strings in the latter were drop-dead gorgeous. In addition, the stage was flanked with American and Israeli flags. In all the international ensembles I have seen grace the stage of Symphony Center, none has set such an overtly political tone from the onset.

I then found myself questioning if it is possible to experience music free of and above any political concerns – and I certainly hope so. Or was this event merely hasbara whitewashing of occupation under the guise of high culture? How would I feel about such a concert if I had Palestinian family members who perished in Gaza? Conversely, how might I experience the concert differently if had Israeli family members who were victims of a Qassam rocket? These are difficult questions to answer, but ones that the opening fanfares invite the concertgoer to ask.

But on to the program proper: the concert began with a gutsy piece to take on the road, the symphonic poem A Journey to the End of the Millennium by the Georgian composer Josef Bardanashvili. Clocking in at over 20 minutes, this 2005 composition captures the essence of his opera of the same title much more cogently than would a traditional suite of excerpts. The solo viola is the main protagonist, sometimes in dialogue with the folksy theme played by alternating concertmaster David Radzynski. Most impressive was the large percussion battery which builds to a dramatic climax near the end before the viola quietly has the final word. The IPO’s compelling advocacy for this work whetted one’s appetite for the complete opera.

The remainder of the evening was much more conservative, and Mehta accordingly managed without score. In Ravel’s La valse, one was really struck by the orchestra’s virtuosity in this dense score – I was especially taken by the oboe solos of principal Dudu Carmel. Greater transparency would have given this waltz some much-needed buoyancy. It ends defiantly in a five note gesture – an affront to the time-honored waltz tradition if there ever was one.

Prior to Beethoven’s Eroica, Mehta solemnly addressed the audience and asked us to think of the atrocities in Paris of two nights prior, as we “cannot just go on with our lives and going to concerts as if nothing has happened”. While these noble ambitions certainly did not go unfulfilled, Mehta’s Eroica proved to be more prosaic than revelatory. The expansive first movement (although the repeat of the exposition was not observed) was stately and grand, but I would have preferred an edgier, less cautious reading, particularly leading up to the strikingly dissonant chords in the development. The funeral march, the heart of the symphony, was the most successful in its deep and somber tragedy – a profoundly moving elegy to the fallen in Paris. The long, flowing melodies in the strings consistently proved to be the ensemble’s crown jewel.

Unfortunate inconsistencies in the brass marred the trio of the scherzo, and it often felt as if they were struggling to attain proper balance in the sometimes problematic acoustics of Symphony Center. More contrast in each variation of the finale would have been ideal, but it nonetheless brought the work to an exciting and unequivocally triumphant conclusion – the darkness of the funeral march seemed so distant in this blaze of glory and optimism.

Wherever one may stand, let us hope that art can always transcend any partisan divides and afford solace in troubled times. May the music these Israelis brought to Chicago be a beacon of light towards a more peaceful future.

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