Israeli orchestra breaks taboo in Germany

The Israeli Chamber Orchestra broke a taboo this week when it played the music of Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner, in Germany.

Some 700 spectators in Wagner’s hometown of Bayreuth, Germany, loudly applauded as the 34 Israeli musicians concluded their concert with the Siegfried Idyll on July 26, becoming the first Israeli ensemble to perform a Wagner piece in Germany.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has observed an informal ban on Wagner’s music because of its use in Nazi propaganda before and during World War II.

The Wagner family also had close connections to the German fascists and their ideology, and performances of the 19th-century composer are kept off Israeli stages and airwaves out of respect to the country’s 220,000 Holocaust survivors.

“Some of us were crying, it was a very historical moment,” said Eran Hershkovitz, the orchestra’s chief executive. “Sixty years ago they killed us Jews here, 60 years ago this was a brown city and now you have our [Israeli] flag in the streets.”

The orchestra, led by Roberto Paternostro, started the concert with Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” and played works by composers banned by the Third Reich, including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, Hershkovitz said. They also played works by Israeli composer Zvi Avni.

“It was like a mission to be here: Playing Jewish music by Jewish musicians from the Jewish state,” Hershkovitz added, saying the performance in Germany amounted to a “victory concert.”

The musicians, many of whom are children of Holocaust survivors, had only started rehearsing the roughly 15-minute Wagner piece upon their arrival in Bayreuth on July 24 due to sensitivities in Israel. “We didn’t want to harm any of the survivors,” Hershkovitz said.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, however, sharply criticized the concert as a “particularly hurtful betrayal.”

“The Israel Chamber Orchestra has shown itself to be tone deaf to the anguish of victims who lived through the instrumentalization of Wagner’s music in the service of spreading hate,” the group’s deputy head, Elan Steinberg, said July 26.

Hershkovitz rejected the allegation, saying the performance demonstrates to the world the Nazis failed in their attempt to exterminate the Jews and their culture.

“Every one of us has some relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. But to be here in Bayreuth is a victory for us. To play here the music of Mendelssohn, the Jewish composer, it’s a victory,” he said.

Moreover, the concert wasn’t the first Wagner performance by an Israeli orchestra. In 2001, world-renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim angered many Israelis when he played some of Wagner’s music in Israel.

The concert took place alongside the annual Bayreuth festival, an event founded by Wagner in 1876. — jta & ap