Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Orchestra of Exiles

There are times when, living in Vancouver, I feel that we, in spite of the natural beauty, are culturally the backwater of North America. The film Orchestra of Exiles, the story of the formation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, has been making the rounds of theatres in the United States, but never came to Vancouver. I was therefore happy that this wonderful film had just been released on DVD. Watching the film, I was moved by this incredible story of compassion, bravery, vision, and perseverance, the effort of one man, who founded this now world class orchestra.

Bronislaw Huberman was a master violinist, beloved by audiences in major musical centres in Europe and the United States. In 1929, he visited and concertized for the first time in Palestine, and was moved by the frontier spirit of the people living there at the time. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930’s, and began firing Jewish musicians from major orchestras, Huberman took a public stand and refused an offer – artistically rewarding and financially lucrative, to be sure - from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to appear with the Berlin Philharmonic, the premiere German orchestra then as it is now. Seeing the days that Jewish people could safely live in German were numbered, Huberman had a dream of forming a world class symphony orchestra in Palestine, to give a musical and physical home to the many accomplished musicians displaced by the Nazi regime

Putting his career on hold, and going against incredible political and financial odds, Huberman travelled throughout Europe and auditioned players for “his” orchestra. He foresaw that Hitler’s ambitions would not be restricted to Germany, and therefore did not limit his activities just within Germany. Because of all the travelling and pressure, there were times when he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, not to mention financial ruin. For musicians who were not good enough to become a part of his orchestra, he knew that they would have to remain in Europe, where their lives would be very much in peril. He even tried to extend assistance not only to the musicians who had been chosen, but to their immediate and, sometimes, extended families, eventually saving about 1000 Jews from certain death.

Finally, in 1936, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra was formed, with its first series of concerts conducted by Arturo Toscanini, probably the most famous conductor of the time, and a firm anti-fascist who, like Huberman, had refused to perform in Germany and Austria. Huberman himself refused to appear as soloist with the orchestra, insisting that the stage being devoted entirely to showcasing his orchestra. Because of his efforts, the Israel Philharmonic - the name of the orchestra since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 - is now one of the world’s great orchestras.

Part documentary and part dramatisation, Orchestra of Exiles tells the story of the birth of this great orchestra. The orchestra has been referred to as an “orchestra of concertmasters”, since many orchestra members were concertmasters and section leaders in orchestras in Germany, Austria, and throughout Europe. Director Josh Aronson effectively combined re-enactments of Huberman’s life, episodes from Huberman’s search for musicians, and the orchestra’s initial rehearsals with Toscanini, with actual archival film footages from the orchestra’s history. There are interviews with past and present members of the orchestra, family members who were helped by Huberman, violinists Joshua Bell (who now owns and plays Huberman’s violin), Ivry Gitlis, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zukerman, and Zubin Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic current Music Director.

I was completely engrossed, captivated, and moved by this inspiring story, of how one man faced incredible odds, sacrificed his own comfort and well-being, to create something lasting, something that now benefits the entire world. Hurberman insisted that musicians of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra also taught, with the result now that many musicians of the Israel Philharmonic are students - in many cases children and grandchildren - of the original musicians. And he saved an important part of the European musical tradition.

Orchestra of Exiles is not - in the words of a review I read - “just another Holocaust story”. It is not just another story about a famous musician. It is a story of the human spirit, of how one man can take a public stand against overwhelming odds, and against great evil. It is a story that should be known not just by violinists or musicians, but by anyone with an interest in history – not just history of the Jewish people, but of all humanity.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Symphonic Masterpieces

With the ready availability of music today, it is easy to forget what a joy and privilege it is to attend a live musical performance, with great musicians playing great music, when all the elements came together for an exhilarating and uplifting artistic experience.

It was indeed such an evening in Vancouver this past Saturday, with the return of conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama and pianist Ingrid Fliter, in a rich and varied programme of Berlioz’s Le corsaire overture, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, and Richard Strauss’ great tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

Le corsaire was one of Berlioz’s many “concert overtures”, in reality a precursor to the tone poems that Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss were to compose later. Less popular than the composer’s Le carnival romain and Béatrice et Bénédict (this one a “real” overture to an opera), but no less brilliant, the work amply demonstrates Berlioz’s mastery as an orchestrator. Akiyama handled the tricky opening with great aplomb, from the rapid exchange between the very exposed runs in the strings and rhythmically intricate woodwind figures, to the beautiful slow middle section, and to the energetic finale. As if to welcome back this beloved former music director, the orchestra responded with a performance filled with nuance and musicality.

Of Felix Mendelssohn’s two piano concerti, the first one is probably the more extroverted one. Of the last generation of pianists, it was probably most famously and often played by Rudolf Serkin, although many of the current generation of pianists have taken its youthful exuberance to heart. Ingrid Fliter is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having appeared many times as a recitalist and once before (I think) with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In the outer movements, Ms. Fliter once again demonstrated her considerable ability at the keyboard, and played the solo part with all the brilliance and glitter, but also lightness, that it demands. She played the slow movement, the emotional core of the work, with a kind of hushed eloquence as well as an incredible musicality. Once again, I am reminded of why she remains, for me, one of the most interesting of the very crowded field of young artists playing today.

Without the efforts of conductor Paul Sacher, who originally commissioned Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, the musical world would have been deprived of some of the greatest orchestral works written by 20th century composers. Unlike Bartok’s seminal work, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (also a Sacher commission), his Divertimento for Strings, which opens the second half of the concert, sounds almost light-hearted and uplifting. The strings of the Vancouver Symphony did themselves proud in this very difficult work, from the constantly shifting rhythms in the first and third movement, to the dark colours and restless mood of the middle movement. There was some wonderful solo playing by the section leaders of the string section.

When Akiyama was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel was a work that he conducted often. Like Berlioz, Strauss’ evocation of the misadventures and eventual demise of this legendary figure, really shows his understanding and mastery of the art of orchestration. Like a master storyteller, Akiyama expertly guided the orchestra through Strauss’ thematic transformation of both the introductory theme and Till’s leitmotif, represented by the French horn – the technical difficulty of this French horn motif reminds us that Strauss’s father was one of the premier orchestral horn players in Europe. Unlike some conductors, Akiyama does not “milk” the music for all its worth, exaggerating the wittiness or the elements of gemülichkeit in the score, but letting the music breathe and unfold naturally. The message obviously got through, since I could hear members of the audience chuckling at Till’s many antics during the performance. At the end of the performance, the smiles on the faces of the orchestral players almost matched the evident delight of the audience.

Among the many congratulatory telegrams and messages read at the end of Maestro Akiyama’s farewell concert as music director of the Vancouver Symphony, the one I remember was written by pianist Claudio Arrau, who called Akiyama “one of the elect”, no small compliment coming from an artist who had played with some of the great conductors of the 20th century.

Throughout the evening, I found myself being mesmerized by Mr. Akiyama’s expressive hands, with his every gesture guiding the musicians along, and shaping the musical phrases with great subtlety and souplesse. I imagine that no orchestral musician will have trouble understanding the intention and message of his baton.

I agree with Nietzsche’s dictum that “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Indeed, we must always be reminded that great music is a privilege, especially in our age when music can be had with the push of a button. I am grateful that Mr. Akiyama has maintained his association with Vancouver, and I hope that both he and Ms. Fliter will continue to grace our stages with their presence and talents. With musicians like them, we can be sure that the art of music will always be in good hands.