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 Furtw√§ngler 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.



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