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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: The Israel Symphony Orchestra

The internationally renowned musicians who began their careers with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) loyally returned home for its 60th anniversary celebrations in December 1996. The artists included Yitzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zuckerman, Yefim Bronfman, Shlomo Mintz and the young virtuoso Gil Shaham.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so because their fates have been so intertwined, the ]PO celebrated its 60th birthday together with conductor and Music Director for life, Zubin Mehta, the Indian-born maestro who took charge of the IPO in 1968, and who also turned 60 last year.

It was Arturo Toscanini, the greatest conductor of his time, who presided over the orchestra's first performance in 1936. Italian-born Toscanini, who was not Jewish, despised Nazism and saw the formation of a Jewish orchestra as an act of defiance against Hitler. Most of the original members of the orchestra, then called the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, were assembled by the Polish Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, and were fortunate enough to get out of Europe before the Holocaust began.

Re-named the IPO after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the orchestra has always acted as the country's foremost cultural ambassador, carrying the joy of music and the message of peace from Israel to music lovers around the world.

Zubin Mehta recalls that one of his most moving moments was when the IPO agreed to play in Germany in 1971 and he was able to conduct "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, in the country that had unintentionally caused the establishment of the IPO through its persecution of Jews. In the late 1980s, the IPO visited Auschwitz on a concert tour of Poland, Hungary and the former Soviet Union. And in 1994 Mehta was able to lead the IPO to China and his native India, shortly after Israel established diplomatic relations with the two Asian powers.

The sell-out success of the 12 celebration concerts around Israel characterizes the local popularity of the IPO, which has the largest subscription public per capita in the world. In its 60th year the IPO recruited 6,200 new subscribers, a world record for a symphony orchestra. In fact, the IPO has always managed to break even without the need for government subsidies.

With plentiful local talent, the IPO has never needed to offer fabulous salaries to entice musicians from overseas. About half of the orchestra's 110 musicians are native-born Israelis, 35% were born in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and 15% hail from North America. In addition, the IPO's many worldwide friends, such as the late Leonard Bernstein, conductors Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, and violinists Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin, have been frequent guest players.

The IPO also regularly records for leading companies such as Sony Classical, Teldec, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon. Recent recordings include the best of the IPO's concert repertoire such as Brahms' four symphonies, Prokofiev's Piano Concertos and Mahler's symphonies. Based in Tel Aviv at the Mann Auditorium, the challenge facing the IPO over the next 60 years is to maintain and enhance the high standards that have been established. The Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, supported by scholarship funds, should ensure that the next generation of musicians is no less talented than the present.

Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, May 1997, Israeli Foreign Ministry