“All these great soloists and conductors are family,” said Avi Shoshani, the secretary general of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “Everyone I invited accepted immediately, and they all agreed to perform without a fee. This is the only orchestra in the world that could pull this off.”
Mr. Shoshani wasn’t boasting. We were at the Hilton in Tel Aviv, having a typically mountainous Israeli breakfast on New Year’s Day, the morning after a series of 12 gala concerts marking the orchestra’s 70th anniversary. For two weeks, an extraordinary array of classical-music superstars—conductors Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Valery Gergiev and Kurt Masur; cellist Mischa Maisky; violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Julian Rachlin and Maxim Vengerov; and pianists Yevgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman and Radu Lupu—had trekked to Israel’s hyperkinetic hub of commerce and hedonism. Their mission wasn’t merely musical—it was also profoundly political: to lend their international prestige to an organization that Mr. Mehta, who has been its devoted music director for 30 years, has pointedly called “the positive face of Israel.”
When the Israel Philharmonic comes to Carnegie Hall for two concerts at the end of the month (Jan. 30 and Feb. 1), most New Yorkers will hear it as just another estimable international orchestra, one of the many that come and go on 57th Street. But hearing the I.P.O. on home ground is another matter.
The audience that filled the vast, fan-shaped Mann Auditorium to its 2,760-seat capacity for each of the concerts seemed at first glance to be Lincoln Center look-alikes: overwhelmingly silver-haired, conservatively dressed and given to a great deal of unabashed coughing. And yet, night after night, I felt a chemistry that I’d never quite experienced in other halls. Whether it was in response to Mozart or Brahms, Beethoven or Shostakovich, the listening was palpable. This was not music for entertainment or edification, but music as life’s blood, music that transported the listeners to a realm beyond the pressure cooker of life in country that has been in a state of war with its neighbors for nearly 60 years.
At first I was annoyed by the rhythmic clapping that inevitably followed each piece, whatever its merits. Then I realized that this wasn’t merely applause for a performance, but gratitude for the history of an institution whose founding as the Palestine Orchestra in 1936 predates the creation of the state of Israel by 12 years. Since its first concert, conducted by a refugee from fascism, Arturo Toscanini, the I.P.O.’s tenacity in making music no matter what the peril has matched the tenacity of the new country itself. As I studied the faces of the players, whose ages seemed to span three generations, it occurred to me that many of them had done national service in the Israel Defense Force, and I thought of that now-legendary time during the War for Independence in 1948 when a young American named Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra in the Negev Desert before an audience of 5,000 troops.
As with every sphere of life in Israel, the setting made critical judgment difficult. Whether or not to update the acoustically leaky Mann Auditorium, which opened in 1957, has touched off a debate to rival the issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. On one side are maestro Mehta and his board, who want to convert the fan shape into a shoebox, raise the ceiling by a foot and lose 400 seats to gain intimacy. On the other side are local architects who view the concert hall as a modernist extension of Tel Aviv’s trove of Bauhaus-inspired architecture. (One preservationist, with no regard for accuracy, has likened the Mann to the Taj Mahal.)
The hall’s shortcomings notwithstanding, the orchestra spoke with an honest vibrancy that stopped just short of the distinctive eloquence that marks the world’s top bands. If the I.P.O. lacks the Cleveland’s disciplined sheen, the Berlin’s sonic brilliance or the Vienna’s suave mellowness, it connects through a visceral responsiveness to whoever’s at the helm.
Mr. Mehta, whose unflagging devotion to the orchestra has earned him the title of “music director for life,” conducted three concerts with authoritative proficiency, eliciting performances that delivered the goods without adding much that was particularly memorable. Perhaps this is one of those “lasting marriages,” as Mr. Mehta describes the arrangement, in which the partners have become a little too comfortable with each other.
Kurt Masur led the orchestra, soloists and the full-throated Israeli Opera Choir in a New Year’s Eve Beethoven’s Ninth whose chiseled precision belied an alarming tremor in the conductor’s hands. Mr. Gergiev stirred the players to greater depths in a magisterially spooky reading of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, which gave pride of place to the I.P.O.’s greatest musical asset, its passionately colored strings.
Mr. Barenboim, in three appearances, was his usual problematic self. After delivering a highly mannered traversal of Book I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, which didactically tried to recast the Baroque master as an expressionist, he soloed in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, masking a kind of imperial inattention to detail with architectural massiveness. Two nights later, he re-emerged in the company of the most poetic of pianists, Radu Lupu, for a performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos that raised insouciance to the level of the sublime. It was—along with an unusually emotionally connected recital by Yevgeny Kissin—the musical high point of the celebrations. When Mr. Barenboim isn’t trying to be the Village Explainer, he’s a world-class marvel.
Like galas elsewhere, this one did double duty as a fund-raiser. Accordingly, for all the range of music (roughly 250 years, from Bach to Schönberg’s late Holocaust cantata, A Survivor from Warsaw), there was little to challenge conservative tastes. To the dismay of younger musicians in the audience, there was no contemporary work at all, nothing to indicate that Israel boasts an array of vibrant young composers. Mr. Shoshani told me that the programs had been put together on the basis of what the patrons said they wanted to hear: “The box office pays for 50 per cent of our budget,” he said. “We can’t afford the luxury of educating the general public.”
Indeed, the only beacon of the future was Gustavo Dudamel, the fast-rising young maestro from Venezuela, who gave a stunning account of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2: He replaced the Nordic midnight sun with an almost tropical lushness. The mop-haired Mr. Dudamel, who has cuteness and charisma to burn, is just 25, the age of the I.P.O.’s Bombay-born music director when he made his debut with the orchestra in 1961. On this occasion, the I.P.O.’s delight in the young man’s ebullience was shared by the audience, more than one of whom, thinking of the orchestra’s next 70 years, described the Venezuelan wunderkind as “a Mehta in the making.”