Happy 75th birthday, Israel Philharmonic!

Happy 75th birthday, Israel Philharmonic!

At a 1936 rehearsal of the orchestra, called the Palestine Philharmonic then, Arturo Toscanini embraces Bronislaw Huberman, the violinist whose idea it was to create an orchestra made up of Jews fleeing Nazism. Courtesy R. Weissenstein/Prior

Arturo Toscanini, while in New York in 1936, received a note from Bronislaw Huberman, a famous Polish Jewish violinist. Huberman wanted to discuss “a constructive idea” he was “obsessed” with.

Toscanini agreed to a meeting, and Huberman proceeded to explain his idea for a first-class new orchestra in Palestine, made up entirely of Jewish musicians. Would Toscanini go to Palestine and conduct the first concerts?

Toscanini was enthusiastic – and refused to accept a fee, or even reimbursement for his travel expenses. (Huberman had found some financial support, especially among American Jews.)

The word got out, and Albert Einstein in Princeton wrote a note to Toscanini, beginning, “Honoured Master! I feel the necessity of telling you for once how much I admire and honour you….” Einstein later accepted the honorary presidency of the orchestra’s American committee.

After a peaceful rehearsal or two with his new orchestra, Toscanini proceeded to bawl out the musicians – in a combination of Italian and German. We were delighted, said a member of the orchestra; it showed he took us seriously.

The first program was long: Brahms’ Second Symphony, Rossini’s overture to “La scala di seta,” Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”), the Nocturne and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Weber’s “Oberon” overture.

The first rehearsal, on Dec. 25, was in the Great Hall of Tel Aviv’s exhibition grounds, and the public’s response was “one of overwhelming emotion,” wrote Harvey Sachs in his biography of Toscanini. The maestro insisted that Huberman appear on stage to share the ovations.

At the official concert the next night, a long burst of applause greeted Toscanini as he made his way to the stage. In attendance were Dr. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. The orchestra proceeded to play in Jerusalem and Haifa. Sachs writes: “Everywhere and always, the ecstasy and gratitude were the same.”

It was the beginning of a long and intense love affair.

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