Happy 75th birthday, Israel Philharmonic!

Happy 75th birthday, Israel Philharmonic!

Leonard Bernstein, the conductor and composer, led the Israel Philharmonic back in 1948, and in 1988 was named conductor laureate. Courtesy Murray S. Katz Photo Archives of the IPO

If you refer to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in the presence of Marvin P. Feinsmith of Fair Lawn, he immediately objects. It’s the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), not Israeli, he points out, and Israelis object to that mistake. The orchestra, after all, now includes French, German, American, Italian, and Japanese musicians as well as Israeli musicians.

Feinsmith should know. A world-famous bassoon player, he served as first bassoonist with the IPO from1968 to 1970 and for another 10 years later on.

This year happens to be the 75th anniversary of the orchestra’s establishment – as the Palestine Philharmonic – in 1936. (It became the Israel Philharmonic in 1948, when Israel was created.)

In 1936, the careers and very lives of Jews and Jewish musicians throughout Europe were imperiled by the rise of Nazism. A famous Jewish Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, resolved to help the musicians by founding an orchestra of European Jews – in Palestine. He recruited musicians from all over Europe, many of them good enough to be soloists. (See related story, The very first concert.)

Their first conductor was none other than Arturo Toscanini, the celebrated Italian and a man whom Feinsmith admires unreservedly. (Feinsmith’s father, Sam, was a famous clarinet player who had played under Toscanini. When Sam Feinsmith had auditioned and then told Toscanini he could not perform on Jewish holidays, Toscanini embraced him and said that he now liked him even more.)

Toscanini scoured Europe for musical prospects; in several cases, reports Marvin Feinsmith, he paid for the passage of musicians’ entire families to Tel Aviv and leased an apartment for them – while picking up all the expenses. “My father loved him,” says Feinsmith of Toscanini.

Marvin P. Feinsmith of Fair Lawn, formerly the first bassoonist with the Israel Philharmonic, examines the score of his symphony, “Isaiah.” JERRY SZUBIN

What about Toscanini’s fabled temper? Didn’t he once tell a musician, during a rehearsal, “The day you were born was a black day in the history of music”? Didn’t he once throw a baton at another musician, blinding him in one eye? That second story, says Feinsmith, is merely folklore: Never happened.

Toscanini had refused to continue to conduct a German orchestra devoted to Richard Wagner’s operas, at Bayreuth, after the orchestra’s Jewish musicians were expelled. He turned down a written appeal from Hitler himself. (Toscanini’s daughter, Wanda, married the Jewish pianist Vladimir Horowitz.)

Tickets for televised performance
Tickets are still available for a one-night, televised live, delayed performance of the IPO from Jerusalem. The program features supersoprano Renee Fleming and tenor Joseph Calleja, led by Zubin Mehta, on Thursday at 7 pm. (Nearby movie theaters showing the performance: AMC Garden State 16 in Paramus, 201-291-8414; Edgewater 16 Multiple in Edgewater, 201-846-6665; AMC Clifton Commons 16 in Clifton, 973-614-0966; and Showplace Theatre in Secaucus, 201-210-5364. Tickets are $18.) The concert honors the late tenor Richard Tucker.

After Toscanini, the IPO’s conductors included such notables as Leonard Bernstein (conductor laureate), Zubin Mehta (Music Director for Life ), Kurt Masur, Jean Martinon, Bernard Molinari, Paul Paray, and William Steinberg. Guest conductors have included Pablo Casals; the principal guest conductor is now Gianandrea Noseda.

Guest performers have included Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz (who injured his bowing hand while in Israel,) Itzhak Perlman, and just about every famous soloist of modern times.

Today the Israel Philharmonic is considered one of the great orchestras in the world, and it has performed everywhere, familiarizing many nations with a country they might otherwise have no or little knowledge of.

There has been at least one bitter controversy – over whether the IPO should play the music of Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite and a thoroughly detestable human being. Feinsmith was there at the time, and reports that when Daniel Barenboim handed out Wagner’s music in a rehearsal, punches were thrown. And when Barenboim actually conducted a Wagner composition, there was another fracas. “It was a mistake,” says Feinsmith. “He should have asked for permission.”

Heifetz, the great violinist, performed music by Richard Strauss during a visit to Israel in 1953, upsetting a good many Israelis. Strauss seems to have tolerated Nazism. But Heifetz insisted that it was his right to play whatever music he liked.

One night as he left the King David Hotel, a young man smashed Heifetz on the right arm with an iron bar – and vanished. Fortunately the injury was minor, but there was a rift between Israel and Heifetz. But after the Six Day War, Heifetz again visited Israel and played in concerts all over the country.

Today, it seems agreed that the IPO won’t play Wagner until the last Holocaust survivor has died.


Feinsmith, who is tall and sports a gray Van Dyke beard, is a knowledgeable, sophisticated person, but has unusual views. He’s moving from this area because he doesn’t like (1) the high property taxes and (2) New Jersey water, which he believes is impure. He also doesn’t approve of air conditioning, preferring fresh air. He won’t go near a computer – and says his fellow musicians feel the same way.

When asked “Are there any recordings of you or your father on YouTube?” he answers: “What’s YouTube? No, don’t tell me!”

He grew up in the Bronx – he declines to reveal his age, adding that he wants to live to 100, like his mother. He attended a yeshiva, then Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. His father played the clarinet with a circus and later with the New York Philharmonic, and helped popularize the bass clarinet in this country. (Now everyone plays both types.) He wanted his son to play the clarinet – partly because it might help Marvin’s whooping cough. (Apparently it did.) But Marvin “wasn’t happy with the high notes” and turned to the bassoon with its lower notes.

After music school, he worked for orchestras in Indianapolis and Denver. (The conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony, Izler Solomon, flew to Israel on the day it was created – and received the very first Israel visa.) Feinsmith then returned to New York, playing with the famous Little Orchestra Society under Thomas Sherman, “a very good man with a cracking good orchestra.” He also played in Broadway shows, like “A Funny Thing Happened…”, “Pal Joey,” and “Cabaret.” “But I’m not a ‘show’ player,” he says. “I’m a symphony player.”

After his years with the IPO, he returned to the United States to keep better track of his five children. One of them is a rabbi who just moved to Chicago.

Besides playing the bassoon (and its cousin, the contrabassoon), Feinsmith paints – and some of his work has been exhibited at the IPO’s Mann Auditorium. (He’s never had any lessons.) He also composes: 41 works in all, including three symphonies. He tells about his composing a symphony, “Isaiah,” in which the prophet interacts with God. Feinsmith wanted to represent God. He went to a junkyard in Denver and found a portion of a 19-foot brass rod sticking out of the ground. He had it dug up, then cut down to 12 feet. Then he found the manufacturer, Anaconda, and phoned the company in California. A man with a Yiddish accent answered. Feinsmith explained that he needed nine 12-foot rods and had only one. It wound up that the man mailed Steinsmith the rods and didn’t charge him the $8,000 to $9,000 it had cost.

For a visitor Feinsmith played the beginning of “Isaiah” on a CD. The sound of the pipes was uncanny – eerie.

Which composers does he like a lot? “I’m a Beethoven fan.” But he also loves Bach, and laments that many people believe Bach wrote only “church” music.

Any encounters with famous soloists? He took a photo of Heifetz, and later asked him to autograph it. “Who are you?” Heifetz demanded. Feinsmith, shy and retiring, said, “I’m nobody.” Heifetz walked away. Later someone told Heifetz: That young man is the first bassoonist. Heifeitz went over to Feinsmith, said, “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” and autographed the photo. (Heifetz, it’s known, would give autographs only to other musicians.)

Arthur Rubinstein, says Feinsmith, “made me love him.” In one of Beethoven’s concertos, the bassoon has a few notes. Rubinstein played so loudly, he drowned out Feinsmith. I can’t help it, I’m Rubinstein, he apologized. But the next time he played more softly, allowing the bassoonist to be heard – while winking at him. “He was a very warm person,” says Feinsmith.

About Leonard Bernstein: “He loved us and we loved him.” Bernstein wrote him a note, characterizing him as “one of the most wonderful Bassoon players I have heard.”

How is playing a bassoon different? If you play the clarinet, you go into a store and buy the reeds. “We have to make our own reeds. Those you can buy in a store are no good.”

What pieces of music feature the bassoon? Mozart wrote two bassoon concertos – “good and hard.” As for the Red Priest, Vivaldi, apparently he had a secret girlfriend, and wrote 37 cantatas for her – “and every one is good.”

Which conductor he has played for was the best? “It’s a matter of taste,” he says. “Some people like pistachio ice ceam, others hate it.” But he mention Mehta, Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos.

A concert he especially remembers: when the Israel Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic joined together in Tel Aviv in April 1990, with all 240 musicians playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The two groups of musicians got along wonderfully – and some even recognized each other. Feinstein and his Berlin counterpart even playfully and generously argued who should play the solo parts – each deferring to the other.

He is so attachd to the rare CD of that memorable concert that he won’t lend it to a visitor, despite the poor guy’s heartfelt entreaties.

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