An Orchestra With Humanitarian Roots to Celebrate 80th Anniversary

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 6, 2016 Updated: December 19, 2016

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) is a testament to the power of music.

Established in 1936, the orchestra was the product of the wish of many acclaimed musicians who wanted to serve humanity by preserving the best of classical culture.

The celebrated Polish-born Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman had witnessed the rise of Zionism and Nazi power in Europe in the 1930s, and reached out to 75 Jewish musicians to come with him to what would become the state of Israel and establish an orchestra, according to IPO’s account of its history. In 1936, the Palestine Orchestra (renamed in 1948 when the state of Israel was established) was formed, and it gave its first concert on Dec. 26 that year. 

Musical giant Arturo Toscanini, then the music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, agreed to conduct the opening concert. He said to the crowd, “I am doing this for humanity.” 

Since then, the orchestra has steadfastly provided hope, relief, and comfort continuously during times of conflict. Over its 80 years, it has become not only the nation’s orchestra but also the orchestra of the Jewish people around the world. During this time, it has also collaborated with many of the best musicians around the world.

Avi Shoshani, secretary-general of the IPO, says this is because music is the language that all can relate to.

“And it [music] always seems to bring out the best in people,” Shoshani said ahead of a Nov. 15 gala celebrating the orchestra’s 80th anniversary in New York.

He remembers a period during the Gulf War when the orchestra was unable to play in its concert hall because the area was not secure. It was also unable to play evening concerts because air raids tended to happen at night. Instead, the orchestra gave free afternoon concerts for days in a small hall that could seat only a few hundred people, in case of the need for an evacuation.

“We played every day to packed houses,” Shoshani said. “They all wanted to be together. They all wanted to be related to good human aspects.”

To Shoshani, music conveys hope in a language that is universally understood.

“I’ll never forget that period,” Shoshani said. “That is the best sign that music brings people together and makes people feel better, and gives hope to people. … If I ever needed anything to show me what music is, it was that.”

Shoshani hears from all around the world that the orchestra is doing a positive thing  diplomatically, sharing the beauty of Israel around the world and changing perceptions. But politics is not the goal: The orchestra has no diplomatic agenda—it is focused on making the best music it can. 

“I just want the orchestra … to be an excellent orchestra that brings people together and lets them hear the best music [the orchestra can] offer,” Shoshani said. The goal is and always has been musical excellence and preserving the classical music tradition.

Shoshani, who is responsible for fundraising, describes his role as working to enable the musicians to fulfill their dreams. Music Director Zubin Mehta sets his sights on illustrious works, and it is Shoshani’s job to endeavor to make it a reality. 

It is not easy, Shoshani said. He used to spend about a quarter of his time fundraising, and now he spends what seems like most of his time doing so, he added, with fewer groups giving to the arts. About 10 percent of the budget comes from the state, half from ticket subscribers, and then the rest from fundraising via the IPO Foundation and the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra organization. 

The IPO gives 150 concerts in Israel annually, and in recent decades has developed many programs to give back to the community and promote musical education via its KeyNote initiative. 

The KeyNote program was established almost 18 years ago, and nearly 20,000 students from kindergarten to college participate every year. The musicians partner with schools and first introduce classical music education to the teachers, and then there are workshops and classes for the students. Some students end up pursuing music, but that is not necessarily the goal of the program. 

Irit Rub, director of KeyNote, says this is a crucial cultural endeavor. In Europe, you are surrounded by classical culture, and there is exposure to it in schools. But in Israel, this is not the case, and until recent years, music wasn’t necessarily part of the school curriculum, she said. 

“I think this is a little treasure we have, a treasure of hundreds of years of such good music, so it’s our duty to pay it forward and give it to children as well,” Rub said.

“There are so many benefits to listening: It teaches children not only to know Bach and Mahler, but also to be patient, to listen, to respect what other people are doing, to concentrate—all these things that our children need very much to learn, and you can do it through music,” Rub said.

After the sessions with IPO musicians, the students are invited to an IPO concert, and Rub is always filled with joy at seeing the results. Especially during the first year, Rub was apprehensive, kept up all night wondering whether the program would really benefit the students. But the students are engaged, understand the music, and feel like they have received something good—every time. Now she is not so surprised anymore, but happy nonetheless.

Shoshani says music broadens education. He was exposed to classical music at a young age as well, and it has always felt familiar.

“The essence of the music somehow talks to the fundamentals of [humans],” he said.

From Dec. 20 to Dec. 31, the orchestra will play nine concerts in Israel to celebrate this 80th anniversary, with guest artists including Evgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman, Pinchas Zukerman, Leonidas Kavakos, and many more.