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Philharmonic Plays Wagner - But in a Very Minor Key

December 28, 1991

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave its promised performance of music by Richard Wagner on Friday, but sought to forestall protests by treating the event as a rehearsal.

There was outcry nonetheless that Israel’s premier orchestra had broken its 53-year-old taboo on performing works by the German composer, a favorite of Hitler.

But the protests, like the concert, were delivered in a minor key.

A lone concentration camp survivor stood outside the auditorium with a protesting placard, and Parliament Speaker Dov Shilansky, also a Holocaust survivor, went on Israel radio to ask: ″Why, in God’s name, why?″

The controversy arose two weeks ago when Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli music virtuoso and music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, announced he and the Philharmonic would perform Wagner on Dec. 27.

But the emotions surrounding the German composer vividly illustrate the lingering impact of the Holocaust. Protests forced the Philharmonic to back down and poll the opinions of its 30,000 subscribers.

The survey has not yet been conducted, but an opinion poll Friday showed 50 percent against playing Wagner, 25 percent in favor, and the remainder without an opinion. The poll of 503 people, by the Dahaf agency for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The pro-Wagner camp argues that works by other, equally anti-Semitic composers arouse no complaint; that Wagner died 50 years before Hitler came to power; and that no one is being forced to listen to the music.

Wagner was last played by the Philharmonic in its pre-state incarnation, in 1938. Arturo Toscani conducted on that occasion, at a concert organized as a protest against Nazism.

The counter-argument holds that Wagner’s music is a symbol of Nazism, while the Philharmonic is a symbol of Israel, and that the two can never be reconciled.

Friday’s performance was not advertised, and the invited audience of about 600 consisted of friends of the orchestra’s musicians and officials. Cameras were barred, and the audience entered the auditorium through a side door.

″Like thieves in the night,″ Michael Gilead said, standing at the door with a placard that said ″Don’t cheer Wagner and Barenboim,″ and ″161135″ - the number that was tattooed on his arm when he was in a Nazi concentration camp.

″Wagner was a symbol of Nazism,″ he said.

Inside the hall, Barenboim and the musicians were dressed casually. Barenboim asked the audience to treat the performance as a rehearsal and give him ″the quiet we need to do our work.″

″If we play it all through in one go, I hope you will enjoy it,″ he said.

Nathan Dunevitz, a music expert, said the orchestra was tense at first, apparently fearing demonstrators might have slipped past the security men at the door.

But as the performance progressed peacefully, the musicians loosened up, he said.

Excerpts from The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde were played. The audience applauded after each piece. There were no encores and the orchestra did not take a bow.

″This was the concert, no doubt about it, even though they tried to say it was a rehearsal,″ said Dunevitz.

Concertmaster Lazar Shuster denied this, saying: ″It was a rehearsal in the fullest sense.″

Dunevitz, who supports the orchestra’s playing Wagner, said he believed Friday’s event would help break the ice for a full-scale performance.

Shilansky, the Parliament speaker, said he could not understand the orchestra’s ″fanatical″ insistence on playing Wagner.

″What can I say to them? Their hearts are impervious to all the pleas of ordinary Jews who are being put through the horrors again″ by Wagner’s music.

He said those in favor of the concert ″portray themselves as people of culture, art, beauty, spirit. They should also listen to those ordinary Jews who don’t bear all those titles.″

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