Controversy Again Stifles Wagner Concert in Israel

SILENCED by a wave of protest, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will not be filling the Mann Auditorium here with the strains of Richard Wagner this afternoon.Conductor Daniel Barenboim's controversial plan to have the national orchestra perform music by Wagner - Adolf Hitler's favorite composer - for the first time in Israel since the state was founded 43 years ago, has been postponed indefinitely. The orchestra's 35,000 subscribers are to be polled on the question before any decision is made, according to an IPO spokeswoman. The results of the ballot are expected to illustrate the current status of Israelis' difficult relationship with their past. "Israel is a country with a great deal of ambivalence about its past, and about how much past events should dictate events today," says Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff. "This Wagner debate is a measure of that." Wagner's music has not been played here by an official orchestra, nor broadcast on the radio, since 1938, when Arturo Toscanini conducted the then Palestine Philharmonic. The effective ban on the works of one of the masters of German music is based partly on Wagner's vitriolic anti-Semitic writings, including a book in which he argued that "the Jew" was a corrupting influence on the purity of the German spirit and should be exterminated. Fifty years later, Hitler embraced Wagner's thought and music wholesale, making the composer emblematic of the Nazi regime. Nazi rallies were announced over loudspeakers that blared the stirring "Ride of the Valkyries," and Nazi congresses opened to the tune of the prelude to the third act of the opera "Lohengrin." "Hitler said he was the man to transform Wagner's spiritual values into practice, and he transformed Wagner into the official composer of the Nazi party," says musicologist Massimo Torrefranca, who taught a course in Wagner's music last year at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. It was that association that most concerned Yitzhak Arad, head of the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, when he appealed to the Israel Philharmonic to reconsider its plans to play Wagner. "A great number of the Holocaust survivors living in Israel today are disturbed by the fact that the state orchestra plans to perform this music, as it brings back horrifying memories to many," he wrote in a letter to the IPO management. Out of respect for those feelings, the orchestra decided to make the performance a special one, rather than a subscription concert to which subscribers might feel obliged to attend, and IPO musicians were free not to play. Mr. Barenboim, an Israeli himself, argues however that "Wagner was misused and abused by the Nazis as a symbol. By refraining from playing Wagner now we do justice only to those who misused him." Other critics insist that no Jewish orchestra should ever play any of Wagner's work. "The problem of Wagner is unique," argues Elyakim Haetzni, a right-wing member of the Knesset who grew up in Nazi Germany. "He was the spiritual father of racial anti-Semitism. There is no difference between Wagner and Hitler. "It is the tradition of Judaism not to forget," Mr. Haetzni adds. "This ban should continue for ever and anon." For Barenboim, who distinguishes between the man and his music, no international orchestra's repertoire is complete without Wagner. Also, he argues, "you have to understand to what point Wagner's influence goes. Without him you would not have Mahler." Other supporters of lifting the Wagner ban say it is hypocritical and inconsistent. There is no similar boycott of Carl Orff, for example, who wrote "Carmina Burana," despite the fact that he was an active member of the Nazi party. And although Frederic Chopin made no attempt to hide his violent anti-Semitism, a street in Jerusalem is named in his honor. For Mordechai Wirshubsky, a Knesset member from the leftist Citizens' Rights Movement, the Wagner ban "does not effect any goal or purpose. "The biggest symbol of Nazi Germany was the Volkswagen," he points out. "But Israel's roads are full of them. It is convenient to use German manufactured goods, but music is dispensable, so it is used as a symbol." R. WIRSHUBSKY would rather turn Wagnerian symbolism on its head. "We have overcome the Holocaust," he argues. "We can play Wagner of our own will, and it is a Jewish and Israeli victory to do so." Meanwhile the poll of IPO subscribers is expected to take about a month, according to Arnon Goldenberg, chairman of the IPO's public council, which decided on the referendum. When a small, informal poll of subscribers was taken on the issue ten years ago, after conductor Zubin Mehta tried to slip in a piece of Wagner as an unannounced "encore" at an IPO concert, and provoked a walkout, the vote was approximately 80 percent in favor of playing Wagner, according to IPO spokeswoman Israela Moscovitch. "When the storm has died down, I expect the same sort of result this time," says IPO manager Yehoshua Pasternak. But even that may not be enough to raise the curtain on "Siegfried." "A majority is not sufficient," insists Dr. Goldenberg. "If a meaningful minority objects, we will have to take into account their feelings."

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