The 110-member Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the world's major symphonic ensembles, often described as "Israel's foremost cultural asset" and regarded by many as the "Orchestra of the Jewish People." As an organization it has a unique history and heritage.
Central European musical traditions were carried into the Middle East from the time of the first mass migration of Jews, in the 1880s, to Turkish-ruled Palestine. Following Turkey's defeat in World War I, the Balfour Declaration designated part of Palestine as a "national home for the Jewish people," and Jewish settlement of the area increased. Music teaching institutions were established. Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s caused increas3ed immigration. One of the first was violinist Bronislav Huberman, who arrived in 1933 and immediately began urging the leading Jewish orchestral members of Germany, many of whom had lost their jobs, to come to Palestine. He organized the Palestine Philharmonic.
Conductor William Steinberg helped organize and prepare the orchestra, but the orchestra's premiere concert, December 26, 1936 was under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. The orchestra began touring almost immediately; during the next month it appeared in Cairo and Alexandria. When the State of Israel's independence was proclaimed, the orchestra was renamed the Israel Philharmonic.
Though the IPO has been directed by most of the major maestros of the world, two names dominate its history: Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Zubin Mehta. Bernstein began conducting the orchestra nearly from the time he rocketed to fame during World War II, and led the historic concert at Beer-Sheva in 1947 just after the Israel Defense Forces took the site. He also conducted an important concert at the Lebanon Border and, following the 1967 war, he led the legendary Mount Scopus concert of Mahler's "Second Symphony" in celebration of the capturing of Jerusalem. His forty-year association with the orchestra was deep, committed, and intense, even though he never held an official position with the orchestra.
The Philharmonic had no permanent conductor for nearly the first forty years of its existence. Instead, a large number of prominent guest conductors led its concerts. This exposure to a remarkable array of the world's greatest maestros gave the orchestra great flexibility, but at the cost of retarding its cohesion and attainment of a consistent sound. Mehta was appointed Music Adviser to the orchestra in 1968 and, in 1977, became its Music Director. In 1981 he was named Music Director for Life. He has shown commitment to the orchestra and continued with it as he has taken other leadership positions, notably with the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics.
The orchestra is a true "philharmonic" in the traditional sense, meaning that it is a co-operative owned by its musicians. It performs concert series in its home city of Tel-Aviv and in Haifa and Jerusalem, and makes frequent appearances elsewhere. Its main venue is the Mann Auditorium in Tel-Aviv, a hall with whose acoustics are often problematic for recording companies. ~ Joseph Stevenson