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July 27, 2011

Confronting history and emotion, Israel Chamber Orchestra plays Wagner in Germany

UPDATE (8/17): For a different view on the issue of Wagner and Israel, see this article by David Goldman in Tablet. 

It is worth pausing to reflect on what happened this week in Bayreuth, Germany, at the famed festival founded by Richard Wagner as a showcase for his music.

An instrumental work of his, the "Siegfried Idyll," was performed Tuesday night for an audience that included two of Wagner's great-granddaughters sitting in the first row.

In a daring and unavoidably controversial move, the Israel Chamber Orchestra played this short, sweet composition by Wagner, the first time an Israeli orchestra performed a note of Wagner's in Germany.

This was a performance that could not have been given in the ensemble's homeland. An unofficial, but very successful, ban on the music of the notoriously anti-Semitic Wagner has been in effect since the creation of the state.

Daniel Barenboim famously skirted that ban in ...

2001, conducting a bit of "Tristan und Isolde" with a visiting German orchestra as an encore, after inviting anyone who objected to leave the hall (most stayed). But the situation for Wagner has not really changed since in Israel, where memories have not faded of how the Nazis turned the composer's music into a kind of official soundtrack to the Holocaust.

Roberto Paternostro, conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, approached the remarkable Bayreuth concert with great seriousness and preparation. His musicians held ample discussions, weighed the sensitive issues carefully. And, significantly, the Bayreuth program also included works by Mendelssohn and Mahler -- Jewish composers whose music had been banned by the Nazis.

Paternostro and many of the orchestra members have relatives who perished in the death camps. Deciding to playing Wagner in Germany was no cavalier act for any of these musicians. As the conductor said, it's time  "to divide the man from his art."

I know that some people will never be able to do that. It doesn't matter that Wagner died 50 years before Hitler emerged as a political force in Germany.

Wagner's own writings make it pretty clear that, had he been alive in the 1930s, he would have leapt onto the Nazi bandwagon. Still, I find it hard to lay responsibility for the Third Reich at his feet.

I end up wondering why he let Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi, conduct the premiere of "Parsifal." And why another Jewish conductor, Mahler, would devote so much of his podium time to champion of Wagner's music. It's not like such men had no idea how Wagner felt about Jews. I guess they just divided the man from his art.

Personally, I find Wagner repugnant, but I can never keep that feeling going past the first two measures of "Tristan." The composer was not the first creative genius to be a disgrace as a human being; he won't be last.

I think what the Israel Chamber Orchestra did yesterday in Bayreuth, the most venerated of Wagnerian shrines, was a brave and valuable thing, reaffirming that the composer's art is too great to be restricted or silenced.

I'd also like to think that, throughout the playing of the lovely "Siegfried Idyll" by those Israeli visitors, Wagner's body was spinning uncontrollably and very, very painfully in its nearby grave.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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