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Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin resolute about visit to Israel

"We're not going to these countries for the government but to bring music to the people," said Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the ensemble prepares to embark on its May 24-June 3 tour of Europe and Israel.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center. The ensemble’s 2018 tour of Europe and Israel starts May 24, continuing through June 5. (Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center. The ensemble’s 2018 tour of Europe and Israel starts May 24, continuing through June 5. (Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra)Read morePhoto Courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra

Never in recent memory has the Philadelphia Orchestra embarked on its spring tour with such a seemingly fraught final destination – a week of concerts and ancillary activities in Israel, amid renewed hostilities with Gaza.

The May 24-June 5 tour of Europe and Israel has the usual ports of call, from Luxembourg to Vienna, before a long-planned June 3-5 leg in Israel — infrequently visited by outside orchestras and only once before by the Philadelphians, in 1992.

There is, of course, the matter of security. At the moment, orchestra members plan a school visit less than 10 miles from Gaza – though tour coordinators say everything is up for revision pending security concerns for the 120 musicians and crew, 20 friends and family members, and roughly 50 patrons who are part of the tour.

And then there is the reputational risk of appearing to take sides by visiting Israel so soon after the anguished last week, with at least 60 Palestinian deaths and hundreds of injuries Monday, and the controversial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Even before that, pro-Palestinian activists had been protesting outside nearly all of the orchestra's Kimmel Center concerts for the last several weeks. Susan Abulhawa, a Bucks County author and human rights activist leading the protests, wrote in an op-ed for the Inquirer that the orchestra tour was being used "to divert attention from Israeli crimes."

>> Read an opposing viewpoint here by Nancy K. Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League

In an official statement, the orchestra said, "We understand and acknowledge the sensitive nature of certain current events. Through the universal language of music, we hope that we can speak out against violence and bigotry and express our hope for unity and tranquility in the region."

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which helped to raise money  for the tour and which is helping to coordinate a travel itinerary for patrons, remains deeply invested in the success of what is one of the largest missions in its recent history. "Almost every day, we hear about people who don't want Israel to exist," said federation CEO Naomi Adler. "The more people can bring to the experience of Israel — in all of its layers and diversity — the better."

As of now, the orchestra is full steam ahead on its entire 12-day 2018 tour, which opens with six stops in Europe before playing three cities in Israel.

Musically speaking

The Israel leg of the tour includes concerts in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, plus master classes and school visits in a country that has one of the largest classical music audiences per capita in the world.

Often, such tours come with numerous "residency activities," in the form of master classes, pop-up concerts, and side-by-side performances with local musicians.  In Israel, those activities include working with any number of young musicians, both Israeli and Palestinian. One planned visit to Netivot, home of the Tanenbaum Conservatory of Music, will be within miles of the Gaza border.

The European leg is too tightly scheduled for much of that, with concerts in another city each night — the orchestra will be in Paris all of 18 hours – until reaching the May 28 and 29 programs at Hamburg's much-discussed Elbphilharmonie.

That venue was finished in 2016 for $944 million, with what looks like a snow-capped mountain peak of glass on top of a repurposed industrial complex. Concerts sell out simply because they're there – and the Philadelphia Orchestra's are no exception.

Meat, potatoes, pianos

Tours often have portable, meat-and-potatoes programs. This one is similarly accommodating – except when not. Many of the dates end with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, which the orchestra could play well even when jet-lagged.

"There's nothing more dangerous than to reproduce what happened the night before, because it can only go down from there," said star pianist Helene Grimaud, who plays the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 on tour. "You have to approach it as a new adventure every time."

Just to make sure it's the right kind of adventure, Grimaud will travel with her own piano for the European dates; the close spacing allows no time for her to choose a piano for each performance.

Plans to tour with an orchestral suite from the Thomas Ades opera Powder Her Face were cut because of extra instrumentation demands. In its place is the Oquin organ concerto, which was possible because several European halls have well-regarded organs and soloist Paul Jacobs was available.

More Bernstein in store

Bernstein is of particular interest in Israel, not just because this is the composer's 100th anniversary year, but because he was a strong presence from the 1940s on.

The country is small enough that the orchestra will be centrally based in Tel Aviv and make runs from there to Haifa and Jerusalem without changing hotels. Grimaud's European piano won't make the trip. But the schedule allows time among the orchestra members for two to three residency activities each day.

The patrons traveling along will stay on in Israel a few days later than the musicians for what's called an "immersive exploration of music, food, history, and Israeli modern-day life" led by celebrated Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, known among Philadelphians for his restaurant Zahav.

Those activities are said to be well outside the range of conflicts. "We've told people to be flexible. That's what happens when you go to Israel. We say your itinerary is only confirmed on the day you get back," Adler said.

‘Should we go? Should we cancel?’

A post-9/11 American sensibility might ask how anybody can concentrate on music in the midst of geopolitical turmoil.

Grimaud, a French pianist of Jewish descent, confronted similar circumstances before  a 2016 Istanbul concert with the Basel Chamber Orchestra: "We wondered, 'Should we go? Should we cancel?' We all ended up going. You just have to show up and make music. That's our mission. We have to do it."

Of the Israel situation, she sadly added, "I don't know if there will ever be a solution for that part of the world."

Two outreach activities to the Arab community that were typical of what the orchestra members have done on past tours have fallen through for the 2018 tour of Europe and Israel: visits to Syrian migrant camps outside Vienna and, in Israel, to Beit Almusica, which promotes the Palestinian minority.

The Vienna event went wanting for sponsorship support. Beit Almusica reportedly didn't want to enter the political fray.

Does any of this explain why the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn't been to Israel since 1992? Or why no major American orchestra has played there since 1996?

More significant is Israel's lack of philanthropic culture that brings in touring orchestras, said Ryan Fleur, the orchestra's interim co-president. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's fund-raising contacts enabled the tour, with support from the Neubauer Family Foundation and Constance Smukler.

Another factor: Israel has a plethora of locally produced concerts for its eager classical music fan base. "We repeat every program at least five times, if not seven, eight, or nine,"   newly appointed Israel Philharmonic music director Lahav Shani said during a recent engagement in Philadelphia. "Almost every concert is sold out. People are still curious and want to consume this [music]."

David Patrick Stearns will report from the orchestra's tour beginning June 1 from Vienna and continuing through June 7 in Israel.