Spinning the globe for a spot where it can play for a knowledgeable crowd, conduct cultural diplomacy, and woo some important patrons, the Philadelphia Orchestra has put its finger on Israel. The ensemble will perform in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa the first week in June, after another leg of the tour takes them to Vienna, Paris, and smaller European cities.
The Philadelphians have been to Israel only once before, in 1992 as Riccardo Muti was ending his tenure as the orchestra's fifth music director. Its eighth, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will lead this tour of 11 concerts starting May 24.
Why Israel? The orchestra has focused much of its export power on China recently, and it started with the premise that putting all its eggs in that one basket might not be wise.
"What we realized is the relationship we have with China is quite mature, and we have really strong connections in Washington and Beijing," said Ryan Fleur, the orchestra's interim copresident. "But if anything were to happen truly to United States-China relations that would prevent us from going, it's almost like all of that work would just be erased."
So the orchestra began looking to other regions — such as Mongolia, which it visited in 2017. "And then we started thinking about Israel," Fleur said. "Israel is unique because it has a cultural diplomacy angle. While thousands of Americans visit Israel and it's a great classical music location — every soloist goes through — there have not been a lot of foreign orchestral concerts."
Since the country's founding, among major American orchestras, just the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have toured there, Fleur said. "In 70 years, that's it. Those are the only major American orchestras that have visited Israel."
At the same time, the orchestra also wanted to build bridges with its Jewish supporters, from whom it was hearing it should do more for Israel, Fleur said. "We have had a spotty history, if you go back far enough — it was 35 years before we allowed a Jewish board member, that sort of thing," he said, "and I think we've overcome that, it's pretty well represented. But there are still some trailing remnants of, 'Are we truly responsive to the Jewish community?' "
The orchestra has made periodic overtures to the Jewish community since at least the early 1990s. In a previous era, music director Wolfgang Sawallisch and his wife raised money for Sheba Medical Center in Israel, and the orchestra staged concerts to celebrate the 50th and 60th anniversaries of Israel.
"And a couple of years ago, we started to ask, what should we do for the 70th?" Fleur said.
The orchestra is working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on a patron tour for the Israel part of the trip. Israeli-born Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov will lead a culinary experience running parallel to the musical one.
"It's really different to come to Israel and hear the Philadelphia Orchestra," Fleur said. "It's also really different to come to Israel and have a personal experience with Michael Solomonov where he is selecting the restaurant and customizing a menu for you. There's one day when they are going out into the Negev [region], and he's going out into the desert and they're doing an open-pit barbecue, and shopping that morning, bringing the food down."
The Israel portion of the trip is mostly supported by philanthropy — between $1.5 million and $2 million from a group of donors.
Part of the goal is to engage "different Philadelphians that have not been frankly actively involved with the orchestra, so there is a longer-term patron cultivation aspect to this," Fleur said.
Concerts from Vienna, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem will be simulcast to the U.S. by WRTI-FM (90.1), and the Vienna and Tel Aviv performances will be recorded for delayed broadcast across Europe and Israel. Pianists Hélène Grimaud and Jean-Yves Thibaudet will join the orchestra as soloists, as will organist Paul Jacobs. As usual, a delegation from the state and city will join the orchestra to promote trade and tourism.
The orchestra is slated to perform two concerts at Vienna's Musikverein, and one intriguing additional possibility in Austria is that musicians might be able to connect with listeners other than the usual cognoscenti.
"The cultural diplomacy side of when we are not on stage is very much about meeting the needs of the local community, and one of the things that has emerged is the desire for us to connect with Syrian migrants," Fleur said, adding that, though nothing is confirmed, the orchestra is trying to arrange chamber music and master classes.
Europe is important to any major orchestra, and Philadelphia gets there every few years. "Periodically going to Europe, there are a lot of intangibles that are important for the artistic life of the orchestra," Fleur said. "When the orchestra plays in the Musikverein, where you can see where Brahms sat while he was writing his piano concerti and wrote his symphonies, it just fuels you in a different way."
The non-concert-hall experiences, however, have grown in recent years, and the orchestra feels they pay other kinds of dividends. "The type of side-by-side activities that we stage and master classes, it's almost as much about the interactions that happen before the [main] musical ones that are as powerful, and it's the work that we use alongside cultural diplomacy in leveraging soft power. The Philadelphia Orchestra in many ways is a stronger advocate for the United States than the United States government is, because we can go anywhere and convey anything through music."