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The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour of Europe and Israel is done: What did we learn?

The trip brought the ensemble a level of scrutiny that's been rare in its long history of international touring.

Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphians on June 5 in Jerusalem, the final stop on their 2018 tour of Europe and Israel.
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphians on June 5 in Jerusalem, the final stop on their 2018 tour of Europe and Israel.Read moreJan Regan/Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra wanted relevance. It got relevance.

In December, as the ensemble was readying plans to visit Israel this June on its 2018 tour, President Trump controversially recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In March, as the tour's departure approached, Palestinian organizers began a campaign of protests in Gaza that, over the next couple of months, left more than 100 Palestinians dead at the hand of Israeli forces.

And so the orchestra was swept up into a larger discourse in which much more was at stake than good reviews. Security, access to the kinds of outreach events the orchestra wanted to undertake, and the tightrope-walk of managing the orchestra's reputation were all up for grabs.

By April, pro-Palestinian protesters in support of the international BDS movement (boycott, divest, and sanction) began demonstrating in front of the Kimmel Center, urging the cancellation of this rare visit to Israel by an American orchestra.

And in May, as conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was readying his downbeat for Tosca at one of the orchestra's last concerts before the spring tour, the outside world seeped into Verizon Hall. Protesters played a prerecorded protest speech just before the music was slated to start and were removed from the hall.

From there, the orchestra attracted a level of scrutiny rare in its long history of international touring. On the global stage at this moment, much of the world is in the mood to right perceived wrongs —  thank goodness, in many cases — and social media obliges the impulse by airing seemingly every injustice of every government, institution, or individual, past or present.

Heightened relevance doesn't come out of the blue for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Its two-week tour of Europe and Israel that ended with a June 5 concert in Jerusalem feels very much a part of the past season or two of bringing itself to the world and inviting the world in.

Musicians have played in prisons, churches, schools, and homeless shelters. Philadelphia Voices by Tod Machover in April brought the sounds and stories of Philadelphia neighborhoods into Verizon Hall. Another new piece, written by Hannibal Lokumbe for mixed ensemble and voices and premiered this time last year, gave voice to victims of the 2015 slaughter at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Never before has the orchestra tended its social conscience as actively, and never has the concert hall seemed as permeable as it does today. And though the controversy over the orchestra's trip to Israel may have created some uncomfortable friction, it also moved some conversations forward.

The pro-Palestinian side rode the orchestra's shirttails to a higher profile for its cause, drawing international headlines, especially for the Kimmel disruption and another at the orchestra's first concert of the tour, in Brussels. In rebuttal, the local pro-Israel side found an audience for a more nuanced perspective than perhaps you're likely to see on your Facebook feed.

To hear the orchestra tell it, the tour was a crucible with some important gains immediately apparent, and others perhaps to come. Orchestra interim co-president Ryan Fleur said he believed every musician in the ensemble, as well as music director Nézet-Séguin, went through the same journey in response to the disruptions — from shock to anger to resolve.

In the end, though, he said, "the beauty of the journey is that the orchestra is a whole lot closer with each other and with Yannick because we all went through this together."

There were, however, at least a couple of casualties.

Civility, for one. The idea that the concert hall is vulnerable to disruption seems like another violation of norms in an age when violations of norms seem like the new norm. And for those listeners who come to the orchestra to become lost to the world, that quiet realm is gone.

Other benefits of the orchestra's trip to Israel may not be apparent until later. The tour was a chance for the orchestra to right a wrong of its own — to once again reassure Jewish supporters that its "spotty history" with Jews, as Fleur has put it, was no longer spotty.

Israel means a great deal to many of the orchestra's donors and fans at home, and to have the orchestra making connections with listeners in Israel was no doubt an emotional experience for many of the 55 or so along on the patron tour as well as those tracking the tour from afar through reports and radio broadcasts of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein.

Perhaps more than any other factor, emotion tends to fuel philanthropy.

"We got to know a lot of people a lot better while we were on the tour, and from a relationship standpoint, time is going to tell where we end up on that point," said Fleur.

It is not yet clear whether the trip will cost the orchestra donors or subscribers; the opening of next season is months away, and philanthropy is a long game. But so far, of the orchestra's more than 6,000 donor households, 88 expressed their support of the tour either through individual donations or by joining the patron tour, and nine donors have said they will not be giving money in the future as a result of the tour, an orchestra spokeswoman said.

Of the 25 subscribers who expressed concern, only three have so far not renewed their subscriptions at this time, the spokeswoman said, and of those three, just one patron specifically cited the tour as the reason for not renewing. The orchestra has about 9,000 subscribing households.

A lost opportunity

The tour was an opportunity lost for Nézet-Séguin, who has said little in public about the trip and its rough spots. He declined to speak about the concert-hall disruptions and controversy to my colleague David Patrick Stearns or myself during the tour. Since the conclusion of the tour, an orchestra spokeswoman said, Nézet-Séguin has not responded to an additional request for an interview.

Leadership means speaking for the organization in good times as well as bad, and not to have the music director speaking up now is a disappointment.

The orchestra, for its part, says it never intended to mix art and politics. "As soon as we truly move into the realm of taking a political position, we're done, we've lost our ability to authentically and honestly communicate above the fray," says Fleur.

But that claim is a bit naïve. Going to Israel is in itself a political statement, and the timing made it more so.

The orchestra handed red meat to its critics by allowing the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, its partner in the Israel leg of the tour, to publish an itinerary online listing a June 1 welcome Shabbat dinner for the related patron tour to which Miri Regev, the incendiary far-right Israeli politician, was invited. (She ended up not attending, several officials said).

A conversation sparked

Regardless, pro-Palestinian protesters say they were against the tour under any circumstances, that the Israel trip meant "the orchestra crossed an international picket line," says Susan Abulhawa, an organizer of the Philly Don't Orchestrate Apartheid campaign, which used its Kimmel demonstrations to bring attention to Israel's treatment of Palestinians. "We sparked a conversation in Philadelphia about cultural boycott [and] the role artists can play in either perpetuating or opposing the oppression of fellow human beings."

But it's hard to think of an audience anywhere that doesn't deserve to hear a great orchestra. To paraphrase the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music is a fundamental human right.

Meting out moral justice is a slippery business. If, as pro-Palestinian protesters claim, the Philadelphia Orchestra's Israel appearance signals an approval or glossing over of Israel's policies, should the Berlin or Vienna philharmonics cross U.S. tours off their list in light of the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border?

The salient question always was what kind of context the orchestra would put around the actual concerts, and this is where it stumbled.

To be sure, the orchestra made significant gestures to a diverse population. Musicians played a chamber music concert in Netivot, a town with immigrant populations from Russia and Ethiopia about nine miles from Gaza. Four musicians plus Nézet-Séguin visited the Oasis of Peace, a community of Israeli Arabs and Jews outside Tel Aviv.

But other events didn't pan out. A planned trip to the West Bank for a side-by-side concert with a Palestinian orchestra was canceled because of security concerns, according to Fleur. A visit to work with and perform for Palestinian students at the Beit Almusica school in the Israeli city of Shefa'amr did not happen.

For one specific demographic, a slice of Jewish Philadelphia, the trip was a success, its leader said.

"I think that the tour itself really underscored what the orchestra and the federation wanted to accomplish," Naomi Adler, CEO of the  Jewish Federation. "Sometimes tours are just about touristy things that people want to see in between concerts, and this was a concerted joint effort to highlight the various complexities of the Israeli culture as well as to engage in true cultural diplomacy."

The term gets thrown around a lot, but, as Adler defines it, cultural diplomacy means using "culture to talk about the tough issues of our time and opening up bonds and tightening bonds between diverse members of society."

"Definitely," she said, "the spark was made."