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November 16, 2015

Israel Philharmonic concert a balm to frayed hearts and minds

Before Sunday night’s concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), there was a tense edge to the proceedings at Symphony Center. As patrons entered, ushers rushed to search all oversized bags and asked many patrons to leave all of their belongings at coat check.

Upon actually entering the hall, one’s eyes were immediately drawn to two huge American and Israeli flags hung prominently from the center of the terrace. Before the concert, IPO music director Zubin Mehta led the orchestra and a nearly capacity crowd in both nations’ national anthems. Most people in the audience knew the words to both.

To some degree, this level of security and showmanship is commonplace at all IPO concerts. As a cultural representative of Israel, the IPO is no stranger to controversy and makes headlines almost as often for political quagmires as for its world-class performances.

But given last week’s horrifying rash of terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, the extra security was a necessary precaution, if a sorely depressing one, and each nation’s anthem seemed to take on a defiant new meaning.

Mehta said it best when he addressed the members of the audience after intermission to say what was already on their minds: “The world is in a state of shock…. We cannot just keep playing concerts and let our lives go on. It is not possible.”

He went on to say that the evening’s performance of the Eroica symphony—Beethoven’s musical crusade against tyranny—would be dedicated to the victims of last week’s attacks.

Before the tribute, the concert began with Georgian composer Josef Bardanashvili’s A Journey to the End of the Millennium, taken from his 2005 opera of the same name. The symphonic poem can be thought of as a musical spin-off; as Bardanashvili explains in the program notes, the piece riffs off “mere fragments” from the opera to tell the story from the perspective of a secondary character. The result is an original composition with a sweeping narrative scope—very much in the tradition of earlier programmatic tone poems by Liszt and Richard Strauss.

This Journey is built upon tensions both interpersonal and musical: grating minor-second dissonances recur throughout, operating in turn as doleful wails, cries of confusion, and indignant anger. Lyrical interludes are broken after just a few phrases, ruptured by thundering unison drumbeats from an extended percussion section (including bongos).

The IPO played the piece with vigor and pathos, with impressive contributions from co-concertmaster David Radzynski, who played the unaffected, Sephardic violin solos that crop up throughout, and co-principal violist Roman Spitzer, whose lamenting lines began and concluded the piece.

The IPO doubly proved its potency with Maurice Ravel’s La valse, but perhaps too much so: In muscling its way through the piece, some details were lost. Owing to some imprecise entrances, the swirling beginning of the piece—from which Ravel’s self-described “apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” emerges, as though through fog—sounded more muddy than murky.

Like someone learning how to waltz, this La valse only got its feet off the ground once it had a few minutes to warm up. Despite a rough beginning, the performance only tightened from there, ending on a crisp, controlled note even as the music reached its frenzied climax.

A dignified but emphatic Eroica concluded the concert. The orchestra lent appropriate heft without seeming overwrought, and builds were sensitively contoured beginning to end. Like La valse, the second-movement funeral march had a slightly stumbling start, but it eventually emerged as the most deeply affecting episode of the night. The IPO exquisitely captured the breadth of emotion in this movement, from the dirge that opens it to the furious indignation that emerges later on. It was not unlike what many were undoubtedly feeling that night, and the victorious final coda of the fourth movement sounded, in spite of everything, like an affirmation of life.

Mehta was right: We could not blithely listen to music and pretend that nothing had happened. Instead of the music acting as a diversion from the real world, the IPO brought those emotions into the concert—our sorrow, our fear, our anger, and, ultimately, our resilience.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most impeccable Eroica, or the most idiosyncratic. But for many who were in the audience, it will probably remain the most memorable.

CORRECTION 11/19/15: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as the Israeli Philharmonic. The Maroon regrets the error.

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