Israeli orchestra confronts taboo at Wagner shrine

BAYREUTH, Germany Mon Jul 25, 2011 3:19pm IST

Roberto Paternostro conducts the Israel Chamber Orchestra during a rehearsal in Bayreuth July 24, 2011. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Roberto Paternostro conducts the Israel Chamber Orchestra during a rehearsal in Bayreuth July 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Dalder

BAYREUTH, Germany (Reuters) - The Israel Chamber Orchestra will play a work by Adolf Hitler's favourite composer Richard Wagner in Germany on Tuesday, challenging a seven-decade taboo in their homeland.

Israeli ensembles rarely play Wagner because of the seminal 19th century composer's anti-Semitism and the appropriation of his music by the Nazis, calling it insensitive to Holocaust survivors.

But orchestra conductor Roberto Paternostro said on Sunday it was time to separate Wagner's worldview from his music.

"Wagner's ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer," he told Reuters. "The aim is in the year 2011 to divide the man from his art."

The orchestra will play Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, an orchestral piece, in Bayreuth, Germany, famous for its annual Wagner opera festival in July and August.

It will be the first time an Israeli orchestra plays Wagner in Germany.

"It was a very difficult and rocky path to get to this point," Paternostro said earlier at a news conference. "There wasn't a moment when I had any doubts about this project."

"It was my greatest conviction to bring together these two sides -- Israel and Wagner," said Paternostro, who is Jewish and whose mother and other relatives were Holocaust survivors. "For me it wasn't much of a problem."

Attempts over the years by some musicians in Israel to perform Wagner's music have caused audience members to walk out in protest and have triggered heated public debate.

Wagner is also taboo on state-owned media in Israel which largely keep his work off the air.

TIME TO CONFRONT WAGNER

"I know that in Israel this isn't accepted," Paternostro said. "But many people have told me, 'it's time we confront Wagner', especially those in the younger generation."

Still, not enough time has passed for a performance in Israel, he said. The orchestra did not even rehearse the music in the country.

Even though Wagner died half a century before Hitler rose to power, the Nazi dictator was a fervent admirer and drew on the composer's writings in his own theories on Germanic racial purity.

Aside from anti-Semitic overtones in some of his operas, Wagner also penned a number of polemics raging against the corruption of music and the "German spirit" by Jews.

The unofficial ban on Wagner predates Israel's creation in 1948. The Israel Philharmonic under its former name, the Palestine Orchestra, imposed it in 1938 after Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany.

Dan Erdmann, a clarinettist in the Israel Chamber Orchestra, said his fellow musicians understood the history that is linked to Wagner's music.

"However, the conflicts and emotions associated with the history of Wagner are exactly those which make it so special for us," he said.

The orchestra's performance is part of a fringe festival here linked to the annual Wagner opera festival that attracts thousands of opera fanatics and celebrities each year.

They will also play a piece by Israeli composer Zvi Avni and music by German-born Felix Mendelssohn and Austrian-born Gustav Mahler, two of the most prominent Jewish-born composers.

(Editing by David Cowell)