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Wagner festival opens with taboo-shattering Israeli performance

The Local · 25 Jul 2011, 17:42

Published: 25 Jul 2011 17:42 GMT+02:00

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The annual tribute to the works of the 19th-century composer, a fervent anti-Semite who later inspired Nazi leaders, will include for the first time a concert by musicians from Israel, which maintains an unwritten Wagner ban.

On Monday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet led a parade of political and business elites mounting Bayreuth's famed Green Hill to the concert hall built in 1876.

Audiences were keenly awaiting the opening performance of "Tannhäuser," a romantic opera considered the seminal work of Wagner's younger years, but the

Israel Chamber Orchestra's concert Tuesday was the hottest ticket in town.

The musicians are scheduled to perform Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" during a concert otherwise dominated by works by Jewish composers including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn. Performances of Wagner's work are almost unheard of in Israel.

When Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an excerpt from "Tristan und Isolde" in Jerusalem in 2001, dozens of audience members stormed out.

Israel Chamber Orchestra first clarinettist, 27-year-old Dan Erdmann, said he had attended that concert with his father.

"(Barenboim) indicated to those who wanted to leave to do so but at the same time, the orchestra was ready to play for those who chose to stay," he told news agency AFP. "Thirty or forty people left, some of them shouting and cursing and slamming the doors. The rest stayed and gave a standing ovation at the end."

Ten years on, the Israeli concert is not part of the official Bayreuth Festival programme but it has nonetheless set some tempers flaring.

"The decision of the Israel Chamber Orchestra sadly represents an act of moral failure and a disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner," said Ela

Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and

their Descendants.

"Nobody suggests that Wagner's music not be played. But the public Jewish refusal to do so was a powerful message of indignation to the world that exposed Wagner's odious anti-Semitic ideas and those who championed them."

The city of Bayreuth and the Wagner family, which notoriously courted Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, are meanwhile trying to break with the past. Bayreuth plans to start a Jewish cultural centre while Katharina Wagner, the 32-year-old great-granddaughter of the composer and co-director of the festival, has pledged to open the family archives revealing the extent of her ancestors' entanglement with the Nazis.

Felix Gothart, a leader of the Bayreuth Jewish community, which now has about 500 members, twice the number in 1933 when Hitler came to power, was also critical of the decision to invite the Israeli musicians to play this year.

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"As soon as a single person was offended by the fact that Wagner is being played by Jews in Germany it would have been better to keep a lower profile," he told AFP.

However the president of Israel's fledgling Wagner society said he was delighted that an Israeli orchestra would be performing in Bayreuth, saying it could represent a new beginning.

"I hope that the concert will mark a new step towards the lifting of the taboo in Israel against Wagner, one of the principal composers of the 19th century, and that he will soon by performed freely in our country," Jonathan Livni said.

The Bayreuth Festival runs to August 28.


The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

22:49 July 25, 2011 by vonSchwerin
I understand the long-standing taboo in Israel on Wagner, but I am curious: do Israeli publishing houses publish books by Nietzsche? Do Israeli museums display paintings by Degas?

Yes, Wagner was a fulminating anti-Semite, and yes, the Nazis used and misused his music. But can't Jewish music lovers and musicologists appreciate the artistic and technical brilliance of his work -- and listen to his music live -- while also acknowledging the great flaws in his life?
23:57 July 25, 2011 by catjones
An orchestra playing concert music...imagine that.
02:07 July 26, 2011 by wood artist
At one time it seemed as if only the Soviet Union thought music was political, and, oddly enough, those presumptions had little to do with the politics of the composer. Now, it seems, the exact opposite is true.

I can understand some "songs" that are, and will forever be, inappropriate, but primarily because of their lyrics. Wagner is not necessarily my style (I'm not Jewish) but I recognize his brilliance and "enjoy" some of his work. Much of the world's treasure of art...books, music, visual art included...was created by people who didn't share appropriate political views. Can't we divorce those from the art?

07:00 July 26, 2011 by Klaipeda
Well, if Wagner is a problem for Israel, then Shakespeare must be too for his play The Merchant of Venice and its evil protagonist Shylock the Jew. Then again, considering European history maybe Russia has a few bones to pick with Germany and Poland with Russia. Some English historical characters may bother Germans and Russians may bother Ukrainians. Austria may bother Italians and vice versa. Lithuainians, Latvians and Estonians may be bothered by Russia and probably vice versa. Belgium might be bothered by Gernany and the Czechs too. Austria might not like some historical Czech figures.

After two world wars and one thousand years of inter ethnic fighting, if the rest of Europe can put its selfrighteousness to the side, then maybe Jews can do the same. Several million Ukrainians that were starved to death in the 1930's by Bolshevik Jewish leaders may not have wonderful things to say about the Jewish people.
13:39 July 26, 2011 by ECSNatale
What a better world is would be if art and culture were admired simply for their beauty alone rather than the politics of their creators. Should I not read or appreciate the art of anyone who ever did anything abhorrent? Then I guess humanity had better start a big bonfire because we'd be left with very, very little to enjoy.
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