Music strains Holocaust debate

German orchestra plays Wagner piece for Israeli audience

— World-renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim delighted much of his Israeli audience with a piece by Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler's favorite composer � but he also provoked a sharp debate that carried on Sunday after the music stopped.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has observed an informal ban on Wagner's music because of its use in Nazi propaganda before and during World War II. And Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was among those who criticized Barenboim's decision to perform Wagner on Saturday night at the Israel Festival, the country's most prestigious arts forum.


AP FIle Photo

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Director Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Staatskapelle Symphony in a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York in this Dec. 12, 2000, file photo. Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle played the overture from Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde" as an encore Saturday in the Israel Festival in Jerusalem.

"I would rather it hadn't been played," Sharon said Sunday at a meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav. "There are a lot of people in Israel for whom this issue is very hard, and it is perhaps still too early."

After a debate in Israel that lasted months, Barenboim, who is Jewish, agreed that he and the Berlin Staatskapelle would not perform Wagner, the 19th-century German composer.

But after completing the scheduled program, Barenboim turned to the audience Saturday and asked if they wanted him to play a Wagner piece as an encore.

"If you don't want it, we'll go quietly," Barenboim said. Most of the audience at the Jerusalem International Conference Center broke into enthusiastic applause � but a small minority shouted in protest, launching a 30-minute debate.

"You can be angry with me, but please don't be angry with the orchestra or the festival management," Barenboim said, stressing that the proposal was his alone. Barenboim said those who would be offended could leave, but he urged them not to ruin the performance for the others.

Emotional extremes

Some in the crowd walked out, and others shouted, "fascist," "concentration camp music," "it's a disgrace" and other insults.

The German orchestra listened � grasping the tenor of the debate but presumably not the specifics � as Barenboim debated in Hebrew with the Israeli audience.

When the music began � an overture from Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde" � a small number of protesters banged doors and shouted "no." But after a few minutes the noise stopped and the overture was completed without further interruptions.

Most of the audience, which numbered closed to 2,000, gave Barenboim a standing ovation afterward. But there were plenty of critics outside the hall.

"What Barenboim did was brazen, arrogant, uncivilized and insensitive," Jerusalem's Mayor Ehud Olmert told Israel's army radio on Sunday.

The mayor said the city would have to reconsider its relations with Barenboim, who was born Argentina and now lives in Berlin. Barenboim grew up in Israel and returns periodically to conduct.

"We will urge all the Israeli orchestras to boycott Daniel Barenboim," said Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the U.S.-based group that tracks Nazis.

At the concert, there were Holocaust survivors who were both for and against playing Wagner.

"Wagner was a giant anti-Semite, but he was also a great musician," said Michael Avraham, an engineer and a Holocaust survivor. "Of course I'm against his views, but I'm not against his music."

Program revisions

In the original festival program, Barenboim was to conduct the first act of Wagner's opera "Die Walkuere," with three singers, including the tenor Placido Domingo.

The festival's management backed down, however, when its decision rekindled the long-running debate over whether Wagner's music should be performed publicly in Israel. Barenboim eventually agreed to play Schumann's Symphony No. 4 and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," instead.

Wagner died 50 years before Hitler came to power in Germany, but his music inspired Nazi cultural propaganda. Wagner's works have occasionally been played on Israeli state radio, but have never been performed live without stirring controversy.

In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra tried to play a piece from "Tristan und Isolde," also as an encore, but a Holocaust survivor jumped onto the stage, opened his shirt and showed scars inflicted in a Nazi concentration camp. Conductor Zubin Mehta halted the performance.


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