Monday, October 22, 2012

Orchestra of Exiles: A Great Symphony for a Great Nation

They debuted under the baton of Arturo Toscanini and often worked with guest maestro Leonard Bernstein.  Founded as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) is one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.  Yet, their founding members were very nearly caught up in the tragedy of the Holocaust.  Bronisław Huberman’s tireless efforts to save Europe’s most accomplished and at-risk Jewish musicians and the subsequent creation of Israel’s national symphony are documented in Josh Aronson’s Orchestra of Exiles (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Huberman was a child prodigy who played around the world.  Yet, he was also a politically aware Zionist, who had no illusions about the state of Europe in the early 1930’s.  Obviously, the colonial territory the British called Palestine held great significance for him.  For years, Jewish immigrants had come there, hoping to realize the Zionist dream home by home.  However, the British occupiers halted Jewish immigration in response to Arab riots at a time when it was most needed.

Hoping to establish a symphony for the yet to be recognized nation, Huberman doggedly attempted to work around the various restrictions imposed by the British.  Indeed, much of his heroics involved the paper-chase for this or that travel document.  There was an important goal in sight.  As a principled anti-Fascist, Toscanini had agreed to conduct their premiere performances.

Exiles captures the spirit of a certain group of people at a certain point of time for whom life and art were intrinsically intertwined.  Indeed, the founding of the Symphony was critically important for the early émigrés, who dearly missed the refined culture of pre-war Europe.  Aronson maintains an appropriately respectful tone throughout, but he stages a number of unnecessary dramatic recreations.  For the most part, they are not very dramatic, aside from Alex Ansty’s agreeable appearance as the larger than life Toscanini.

With helpful context provided by an elite cast of interview subjects, including Itzhak Perlman, Indian-born IPO conductor and music director Zubin Mehta, and the Grammy Award-winning Joshua Bell (who currently performs on Huberman’s Stradivarius), Exiles is classy and authoritative.  Regrettably, it comes at a time when the civilized world is becoming less civilized.  Just over a year ago, an IPO performance in London was disrupted by extremists who were never prosecuted, partly due to the Royal Albert Hall’s refusal to pursue trespass charges (bad show chaps).  While conventional in its approach, Orchestra of Exiles is an elegant and informative film.  Recommended for classical music connoisseurs and those want (or need) a fuller appreciation of Israeli cultural history, it opens this Friday (10/19) in New York at the Quad Cinema.