To hear and see Itzhak Perlman perform is like witnessing divinity. It’s majestic and magnificent, and not from this world.

The Tel Aviv-born virtuoso’s hands, supple and large, fly across his violin’s bow. His technique is irreverent yet methodical. He can make the violin tell the sweetest, saddest stories, enchanting audiences around the world. At the same time, he comes across personally as a teddy bear — his large frame topped with a mop of grey hair, all warm smiles and hearty laughs.

Perlman — who contracted polio at a young age, and whose family was so poor his father was said to have carried him around because they couldn’t afford a wheelchair – is now a household name, synonymous with violin mastery.

On Friday, he joined the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and its eminent music director, Zubin Mehta, for a dress rehearsal for their Saturday performance, kicking off a week of celebrations marking the return of the IPO to its newly renovated home at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium (previously the Mann Auditorium) at the Heichal Hatarbut.

Perlman and Mehta — the IPO’s lean and boisterous maestro whose conducting style is vivid and colorful — practiced like old, familiar friends. “It should be a crescendo after the repeat,” one said; “it’s a forte piano after the cadenza!” the other added.

It’s only natural. The two have played together for years and were both considered part of the “Jewish music mafia,” a term that poked fun, albeit pejoratively, at Jews’ leading roles in classical music in recent decades — Mehta by virtue of his connection to Israel, along with Arthur Rubinstein, Pinchas Zukerman, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and James Levine, to name a few. Without their approval, the saying went, a person couldn’t make it in the classical music world.

Zubin Mehta, right, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, chats with violinst Itzhak Perlman after their dress rehearsal Friday (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Zubin Mehta, right, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, chats with violinst Itzhak Perlman after their dress rehearsal Friday (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

It’s hard to find an emblem of cultural, national pride that burns as bright as Israel’s success in classical music.

The symphony has always been a symbol of Jews’ determination and their efforts to stand against evils. Later, that same pinnacle of righteousness became a target of BDS protesters decrying Israel’s purported injustices.

The IPO rose from the ashes of Europe’s anti-Semitism and fascism — and there was always a political backdrop. David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency at the time, initially refused to grant Bronislaw Huberman — the Polish-Jewish violinist who founded The Palestine Orchestra, the precursor to the IPO, in 1936 — immigration documents for musicians because he wanted “workers” to come instead.

Huberman called the orchestra his “fist to fascism.” Arturo Toscanini, one of the period’s finest conductors and a staunch critic of fascism in Italy, dropped everything to come to Palestine in 1936 and conduct the symphony’s inaugural concerts. 

Huberman’s novice orchestra then played to Jewish troops as the battle for Jerusalem raged during the War of Independence in 1948. Bernstein, America’s beloved composer, himself conducted the orchestra while shots were fired from Egypt in the near distance during the Six Day War of 1967. 

The orchestra also embarked on a historic tour of Poland in the 1980s – a momentous occasion for an ensemble that was built by many who escaped the Nazis — and, perhaps most relevant to its present-day composition, was joined by new Jewish players from the former Soviet Union after the walls of communism came tumbling down.

During the Second Intifada, a who’s who of classical music virtuosos – Joshua Bell, Kurt Masur, Maxim Vengerov, Lang Lang, and others – came to support the IPO and went ahead with concerts despite the tumult and terror.

‘Memory Lane’

Zubin Mehta’s life story, and that of Israel and the IPO, have been intertwined, as mirrored paths and as friends, for over 50 years.

Mehta, a Parsi Indian from Bombay, is a member of the Zoroastrian community, which traces its lineage to pre-Muslim Persia. Mehta was 25-years-old when he first filled in as a substitute conductor for the IPO in 1961. Although he came by chance, “it was love at first sight,” Mehta said during an interview ahead of the 75th anniversary of the orchestra, in December 2011. Then, in 1966, he was called back to conduct the orchestra again, and since then he’s been back nearly every year.

What draws him to Israel is “knowing the history of the country, all the crises they’ve gone through, and that I’ve gone through it with them,” he said Friday after the dress rehearsal. “It doesn’t mean I agree with everything Israel does — but I’m a friend of the people. I love the country.”

Mehta became the IPO’s music director for life, and he has led the orchestra around the world, including to his native India. Last year they played more than 150 concerts around the world — in Europe, the US, China, Korea, Thailand, and South America. Mehta, a former music director of the prestigious New York Philharmonic, lives in Los Angeles and mainly divides his time between Florence, Seville, and Tel Aviv.

Still, there are many other countries he’d like the IPO to play in. “I wish we could go to Eygpt; it’s had peace with Israel since 1979, but we haven’t gone there,” he said, “and we were invited to go to Jordan but that didn’t happen either.”

He said he goes to the West Bank often, as an Indian, and that many members of the orchestra would love to go and teach in Ramallah, but that at this moment, it’s not possible. “If that were changed in the future, I know that we’d have many musicians of the philharmonic volunteering,” he said, adding that he also hopes to have an Arab musician join the orchestra.

Mehta has stuck by the orchestra through many difficult periods. He’s held fundraisers and concerts and convinced famous musicians to come play in Tel Aviv. “There are many things the government does that I don’t agree with,” he said again, “but I do this for the people. They need it. They love it. And I do what I can.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Charles Bronfman Auditorium, home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in Tel Aviv. From left: Charles Bronfman, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and the ensemble's Musical Director for Life Zubin Mehta (photo credit: Shai Skiff)

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Charles Bronfman Auditorium, home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in Tel Aviv. From left: Charles Bronfman, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and the ensemble’s Musical Director for Life Zubin Mehta (photo credit: Shai Skiff)

The IPO’s new home at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, a project Mehta initiated, is also a status symbol for his world-class ensemble. The new wood-lined hall has state-of-the-art acoustics, on par with top venues in Europe, Asia, and the US. It cost the IPO $35 million (NIS 140 million), to which the municipality contributed $19 million (NIS 70 million) and Charles Bronfman donated $10 million (NIS 36 million). The underdog narrative, of the struggling young state of Israel, seems to have been checked at the door. 

But the orchestra Mehta leads still plays with the energetic, fervent tone that made it famous. The eclectic mix of musicians — a vibrant, diverse group melded by common experiences — still carry a discernable hunger under their refined techniques.

Saturday’s repertoire includes Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which Mehta described as a piece “that we’ve grown up with; it’s one of ours.” The symphony seems fitting for the orchestra, whose unique sound is at once dark and warm. “We’ve played it literally everywhere in the world,” he said, explaining that it’s a great selection for the orchestra to show the public the wonderful acoustics of the new hall — its “panorama of sound, intimacy, and majesty.”

Saturday’s performance also includes a violin concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven, to be played with Perlman, and a modern Israeli piece by Noam Sheriff, which was conducted by Bernstein when the hall first opened.

“We’re going to be heading down memory lane,” Mehta said, wistfully.