Maestro Yoel Levi, former musical director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, returned to his roots to open a new season for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
For almost a half century this orchestra, founded in 1936 by the Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who saved Jewish musicians from the Nazis, had been under the direction of maestro Zubin Mehta.
Last month, the Indian-born conductor stepped down. Levi, recorded as the first Israeli to serve as principal guest conductor of the Israel orchestra in 2001, started this new post-Mehta era with nine concerts.
“It is a great privilege to conduct immediately after Mehta, whom I knew and respected all my professional life.”
Levi long remained a guest conductor of the Israel orchestra. As recently as February, he conducted the orchestra on a series of concerts for a U.S. tour. He has deep spiritual and artistic connections with the orchestra. He was a member of the youth orchestra in Israel before leaving Tel Aviv to join The Cleveland Orchestra with Lorin Maazel in 1988. Since then, he has returned regularly to the Israel orchestra to perform.
Among the pieces Levi chose to conduct for his recent concerts was the “War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten.
This monumental work, written in 1962 by the English composer, was once described by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as “the greatest work of the 20th century.”
Britten knew the ravages of war very well and maybe more so because he was a pacifist and conscientious objector. When World War II hostilities ended in 1945, he accompanied violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin to the recently liberated Germany for a concert tour that took them to concentration camps. The idea of writing a large liturgical work first came to Britten after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. So he was ready when, in 1956, he was chosen to compose a requiem in memory of all victims.
The “War Requiem” was played in 1962 for the inauguration of the Coventry Cathedral in England, built near the ruins of the old one destroyed by Nazi bombardments.
The piece was scored for soprano, tenor and baritone, large choir, boys’ choir, and two orchestras, a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra. With more than 260 musicians and singers on stage, Levi performed in some of Israel’s main cities: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
All of the concerts were sold out in spite of the size of the country and the complexity of the work. That’s in contrast with the fact that other monumental works by more famous and popular classical composers, such as Beethoven, in countries much bigger than Israel, are performed only once or twice, Levi said.
The “War Requiem” seemed to evoke strong emotions from the Israeli audience, which is still so well aware of the tragedies of the war. Levi preserved the highly spiritual traditions of this sacred music.
Back in Atlanta, Levi will return to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to perform for its 75th anniversary gala concert March 11, 2020 with master violinist Itzhak Perlman.