Now in its eighth decade, the Israel Philharmonic has toured much of the world, performed with platoons of great soloists under platoons of great conductors, recorded on platoons of major labels, and played on defiantly through wars, rocket attacks and suicide bombs. It has been a piece of national identity since 1936 in a country that gained its independence only in 1948.
Born poor and Jewish in what was then Russian Poland, Huberman was prodigious enough at 10 to qualify for the attention of Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee of the Brahms concerto and a quasi-papal figure in his own right. An aristocratic Polish patron and the Austrian emperor each presented him with a violin. At 13, he was invited to share a concert billing with the aging diva Adelina Patti. A year later, he made his first American tour.
Hugely popular in Central Europe before and after the First World War, which turned him into an impassioned pan-European, he lived in Vienna from 1926 to 1936, where an admirer rented him an apartment in his palace. Until 1933, he was one of the few recitalists who could fill Berlin’s Philharmonic hall several times a season. Then came Hitler, concentration camps and the organized persecution of Jews, and the dismissal of several thousand orchestra players.
In late 1933, when the Nazi government seemed to relent on solo appearances by foreign Jews, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler urged Huberman to return for the opening of the Berlin Philharmonic’s 1934-35 season. “Someone must make a beginning,” he said.
The answer was no — not before German Jews, musicians and non-musicians, had been reinstated, Huberman replied. Addressed to Furtwangler, the letter appeared in full in the foreign media. A second letter, published in the international media a few years later, denounced not only Furtwangler but all of Germany’s non-Nazi intellectuals for the silence that effectively made them Hitler’s enablers.
Deeply concerned by the worsening scene in Germany, Huberman went to Palestine for 12 concerts in 1934. Two years later, the outbreak of violent Arab protest revealed that the famous Zionist axiom, “A land without people for a people without land,” was seriously flawed. But his version, “An audience without an orchestra for an orchestra without an audience,” turned out to be right on the mark.