The New York Philharmonic yesterday canceled two Malaysian concerts because that Islamic nation's government asked the orchestra to drop a piece subtitled "A Hebrew Rhapsody."
The orchestra had originally agreed to replace the selection, Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo," subtitled "A Hebrew Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra," as the Malaysian government requested. That decision met with harsh criticism from American Jewish leaders when it was announced Thursday, and yesterday the orchestra reversed its position.
"The New York Philharmonic has decided with deep regret that in the absence of a positive response thus far to our urgent, heartfelt request to the Malaysian government to reinstate the Ernest Bloch work, 'Schelomo,' that it will be impossible to proceed with plans for our two concerts in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 2 and 3," yesterday's announcement stated.
Philharmonic officials would not comment further yesterday. The statement noted that proceeds of the concert were to have gone to PEMADAM, Malaysia's National Association Against Drug Abuse.
Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, was one of 14 cities to be visited by the 106-piece orchestra on its month-long Asian tour, which begins Aug. 18. The Philharmonic will perform in the other 13 cities as scheduled.
Located in southern Asia, Malaysia sides with Arab countries against Israel, has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state and bars its citizens from traveling there. An American embassy official was quoted as saying the Malaysians "seemed to have taken particular offense with the word 'Hebrew' in the subtitle" of Bloch's work.
The inclusion in the program of works by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, all Americans of Jewish descent, did not draw objections by the Malaysian government, and remained on the program.
The Malaysian government's displeasure with the Bloch piece was relayed to the Philharmonic by the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur and by Citibank, which since 1981 has been the principal sponsor of the orchestra's foreign tours.
"The Philharmonic statement speaks for itself," said a Citibank spokesman in New York. "Obviously it's a regrettable situation."
Last night a State Department spokesman said, "We have made contact with the Malaysian government, and told them of our strong reaction, and the strong reaction of the American public. We're in touch with the Malaysian government, trying to clarify the situation."
On Thursday the Philharmonic had announced it would replace the Bloch piece with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto for the Kuala Lumpur concert, according to the first news reports. This decision met with angry and emotional responses from American Jewish leaders.
"That free Americans should cravenly bend their knees to such musical censorship does violence to our democratic principles and our national traditions. It is cultural anti-Semitism," said Gary Zaslov, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith's New York Regional Board, of the original decision.
"It is repudiation of the international language of art and music which transcends all religious, national and cultural differences. Those capable of such censorship do not deserve to hear the Philharmonic," he said.
"The Malaysian action is reminiscent of the book burning of the Nazi regime," said Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
"Schelomo," which means "Solomon" in Hebrew, is Bloch's most popular work and one of the staples of the repertory for cello and orchestra -- the solo cello is meant to personify King Solomon. The single-movement work is about 20 minutes long.
Bloch, born in Switzerland in 1880, became an American citizen after moving here for the first time in 1916, the year he wrote "Schelomo." He died in 1959. Much of his music was consciously Jewish in character, and "Schelomo" is one of a series of works called the "Jewish Cycle."
Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's musical director, was on vacation in Los Angeles when the orchestra decided to drop the Bloch piece, but played a role in the decision, said Francis Little, a Philharmonic spokesman. Mehta returned to New York yesterday to aid in negotiations with the Malaysian government and in the Philharmonic's final decision to cancel the Malaysian concerts, Little said.
Musical censorship has been a familiar issue in Mehta's career. Also the music director of the Israel Philharmonic, he has endeavored to break that country's boycott, since 1948, of the works of Richard Wagner, a composer considered anti-Semitic.