Some are born to heroism. Some achieve heroism. But most heroes have their heroism thrust upon them. A recent film and a recent death are reminders of how political contingency and moral challenge can turn artists into civic beacons and great music into a declaration of independence.
Josh Aronson’s film “Orchestra of Exiles,” on view Monday at the Goethe-Institut in Washington as part of this year’s Jewish Film Festival, shows how the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman saved as many as a thousand lives from Hitler by creating the Palestine, now Israel, Philharmonic. The death of the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya is, incidentally, a reminder of how the Soviet Union’s loss was Washington’s gain.
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.
Between 1934 and 1936, Huberman recruited 53 players from Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Holland, 20 of them ex-principals. He toured the United States and mobilized Albert Einstein for the obligatory Waldorf Astoria dinner to raise a desperately needed $80,000. With the help of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, he outflanked both the British Home Office and David Ben-Gurion’s Jewish Agency to get permanent immigration certificates for his players.
He recruited the great Arturo Toscanini, not Jewish but as passionately anti-Hitler as Huberman was, to conduct the debut concerts. Within weeks, the new orchestra had been heard in concert or rehearsal by 15,000 of Palestine’s 400,000 resident Jews.
Aronson’s film takes dutiful note of Huberman’s life as prodigy and virtuoso. But only on reaching Palestine does it become genuinely interesting.
Reenactment scenes, as inevitable in documentary film these days as imaginary dialogue in nonfiction, are not the film’s strength. Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony is mysteriously identified as his Italian concerto. If clips of Toscanini in action look remarkably like scenes from a documentary produced by the U.S. Office of War Information in 1943, this is because they are.
Yet the film’s virtues are also hard to miss. Cameos by Ivry Gitlis, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Leon Botstein, reminiscences of second- and third-generation orchestra players, and interviews with surviving contemporaries cover a multitude of soft spots. Archival stills recall a place where the Promised Land showed unimagined promise, and the best of times met the worst of times in a minimally watered landscape of cars, camels, Bauhaus apartment buildings and unpaved streets.
A reminder as welcome today as in 1936 of what courage, imagination and a sense of mission can accomplish in even the most improbable times and places, the film might also remind us that the artist-hero, like stormy weather, can happen anywhere. That includes the land of the free.
In 1939, long before Vishnevskaya took up residence here, Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution to let the magnificent contralto Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall. Although Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, was a member, the organization said no. Singing for an integrated audience of up to 4,000 was not yet among Washington’s self-evidently unalienable rights.
Then came Plan B. With an assist from the White House and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, it was agreed that Anderson would sing instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An audience estimated at 75,000, plus a radio audience in the millions, was there to hear her. A moment as iconic as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s a quarter-century later, it can still be seen, heard and felt on YouTube.
But unsurprisingly, the artist-hero appears most often in the lands of the unfree. After Spain’s ghastly three-year civil war ended with the victory of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, the cellist Pablo Casals had to fend for himself. With no Plan B, he opted for self-exile till Franco was gone. He even refused to play in countries that recognized Franco’s government.
As normality returned, younger colleagues like Isaac Stern scrambled to play with Casals in odd corners of France, Puerto Rico and Vermont, where they regarded him with the sort of awe otherwise reserved for Einstein and Albert Schweitzer.
In 1961, Casals agreed to play at the Kennedy White House. In 1976, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a post-Franco Spain honored him with a commemorative stamp. But he would only return in 1979, when he was reburied in his Catalonian hometown four years after Franco’s death and six years after his own.
By this time, Vishnevskaya and her cellist husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, a figure every bit as Olympian as Casals, were in exile, too. Their presence would honor Washington from 1977 to 1994.
A Soviet product in every sense, Vishnevskaya had survived every kind of domestic squalor and post-revolutionary horror, including an alcoholic father who had gone after her mother with an ax. Neighbors disappeared in Stalin’s purges. The 900-day German siege of Leningrad killed at least a half-million fellow citizens. Two marriages failed. An only son died in early childhood.
Yet, as she spelled out in a devastating memoir published in 1984, superstardom only made Soviet cynicism, corruption and exploitation more oppressive. Like a musical call girl, she was summoned to perform at A-list Party parties. A post-Stalinist prime minister offered Rostropovich superior housing in return for his wife’s, well, companionship. A 46-day tour of the United States demanded four “Aidas,” a “Butterfly” and 11 concerts of her, and 25 concerts of him.
“Over there, everything was backward,” she explained years later in a U.S. interview. “We were actors in life and human beings onstage.” Dollar earnings went to Gosconcert, the state concert monopoly.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, leading to associations with the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov, was the game-changer. Until his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn lived in the Rostropovich country house. Declared “ideological renegades,” the couple followed him westward a few years later. In 1978, the Soviet Union revoked their citizenship.
It was restored only in 1990, a year after Rostropovich flew to Berlin to play solo Bach as the wall came down. A year later, he rushed to the support of the embattled Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.
Cello in hand, his statue now stands at the corner of Bryusov and Yeliseyevsky alleys in central Moscow. “I’m proud that I knew Rostropovich,” said President Vladimir Putin, apparently without a blush. “Such people, without a doubt, made up and make up the pride of our country.”
Mourned as well as honored, Vishnevskaya followed Rostropovich in death by five years. Shortly before she died Dec. 11, Putin awarded her the Order of Merit to the Fatherland, Russia’s highest honor. He then laid a wreath on her coffin. At the sixth annual Rostropovich festival in Baku, Azerbaijan, the cellist’s home town, the conductor, Zubin Mehta, visibly in tears, dedicated a fragment of Verdi’s “Masked Ball” to her. Many in the audience cried with him.
Unlike Rostropovich, Huberman left no public statue. Unlike Vishnevskaya, he left no foundation for young performers. Though generous with time and money, he was only incidentally a teacher. In 1982, four great players — Stern, Gitlis, Ida Haendel and Shlomo Mintz — were invited to Jerusalem to commemorate the centennial of his birth. But the Israel Philharmonic is his monument, and Aronson’s film a salutary reminder of what it meant and how it got there.
Schoenbaum is a freelance writer.
The DCJCC’s 23rd Annual Jewish Film Festival runs through Jan. 13 with 55 films representing 15 countries at 14 venues. The lineup can be found here. “Orchestra of Exiles” will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday at the Goethe-Institut, 814 Seventh St. NW.