Orchestra of Exiles: The Story of the Israel Philharmonic

“Orchestra of Exiles: The Story of the Israel Philharmonic Josh Aronson, the director of the forthcoming documentary, talks to Stan Metzger (SSM)


Josh Aronson


Josh Aronson has worn many hats during his life: photographer and correspondent for Time/Life; and director of a children’s series for television, MTV videos, hundreds of commercials and many documentaries, including Sound and Fury which was nominated for an Academy Award. He is also an accomplished pianist who plays regularly in chamber groups and is a co-founder of the “Telluride MusicFest,” a festival of chamber music held each year in Colorado. His latest project is a documentary entitled Orchestra of Exiles: The Story of the Israel Philharmonic. This film covers the critical years in the mid to late 1930s when the Polish-born violin virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman set down his instrument to plan and realize a new symphony orchestra in Palestine and, at the same time, save over a thousand Jews from certain death.

[A promo for the film can be found at AronsonFilms.com]

Bronislaw Huberman (1888-1947) was born in Poland and at the age of seven gave his first concert, playing the Spohr Second Violin Concerto. He was perhaps the greatest violin prodigy of his time and received glowing mention from people like Eduard Hanslick, one of the most influential and most difficult to please music critics of the day: “The youthful artist achieved a success so brilliant that it could not be exceeded by the brightest star in the galaxy of artists. It is not his precocity as such that characterized the display of his genius, but rather his phenomenal endowment of musical inspiration and musical capacity.”

Brahms’ biographer Max Kalbeck tells of the composer’s response to the 14-year-old Huberman’s performance of Brahms’ violin concerto: “As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.’ ”

Bronislaw Huberman (1902)

Our mutual connection to this story is the executive producer of the documentary, Dorit Straus. Aronson questioned me first as to how I met Dorit.

Stan Metzger We were introduced by a mutual friend at a reception. Somehow we started talking about our ages, that we were born in the same year, and she asked what I did. When I told her I was a music critic she asked if I had ever heard of a violinist named Bronislaw Huberman. His name sounded like another musician’s name, so I said that I vaguely had, and she proceeded to tell me this incredible story about Huberman. And the thing that strikes me the most is, no one seems to know who he is. I’ve mentioned his name to other music critics and musicologists and no one knows anything about him.

Josh Aronson I was astounded when I heard the story. Huberman was such a huge violinist in his day, and no one has ever heard of him.

SM How did you get involved with this project?

JA Dorit and I are amateur pianists. She came to me one day and said that she had been on a subway and had met a man who was carrying a double violin case. He offered his seat to her and she said, “No, no, you have a double violin case. You should keep the seat so it doesn’t get jostled.” He said, “How did you know it is a double violin case?” and she replied, “Because my father was the concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic.” He asked her, “Who was that?” And she said, “David Grunschlag.”  He then asked her, ”Do you know what I have here? It’s Huberman’s Stradivarius.”  “Oh,” she replied, “I know who you are, you’re Joshua Bell.”

One thing led to another, and she got this idea to get Joshua Bell to play that violin at a benefit concert in the Grand Synagogue of Vienna as a memorial for Huberman and her father. Dorit, being very proactive, was able to get Bell to agree to it, and then he raised all the money for this concert that she was going to do in March of 2009, I believe. She asked me if I would come to Vienna to make a film of it, and I said, “No, that’s not a film, that’s an event. I could help you find a cameraman in Vienna and he could document it, and then you could have a DVD, put it on the shelf for the rest of your life and that would be that.”

About a month later, I ran into Dorit in the lobby of the Fisher Center at Bard College in upstate New York. We were going to the same concert, and I asked her how the concert was going with Joshua Bell. She then told me a little more about Bronislaw Huberman, the owner of the violin that Josh Bell now has. It’s an extraordinary story of how a single man discovered, when Hitler started firing all the great Jewish musicians in the orchestras in Europe, that he had a way to help them and, at the same time, to help Palestine. She then went on to tell the story of the founding of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. And I said to her, “Dorit, [laugh] Josh Bell in Vienna is not the movie. This story is the movie.” So that’s how I got involved in the film.

SM How many people are still alive who actually knew him?

JA There aren’t many. There’s no one alive today who was in the original orchestra which started in 1936. There are several musicians who joined in 1938. Zeev Steinberg is one who’s on the promo. He’s 93 and remembers everything. I’ve interviewed him twice, and he’s a wonderful man. There are people like Ivry Gitlis, who  first played for Huberman when he was seven in the lobby of the King David Hotel. Huberman helped him get a violin teacher in Paris, and Ivry’s been living there ever since. Then there’s Roman Totenberg, a violinist in his 90s who teaches in Boston. He remembers Huberman from the ’40s in America. There are very few people who can tell of witnessing the events of 1933 and 1936.

SM Huberman was known to have a very strong personality, unpredictable in his daily life as well as in his concerts. He never really reached the heights in America that he reached in Europe and elsewhere. Why do you think that was?

JA There are several questions here. He was such a phenomenon in Europe from 1895 and for the rest of his life. He wasn’t hugely respected in America although he performed many, many concerts here with spectacular reviews.

SM But he was unpredictable.

JA Unpredictable. Well, for a couple of reasons. He was a very nervous player. He had stage fright and sometimes it was debilitating. He would forget his music, walk off stage to get it and come back. Oddly, he was very relaxed about that. I think sometimes his playing was unpredictable, as you said. He was a player who was very much in the moment.  He was a very soulful player, and his playing was a mirror of what was going on within him. He was a sensitive, eccentric man. Listen, the fact is that someone gets out on stage and has fingerprints that identify his playing; a recognizable, individual style already sets him apart. He was a great stylist, a romantic player. He had such a rough and raw sound, I think, that made him very distinctive. And audiences loved his stage presence. Why Americans didn’t go for him could have been the style. Maybe we weren’t as open to it in America as the Europeans were. It’s hard to say.

SM He was an odd personality in the sense that initially he was very self-centered, very petty in terms of money. Yet somehow he made this transition to give up all he had and do this thing in Palestine. He also was clearly prescient. He knew ahead of time what was going on.

JA He, unlike most people, had what you said, prescience: an idea of what was coming in Europe. Some people say that his main interest was just forming the orchestra in Palestine. Others say that’s not true, that he was interested in saving Jews. The conclusion I’ve made is why not both? Clearly he was able to start an orchestra that he was passionate about while saving Jews. And in fact if his only interest was to start an orchestra, he would have stopped in 1936 after the orchestra began. But in fact he continued helping people. We’ve interviewed Rosie Grunschlag, who is Dorit’s aunt. Rosie and her sister Toni were stuck in Vienna in 1939, and Huberman was able to get them out through a great effort of his own.

[For Dorit Straus’s full story see: Dorit Straus]

SM I read that it was very, very difficult at the time to get any kind of visa, particularly one that would allow entry into the British Mandate of Palestine.

JA Well, the story of how he got certificates of immigration for the artists is a very complex one. He had to negotiate with the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which gave out immigration certificates that were designated by the British. The British at various times would allow different numbers of Jews to come in. There were three different kinds of certificates as far as I can tell. There were capitalist certificates: if you had £250 of capital, you could come. But that was true everywhere. 30, 40, or 50,000 people were able to leave Germany in 1933-1936 just because they had money. And if you had money, you could go to France, Switzerland, England or America. But the vast majority of people in Germany did not have money, so they were stuck. They couldn’t do anything.

Huberman went after the greatest musicians who were Jewish, those who had been fired in Germany, Poland, Hungary, etc. From the Jewish Agency he was able to get around 50 to 70 immigration certificates. But in April 1936, when they were about to emigrate, there were the largest Arab uprisings in a decade. As a result, the British immediately shut down immigration or severely limited it as a result of pressure from the Arab League. Huberman negotiated mightily with the Jewish Agency. At the time it was run by none other than Ben Gurion who was not very sympathetic to European musicians getting full immigration certificates, permanent certificates into Palestine. Ben Gurion suggested these capitalist certificates, but Huberman turned that down because only select violinists and cellists had instruments valuable enough to be considered capital. None of the others did. So he turned that down, saying that everybody had to get the same certificate.

Then the Jewish Agency offered temporary certificates, saying that after two years they would reevaluate whether these musicians could stay. Huberman again said no, that these people are leaving their jobs and their apartments. They’re moving their entire families to come to Palestine. They need the assurance that they’ll be able to stay here. Then they offered some convoluted combination of temporary with evaluative certificates in which they would look at each situation separately at some point. Again Huberman turned it down, feeling that he was being jerked around. So he wrote a letter to Chaim Weizmann that basically said: “I am at your mercy. The Jewish Agency is lying to me. They promised me certificates, and now they’re pulling them away. If we don’t get these musicians into Palestine in order to start the Palestine Symphony, it will be a black eye on Zionism.”

Huberman assured Weizmann that the world would look very negatively on events if he was not able to start this orchestra. The New York Times had reported that it was going to happen. Toscanini had agreed to come twice, but had changed his dates because of the Arab riots. Huberman was able to put a lot of leverage on Weizmann, who really agreed with the importance of it. Somehow, we don’t know exactly how, they were able to get the London Prime Minister’s office or the British High Commissioner to Palestine to issue 50 certificates for Huberman, to be used at his discretion. This was unheard of. They also gave certificates to the Tel Aviv Music Academy to bring in gifted children. It was clear that Arthur Wauchope, the High Commissioner, was culturally attuned, saw the importance of culture in Palestine, and was supportive of the need to bring highly trained, gifted Jews to Palestine.

SM How was he able to get the likes of a Toscanini to lead the orchestra in its first two seasons?

JA Well, the connection with Toscanini is pure politics. Toscanini was a well-known anti-fascist. He hated Nazism. He had turned down Hitler’s personal invitation to come back to Bayreuth in 1934. He would not go and the world acknowledged him for it. Koussevitzky published a letter thanking him. Others did the same. At a concert in Italy Mussolini requested that Toscanini play not only the Italian national anthem but the Fascist national anthem. Toscanini refused. When Mussolini realized Toscanini had not done what he had asked, he and his entourage walked out noisily. Toscanini went back to his hotel that night and was beaten up by fascist thugs. So that cemented his hostility and his hatred for fascism. He was very vocal, and he was proactive in writing about it and in not doing anything for Nazism, avoiding Germany.

Toscanini and Huberman at the first concert of
the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (1936)

As for Huberman there was a dual purpose. He approached Toscanini because Toscanini represented anti-fascism, and Toscanini agreed to do it because he and Huberman both knew that the first orchestra of exiled Jews in Palestine would be a great orchestra. A) they were the greatest players in Europe, and B) it was a testament to the quality of the Jewish people. It would build the prestige of Jews. It would be fighting fascism with music. They didn’t have machine guns, but they did have violins.

SM Going back to Huberman, we talked of the connection between Huberman’s Stradivarius and Joshua Bell. Can you explain?

JA All Stradivarius violins that are any good usually go from one great violinist to another great violinist. There is a history behind each one. This particular violin is called the “Ex-Gibson, ex-Huberman Strad,” which means it was in the possession of a violinist named Gibson, I guess in the 19th century. A count in the late 1890s or early 20th century gave Huberman this Stradivarius as a gift, and Huberman played it as his principal instrument. In 1936, he was playing in Carnegie Hall, and the violin was stolen from his dressing room and disappeared. No one saw it for 50 years. It was recovered when the man who stole it admitted to his wife, on his deathbed, that the violin was stolen and that she should get it back into the world. And that’s a story in itself: she did a little double-cross with Lloyd’s of London. She actually got paid a fee to return it.

Huberman playing “Ex-Gibson Strad” (1934)

SM Oh, a finder’s fee?

JA Yes, a finder’s fee of $30,000, I believe. Lloyd’s of London didn’t mind so much because they resold the violin for $3,000,000 to a violinist who played on it for many years. He was in a quartet, and Bell knew the principal violinist of this quartet. He played the violin on more than one occasion, and always admired it. Bell was in London (I’m not sure what year) and he was looking through violin shops, and he went to a famous shop and they said, “Try this one.” Bell played this particular Strad and loved it. He played it that night at the Proms and was never without the violin again. He sold his own instrument to buy this Huberman.

SM   Could you tell another story that seems to define Huberman’s personality: the plane crash?

JA In 1937 Huberman was in a small plane, traveling to Sumatra. There was a plane crash. Apparently he broke bones in both wrists and hands. The prognosis was that he would never play again. But with sheer tenacity and force of will, he exercised and pushed and pushed and pushed, and within a year he was able to make a comeback. But as a fragile and delicate person, I think he was never quite the same, although he did continue to play and record albums with George Szell in the 40s.

SM I’ve noticed that there are in fact very few recordings of his playing.

JA Well, there are 8 or 10 CDs. Several of them are overlaps. He recorded the Tchaikovsky several times. He recorded the Beethoven, he recorded Mozart. There are several solo albums of his, which are marvelous. You really get a sense of that rough, raw sound that he had.

SM On the Huberman website there are some short clips that I listened to which were quite impressive: the “Air on a G string” and the way he did the Chopin Nocturne transcription.

What does your film focus on and what is the filming schedule?

JA We’re hoping to have the film finished in December 2011. The film begins in 1929, which was when Huberman first arrived in Palestine. He didn’t get the idea for the orchestra until 1931 during his next trip to Palestine. There was such a great passion for music there that he decided they needed an orchestra, but they didn’t know how to do it. He was busy traveling the world then, and starting an orchestra from scratch is extraordinarily difficult.

When Hitler came to power he immediately started firing Jewish musicians, hundreds if not thousands of Jewish artists, musicians, singers professors, artists, doctors, civil servants et cetera, et cetera. Huberman saw the path and he enlisted Hans Wilhelm Steinberg who was later William Steinberg, the great conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Michael Taube. Both were conducting in Germany with the orchestras of the Kulturbund, which were Jewish orchestras formed after the Nuremburg laws ousted all the Jews. Steinberg and Taube helped Huberman audition musicians in Germany. Meanwhile Huberman auditioned artists cross central Europe in Warsaw, Prague, Krakow and Budapest. He went everywhere in 1934, ’35 and ’36 looking for the best artists to fill this orchestra. Raising money in the Depression was very, very difficult, and he traveled the world, giving benefit concerts, dedicating his time, his efforts. He wrote thousands of letters.

The film then takes us up to 1936 when Toscanini arrives. We’ll see a grand climactic scene with Toscanini and the orchestra on tour. They were in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and then took the train down to Sinai and ferried across to Egypt where the Egyptian railway picked them up and brought them to Cairo. They played sold-out concert after sold-out concert. Then they went to the American Concert Hall in Alexandria where the same thing happened. It was a grand success.

Then the film leaps to 1948 when Israel became a state. Leonard Bernstein came to conduct, and they took the name “Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.” Both Bernstein and Issac Stern adopted the orchestra. They took it around the world for 20 years, making it into one of the great orchestras, and Zubin Mehta has continued to do that for the last 40 years.

So the film will come out in December of this year, 2011, which is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the orchestra. And the Israel Philharmonic will use it in screenings as part of the 75th anniversary in Tel Aviv, London, New York and Los Angeles. We’re also working with the Polish Council here in New York City to try and arrange screenings in all the concert halls of all the cities where Huberman found musicians. We’ll try to arrange a simultaneous screening. And that will be the world launch of the film.

SM Your project, is it non-profit?

JM: It’s a non-profit project. The film uses very little archival footage. We’re shooting re-creations which are dramatic scenes with actors in Germany and Israel and, thus, the film is quite expensive for a documentary. We’re working with donated funds here in America. We haven’t completed the fundraising yet. We have a ways to go. Foundations and individuals have been very generous. It’s a German-Israeli co-production: Media Park Productions in Germany and United Channel Movies in Israel.

I hope that the film has a long life both on television and in theaters in appropriate markets. More importantly, it will be an educational tool for years to come. We’ll certainly have educational outreach screenings in Jewish museums around the world. It will be used in universities, we hope, and in other appropriate venues. Huberman was a great heroic character who should be remembered, and a role model for students. This film will be a powerful tool to that end.

Stan Metzger