‘Orchestra of Exiles’ a labor of love
Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles” was shown at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington last Thursday night. This documentary film, now on its way to PBS, was clearly a labor of love.
Like the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman — the subject of this film about the founding of the orchestra now known as the Israel Philharmonic — Aronson is a passionate man. The film recounts how Huberman, perhaps the most famous violinist in the world at the time, conceived the idea of an orchestra in a country where camels were still walking the streets of Tel Aviv.
And yet, the film is far more than a story about a single man or a great orchestra. It is a history of the Jews in Israel and throughout the world, from the pre-Holocaust years through the second World War and the fight for an independent Israel. With Rashomon-like perspective, we witness history through the eyes of the exiles whose lives were saved by the great Huberman.
Most of us have never heard of Huberman. Pushed by a very aggressive stage father who saw his son as a meal ticket, he was a child prodigy who could fill any concert hall in the world. As a young man, he was given a Stradivarius by a count who was in awe of him. That Strad was subsequently stolen after a Carnegie Hall concert at which Huberman was raising money to make his symphony a reality. The instrument remained in the thief’s possession for 50 years. Before he died, the guy who had it told his wife that the violin was very important. She got in touch with Lloyd’s of London who had paid out the insurance on the Stradivarius and they sold it to another important violinist who later sold it to Joshua Bell. I defy anyone who hears the story and then sees Josh Bell playing that instrument not to tear up.
Huberman is credited with saving many lives — maybe a thousand, maybe 3,000 — according to Aronson. He did this by getting permission to bring the best Jewish players in Germany and Austria to Israel, which was no easy task. The Israelis who had been steeped in the arts had an immense thirst for classical music and before long, his symphony was playing concerts for the top tier of Israeli society as well as for workers all over the country.
Aronson tells us how a young Indian, Zubin Mehta, fell in love with the orchestra and stayed with it, no matter what Israel was going through. Mehta has been conducting the orchestra for over 50 years and has been honored with the title of “Music Director for Life.” Pretty touching stuff, but there are other great heroes. It was Arturo Toscanini, another non-Jew, who conducted the opening concert despite the fact that Hitler, acting at the request of Wagner’s daughter, had asked him to conduct in Berlin. The maestro, a fierce anti-fascist, said no. He had to travel the long way around to get to Israel but he got there.
What’s great about the Aronson film, which really does deserve an Oscar, is the way the actors play these historical characters so convincingly. We meet Huberman as a youngster and as he ages, he is skillfully portrayed by different actors. We fall in love with him, with Toscanini, with Mehta, with Josh Bell and with all the other superb musicians who help Aronson tell the story.
Aronson is the real hero for bring this amazing story to life. When you get a chance to see this film, see it. It’s that simple.
Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 8/11/12