Talmi tells of Wagner ban in Israel
By Eileen Wingard
LA JOLLA, California — Yoav Talmi peppered his talk with humorous anecdotes as he described the development of orchestras in Israel, several coming into being because of the large influx of Russian-born musicians.
The January 11 lecture in the JCC’s Garfield Theare drew a large and appreciative audience.
When Talmi spoke about why the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss are not played in Israel, he became serious. Strauss, according to Talmi, was not anti-Semitic. He was merely an opportunist who went along with the Nazis and headed Germany’s music division. Wagner, on the other hand, was a virulent anti-Semite who wrote extensively, first anonymously, then openly, venting his hatred for Jews. But it was Hitler’s love of Wagner’s music that gave it additional Nazi symbolism.
Talmi told of his own uncle, a survivor of Auschwitz, who had recurring nightmares, dreaming about the loudspeakers blaring Wagner’s music as he and the other inmates left the barracks for hard labor.
“It is not a matter of logic, it is a matter of heart,” said Talmi.
He told of three incidents with strong reactions when music by these composers were played. When the great violinist Jascha Heifetz programmed the Strauss Sonata in a recital in Jerusalem, he suffered an injured wrist from an attacker. When Zubin Mehta added for an encore the Love Death music from Tristan and Isolde, it caused an uproar . And when Daniel Barenboim conducted the same music with a visiting orchestra, the Israeli public was scandalized, especially because Barenboim had promised not to program Wagner and he, as an Israeli, should have known better.
The question and answer period began with Natasha Josefowitz, a former neigbor of Heifetz in Beverly Hills, describing how she had discussed Heifetz’s program choice with him and tried to pursuade him not to play Strauss in Israel. Heifetz felt strongly that the music and the composer were separate entities and should be treated that way.
Ernest Schoen, a remarkable gentleman 102 years old, asked what Talmi would have done in his shoes. As a violin student at the Vienna Conservatory, Wagner’s music was an important component of the curriculum. Should he as a Jew not have played it? And when he arrived in San Francisco and auditioned, as a singer, for the San Francisco Opera, only to be cast in a Wagner opera, should he not have taken the job?
Talmi’s response was, “You did what was right for you.”
Dr. Norman Mann inquired whether Talmi thought there was anything anti-semitic in Wagner’s operas. “No, replied Talmi, but they glorify the Aryan race.”
The evening program opened with Talmi’s “Three Ghetto Songs” for flute and strings, sensitively performed by four San Diego Symphony musicians as part of the orchestra’s educational and outreach program. The musicians were Sarah Tuck, flute, Eddy Stein, violin, Dorothy Zeavin, viola and Marcia Bookstein, cello. This was followed by a video of Talmi’s professional life compiled by his son, Gil, a New York-based composer of movie and TV musical scores. The video was made for the recent celebration of Talmi’s decade with the Quebec City Symphony and his 40th year as a conductor. It included footage from the spectacular performance of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand in Quebec’s Hockey Stadium with 12,000 in attendance, celebrating the 400th anniversary of that distinguished city.
Prior to the free lecture, there was a dinner honoring Yoav Talmi and his wife, Er’ella in the Astor Judaica Library. Proceeds went to the library and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation which sponsors scholarships for deserving young performers and artists. The Talmis were AICF scholarship recipients.
Talmi, who was music director of the San Diego Symphony for eight years, attracted many San Diego friends to the evening. Attending the dinner were a dozen musicians who played under him, former members of the symphony board. and a former president of the symphony association.
The dinner was hosted by David Amos, Nancy Calderon, Raquel Cohen, Naomi Crosby, Sigrid Fischer, Jackie Gmach, Lucy Goldman, Susan Hagler, Sylvia Liwerant, Ted Parker, Roz Pappelbaum, Charlotte Siegel, Norene Shenhav and myself.
Wingard is a freelance writer based in San Diego