Philadelphia Orchestra begins European tour, including first stop in Israel in 25 years

The Philadelphia Orchestra has left town for a two-week European tour. A planned three-day swing through Israel has raised hackles.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra (WHYY file photo)

The Philadelphia Orchestra spent the better part of Monday in the air. Early Tuesday morning, the musicians and staff are scheduled to arrive in Brussels to start a European tour.

The orchestra is accustomed to travel – it goes abroad annually – but this is an unusually packed tour with 11 concerts in 13 days. The schedule is aggressive in order to accommodate a three-day swing through Israel, the first time the Orchestra has been be there in 25 years.

The orchestra will perform evening concerts in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. During the day, it will perform smaller-ensemble, pop-up concerts and teach master classes in Israeli music conservatories. The trip was timed to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

“We have an international brand built over decades of international travel,” said interim president Ryan Fleur. “Finding other communities that love classical music and embrace what we do is important to us. Israel fits that bill nicely.”

But the trip is not without controversy. For the last two months, demonstrators have been staging weekly protests outside the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, opposing the Israel trip.

Over the weekend, a coalition of pro-Palestinian and social justice groups under the banner “Philadelphia Don’t Orchestrate Apartheid” stepped up their activity, blocking traffic by lying down on Broad Street and entering Verizon Hall to disrupt the orchestra’s performance of “Tosca.” They say that, by going to Israel, the orchestra will cross an international picket line established in 2005 by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“They seem to think that music exempts people from moral responsibility. We think otherwise,” said Susan Abulhawa, a coordinating protestor. “Their collaboration with an apartheid government at the same time that government is literally slaughtering unarmed civilians by the thousands is just not going to pass.”

Israeli forces are blamed for 59 Palestinian deaths in Gaza during a series of protest rallies against the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem and a decade-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt against Hamas.

The orchestra says this trip was not coordinated through the government of Israel, but through private entities, most prominently the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Government officials will be present at some of those events.

The activities planned for the orchestra include a side-by-side concert in Tel Aviv with the musicians of the Israel Defense Force, and a performance at Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), a village established jointly by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

“We started planning this trip over two-and-a-half years ago. The world was a different place then,” said Fleur. “We’ve had lots of conversations about how to ensure when we go to Israel that our mission — of being able to communicate music at the highest level to audiences who want to hear classical music — doesn’t get lost in the noise of what we read in the newspapers of the day.”

To mark the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform his Symphony No. 2 while in Israel. For much of his life, Bernstein was deeply involved with the Israel Philharmonic.

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