By Elsa and Leon Malmud
The Philadelphia Orchestra just concluded an extraordinary international concert tour of several major European cities and three major cities in Israel: Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
As reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s music critic, David Patrick Stearns, who traveled with the Orchestra, the concerts received accolades in Europe and unusually demonstrative bravos in Israel.
Equally successful was the Orchestra’s concertizing with and mentoring of a youth orchestra of native Arab and Jewish students who study and concertize together in an Israeli school for the arts.
Before the tour, the Orchestra’s decision to play in Israel received surprising criticism from a number of sources. A concert was rudely disrupted by anti-Israeli protestors. On May 24, the Inquirer published on its opinion page a vituperative article criticizing the Israeli leg of the tour by musicologist Philip Gentry.
His article was a transparent attempt to garner support for his position by employing the political techniques of conflation and intersectionality.
These methods are used to attract supporters of one cause to also support another cause by appearing that the two are related. These techniques have been adroitly used on college campuses to arouse anti-Semitic feelings by linking them to such issues as poverty, racism and misunderstandings about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In his article, Gentry tried to garner support for his prejudices regarding the state of Israel and Philadelphia’s Jewish community by linking them to other important, but unrelated, issues. Those issues included feminism, the relevance of classical music in today’s world, the opera Tosca, the decisions of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the most recent tragic incident at the Gaza-Israeli border.
Gentry had every right to express his dissonant views. However, as 50-plus-years subscribers to the Orchestra, as well as Opera Philadelphia, the Rock School of Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Curtis and Boyer schools of music, and the Flyers, Eagles and Phillies, we’ve never met so destructive and narrow-minded an individual in the arts, sports or entertainment worlds. We regard all forms of music and sport as relevant and important because they help to bring the world together and bridge all cultural and political chasms. We are astounded that any well-educated and thoughtful person, let alone a musicologist, could not comprehend this.
Obviously, Gentry needs to be made aware of the following facts: The Philadelphia Orchestra has been lauded for its role in bringing music, education, joy and a feeling of universal camaraderie to audiences throughout the world.
The Orchestra’s current director, Nézet-Séguin, is a world recognized “passionate interpreter of music” (The New York Times). He has brought a vitality and brilliance unsurpassed even among the extraordinary conductors who have preceded him in our lifetime. He has introduced new music each season, including that of Jennifer Higdon (a woman whose talent has also been featured by Opera Philadelphia). He has invited female conductors to conduct the Orchestra and selected two female first chairs.
Yannick has also vastly expanded the Orchestra’s role within our community. The group and its players now reach thousands of Philadelphia’s youth and often otherwise culturally underserved audiences both young and old. Individual members of the Orchestra extend their talent in the training of the next generation of musicians from our very diverse Philadelphia population.
An attack upon the plot of Tosca is clearly off key. The story is as relevant today as ever. It is a feminist opera championing the role of a woman in standing up to tyranny. Its arias are some of the most melodious and appealing in all of opera. That is why Tosca still resonates with audiences today. It is both the plot and music that are universally appealing in their timelessness.
Was the opinion writer aware that the Gaza Hamas protesters, rather than shielding their women and children, used them as shields in harm’s way? Is he aware that these terrorist groups (as opposed to the majority of millions and millions of mainstream peace-loving Muslims) regard the killing of hundreds or thousands of fellow Muslims as “collateral” damage in maintaining or expanding their personal power base? Those news interviews can be easily accessed on the internet.
In conclusion, our Orchestra historically has served as an effective instrument in bridging the gap between the United States and former declared opposition, such as the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet Union.
With this in mind, how could one protest visiting one of our staunchest and most reliable international supporters, the state of Israel? If our State Department were to ask the Orchestra to perform in Tehran, whose current dictatorial terrorist-supporting leadership has declared itself our enemy (after all, they refer to the United States as the “Big Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan”), we suspect that most of us would be agreeable that our Orchestra might once again serve in such a potentially peace-making role. The New York Times characterizes our Orchestra and its conductor as “knocking at the gate of heaven.”
We, as Americans, as Philadelphians and as Jews are justly proud of our Orchestra and its leadership. No apologies necessary. As for our musicologist friend, your opinions were to our ears nothing more than discordant and lacking in harmony. We will reference Édith Piaf, a non-classical artist, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” No regrets. No apologies.
Leon Malmud is the dean emeritus of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.
Thank you to the Malmuds for their thoughtful reality check. Like them, I was astounded by the vicious comments of Professor Gentry. I have been attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts for more than 50 years and have heard this wonderful ensemble on hundreds of occasions. The current stretch of years under the directorship of Yannick Nezet Seguin is best of all. Every single concert by the orchestra is highlighted by beautiful playing and revelatory insights. But the orchestra’s accomplishment extends far beyond musical quality. And anyone paying half an eye can see that they are making impressive strides in addressing changing social needs. It is a difficult matter both to respect past musical traditions and to respond to changing demographics at the same time. There is much ground here yet to cover for the Orchestra, but their efforts are sincere. Their outreach to China, Mongolia and yes, Israel, is to be applauded. We are fortunate to be part of the journey.