Our History

Our History

On 26 December 1936, The Palestine Orchestra was born. The great Polish-born Jewish violinist and musician, Bronislaw Huberman, who foresaw the Holocaust, persuaded 75 Jewish musicians from major European orchestras to immigrate to Palestine, creating what he called the “materialization of the Zionist culture in the fatherland” on the sand dunes of Tel Aviv.

Huberman invited the greatest conductor of the time, Arturo Toscanini, to conduct the opening concert, performed at the Levant Fair in Tel Aviv on 26 December 1936. Toscanini abandoned his renowned NBC Orchestra for several weeks “to render paternal care to the newly born…” The great Maestro, who had previously escaped the rise of Fascism in his homeland of Italy, said: “I am doing this for humanity…”

The first decade saw intensive work on the musical crystallization and unity of the orchestra, whose excellent players had brought with them diverse styles. The primary languages spoken at this time were German, Polish, Hungarian and Russian. The young members spoke a little bit of Hebrew. The orchestra already hosted great conductors in its first decade, including Molinari, Steinberg, Dobrowen and Sargent. Its own artists were also invited to appear with the orchestra, among them conductors Michael Taube, George Singer, Mark Lavri and Paul Ben-Haim; soprano Bracha Zefira; pianist Pnina Salzman; cellist Thelma Yellin and others. The orchestra’s attempt to integrate into the Middle East scene led to tours in Egypt in 1940-43 (with Huberman as soloist), conducted by Toscanini and Molinari. During World War II, it appeared in a concert before Allied Forces in the Western Desert for soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, conducted by the Concertmaster at the time, Joseph Kaminski.

This decade was one of the greatest and most significant in the history of the orchestra; the state of Israel was born. The orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and immediately became an integral part of the life of the Jewish nation reborn in its ancient land. It was only natural that the orchestra would play “Hatikvah” at the official ceremony of the Declaration of Independence of 14 May 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum. On 20 November 1948, a few days after Israel’s liberation, the IPO performed a moving concert on the dunes of Beer Sheba. Senior orchestra members remember the young Leonard Bernstein playing and conducting the orchestra before 5,000 soldiers, within earshot of the retreating Egyptian forces.

The orchestra also traveled in armored cars to besieged Jerusalem, raising the morale of civilians and soldiers alike. This was also the decade in which some of the world’s most renowned artists came to identify with the State of Israel through their relationships to the orchestra: conductors Koussevitzky, Markevitch, Celibidache, Klecki, Paul Paray (who was the Music Director from 1949-51), Fricsay, Giulini, violinists Heifetz, Menuhin, Elman, Milstein, Stern, Francescatti (who did not leave Israel even upon the outbreak of the Sinai War in October 1956); pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau; cellist Paul Tortellier; singers Jan Peerce and Jennie Tourel; and many others. Israeli works were also performed, and composers Lavri, Partos, Ben-Haim, Boskivitch, Avidom and Steinbers were regular guests on the orchestra’s stage. One must not forget to mention the IPO’s first tour to the USA in December 1950, conducted by Koussevitzky, Bernstein and Izler Solomon, a tour that brought much pride to the American Jewry. Later, the orchestra toured Europe, which was also exciting for the orchestra members and European Audiences alike.

The IPO released its first recording: Mahler’s symphonies conducted by Paul Klecki for Decca.

The main event of this decade was the inauguration of the orchestra’s home, the Mann Auditorium. The initiator and principal benefactor was IPO American Friend Frederic R. Mann. The orchestra, which until then had been performing before thousands of subscribers in the small and tattered “Ohel Shem” Hall, seating 620 people, moved into its new hall with 2,800 seats. As a result, the orchestra’s subscribers grew into the tens of thousands. This wonderful and loyal audience is second to none and the backbone of the orchestra to this day.
The third decade also brought many of the world’s great artists. A crack in the Russian Iron Curtain allowed artists such as violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Msislav Rostropovich to join the orchestra for the first time. Conductors such as Josf Kripps, Istvan Ketesz, Jean Martinon (who was Music Director for one year), Solti, Dorati, Celibidach, Ormandy, Mitropulos and other giants enriched the orchestra and the audience with unforgettable experiences.

This was also the decade in which several young and promising artists made their debuts to much success: violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, pianist Daniel Barenboim and conductor Zubin Mehta, who continues his close connection with the orchestra to this day. Other IPO debuts were made by pianist Glenn Gould, violinist Henryk Szeryng, and Israeli artists Frank Peleg, Bracha Eden, Alexander Tamir, Yahli Wagman, and many others. Throughout this decade the orchestra continued to record with conductors George Solti and Lorin Maazel.

The fourth decade was undoubtedly one of the most heroic decades in the orchestra’s history. On the eve of the Six Day War, with our neighbors threatening to annihilate us, a renowned conductor stopped conducting in the midst of a concert series and left Israel. The soloists of that series, soprano Roberta Peters and tenor Richard Tucker, did not panic and stayed. The war broke out and Zubin Mehta arrived from Europe on a plane full of ammunition. He was later joined by Daniel Barenboim and cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who were married in liberated Jerusalem. Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in one of the IPO’s most moving concerts ever, in the Amphitheatre on Mount Scopus (July 1967). Isaac Stern was the soloist in this concert, and all of the nation’s heads of state were present. The IPO performed Verdi’s Requiem in Bethlehem, conducted by Mehta, and for IDF soldiers in Sharm-e-Sheikh, conducted by Shalom Ronly-Riklis. Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Platigorsky returned to Israel for performances with the orchestra, and were enthusiastically received. For the first time, in 1971, the IPO was invited to take part in the prestigious European festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne, and Edinburgh. Loud arguments were made as to whether or not the orchestra should play in Berlin; finally, the decision was to play. The German audience responded enthusiastically to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and demanded an encore. Mehta declared: “Hatikva,” and thus our national anthem was played 500 meters from the Reichstag, the site from which the orders for the massacre of the Jewish people came. In 1973 the Yom Kippur War broke out, and the orchestra continued to perform for IDF soldiers, from the Golan Heights to Sinai.

The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who had lost his eyesight, made his final recording with the orchestra: Brahms’ First Piano Concerto conducted by Zubin Mehta (April 1976).

This decade was filled with extraordinary events. In 1982, “Huberman Week” took place, celebrating 100 years since the birth of the orchestra’s founder and featuring the world’s greatest violinists. In 1986 the IPO celebrated its Jubilee with an exceptional festival featuring renowned conductors and soloists; Leonard Bernstein wrote his work “Jubilee Games” especially for the occasion. A short while thereafter the orchestra celebrated 100 years since the birth of Arthur Rubinstein with distinguished pianists who travelled to Israel to perform in memory of the great maestro. In this decade Zubin Mehta was appointed Music Director for Life, and excitedly declared, “I will stay as long as the players want me.”

This was a decade of successful tours. The orchestra received enthusiastic reviews of Beethoven’s “Fidello” and Mahler’s 5th Symphony with Mehta and Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony in memory of the Holocaust victims, conducted by the composer in Berlin. Bernstein took the orchestra to Europe, USA, Mexico and Japan, and Zubin Mehta conducted a moving concert at the “Good Fence” on the Lebanese border, with a mixed audience of Israelis and Lebanese on both sides of the fence.

The IPO recorded many works for major labels: Sony, EMI, Deutsche Gramophone, Teldec and others, conducted by Mehta, Bernstein, Walter Weller and Raphael Kubelik.


This decade was also adorned with exciting moments. The IPO embarked on its first tour of Poland, and how symbolic it was: an orchestra founded by musicians who escaped the Nazis at the last moment, performing in the country which suffered the greatest human loss in the German death camps. It felt like a proclamation: “We are here, and the Jewish people, culture and heritage cannot be annihilated.”


The gates of the USSR were also opened to the orchestra, which performed with conductor Zubin Mehta and soloist Itzhak Perlman. The connections between the USSR and Israel were immense. It was the only dream of the Jews from this country to immigrate to Israel—a dream that came true and led to many new immigrant musicians joining the orchestra’s ranks. The orchestra also made its first tour of China and India, the homeland of Zubin Mehta.


In the sixth decade the IPO named Leonard Bernstein Laureate Conductor of the IPO, for his 40 years of activity with the orchestra, and the celebrated musician shed a tear upon receiving the honorary title (May 1988). Conductor Kurt Masur made his Israeli debut, and after an enthusiastic reception, toured with the orchestra in the USA. In 1992 he received the title of Honorary Guest Conductor. Other moving events were the world premieres in May 1987 of Noam Sheriff’s “Mehaye Hamelin” (“Ressurection of the dead”), depicting the revival of the Jewish people, performed at the inauguration of the Jewish-Historic Museum Amsterdam, in the presence of the Queen of Holland and many European Prime Ministers, and the performance of Sheriff’s Spanish Passion” in Toledo (1991), in a concert conducted by Zubin Mehta dropped everything and rushed to conduct the orchestra amidst the Scud missile attacks. 25 members of the orchestra spent the war as reservists in the IDF. James Levine made his IPO debut in festive and successful concerts. In April 1996 the IPO celebrated Mehta’s 60th birthday in an exciting and eventful tour of the USA, in which the American Friends of the IPO proved yet again their continuing support of the orchestra.


Under the auspices of the IPO Foundation, associations of friends to aid the orchestra were founded throughout the world. The orchestra continued to “change form” with senior members, the pillars of the orchestra, retiring, new young blood ran through its veins, many coming from the ranks of the Young Israel Philharmonic.


This was also the case with the audience: our efforts to attract new and younger subscribers to our concert halls, were successful. Exciting musical programs, new series and focused activity for youth lead the IPO into its seventh decade, yet another decade of cultural and musical activity.

In the seventh decade, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s fortunes reflected the political turmoil of the Middle East. In the days of the Oslo Accords, a period of unprecedented optimism in Israeli society, the IPO saluted Israeli’s own finest artists and performers, Moshe Wilensky, Sasha Argov, Naomi Shemer, Nurit Hirsch, Esther Ofarim and Yoni Rechter, with special concerts. Bestselling recordings featuring the IPO accompanying Isareli artists Achinoam Nini, David D’Or and Yehudit Ravitz appeared alongside those of the “Mediterranean” sound by Greek greats Dalares and Glikeria.

Zubin Mehta was asked to lead the IPO in a historic concert bringing Palestinian and Jewish children together in the concert hall. Orchestra members shuffled between Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority and Beit Shemsh, a typical Israeli development town, to prepare 500 youngsters for an orchestra concert. Finding “neutral territory” for children from Deheshe, a refugee camp, and Beit Shemesh was not an easy task, but when Mehta finally brought the baton down in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Jerusalem YMCA, 500 children had an unforgettable experience. This event sparked the imagination of the American Friends of the IPO, and within months, “Keynote,” the education department of the orchestra, was founded. Through their support, the Keynote Program continues to develop, embracing 20,000 youngsters annually, from kindergarten to university.

These happy days were soon to end. With the outbreak of the Second Intifada, last minute cancellations threatened each and every concert. Foreign artists, frightened by suicide bombers and unrelenting reports in the press, abandoned the orchestra and the Israeli audience when their commitment was most needed. The IPO audience responded by showing unfailing loyalty, filling the Mann Auditorium nightly. New friends were found: Valery Gergiev, Fazil Say, George Pehlivanian, Gustavo Dudamel, Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, and Lang Lang. Many veteran artists never cancelled: Kurt Masur, Yoel Levi, Daniel Oren, Rafael Frunbeck de Burgos and, of course, Maestro Mehta. As the new millennium began, the IPO also began to re-invent itself. New series were created nearly every season in order to present a more attractive product to the audience: “Jeans,” a late-night informal concert; Friday afternoon matinee; 7:00 in the Evening; “Intermezzo” – coffee and concert of Friday morning for both Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem audiences.

Maestro Mehta, who during this decade was also Artistic Director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, created a valuable bridge to Tel-Aviv University by founding the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, an academy where the Philharmonic’s leading players are coaching tomorrow’s musicians.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s eighth decade began with celebrations of the orchestra’s 70th birthday: three weeks of festive concerts at Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv, a birthday celebration with an audience of 24,000 music fans! Artists and friends of the IPO Foundation in Israel and across the world participated in post-concert events in the upper foyer. The orchestra and Maestro Mehta were honored when they visited the Knesset prior to the IPO’s gala concert in Jerusalem. As a special tribute to the founders of the orchestra, the descendants of the original 65 members of Bronislaw Huberman’s Palestine Symphony Orchestra were invited to Heichal Hatarbut. The list of artists and guests who took part in the orchestra’s 70th as well as 75th birthday celebrations included Valery Gergiev, Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Gustavo Dudamel, Evgeny Kissin, Kurt Masur and his son Ken-David, Mischa Maisky, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Yefim Bronfman, Maxim Vengerov, Murray Perahia and Yuja Wang.

Other milestones of the eighth decade were the celebration of Israel’s 60th Independence Day; Zubin Mehta’s 40th anniversary as the Philharmonic’s Music Director; his 50-years in collaboration with the Philharmonic and his 75th birthday.

The major issue of the day was the renovation of Heichal Hatarbut, which was originally built in 1957. After many years of planning and hopeful expectations, the orchestra was deeply disappointed when the original renovation plan was rejected. The renovation of Habima Theater, Heichal Hatarbut’s neighbor, and the building of an underground car park got underway and four years of dust and constant construction passed while the IPO’s plans remained on the drawing board. Renewed dialogue between Tel Aviv Municipality and the IPO bore fruit and, in August 2011, the long-awaited renovations began. The IPO’s 76th season of concerts was divided between Tel Aviv University’s Smolarz Auditorium and Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port, before the orchestra returned to its renovated premises.

As always, the orchestra did not forsake its concert tours abroad, during which there were several highpoints such as New Year’s Eve celebrations in the People’s Republic of China (2007)! Zubin Mehta and the orchestra offered the Chinese audience a taste of the new year with pieces such as “An Evening in Vienna” when they recreated the atmosphere of the city’s famed Musikverein Hall. In October 2008, Mehta honored the memory of his father, Mehli Mehta, on the centenary of his birth, with an amazing week-long program of concerts in Mumbai. Placido Domingo, Barbara Fritolli, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim joined the Philharmonic’s festivities.

On the IPO’s tour of European festivals, to mark its 75th birthday, the orchestra visited 18 cities and gave 21 concerts in 30 days. The orchestra was received with great warmth and excelled in its performances. Paris, London, Madrid, Milan and Bucharest were just some of the high points. The tour will also undoubtedly be remembered for the disruption caused by a small but well-organized group of anti-Israel demonstrators, which took place during the orchestra’s “Proms” concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall, which was broadcast live on the BBC. Mehta, soloist Gil Shaham and the Philharmonic waited patiently while the audience of IPO fans shouted “get out! get out!” at the demonstrators who were then escorted out of the hall.

As usual, the IPO continued its tour in the U.S. and also sent a stream of chamber music ensembles to the U.S., which helped strengthen the orchestra’s relationship with its most dedicated supporters.

The IPO entered the digital age when it launched live broadcasts on its website during its 75th birthday celebrations. The site also serves as a platform for tour blogs, interviews with musicians, online ticket sales and a flow of general information for subscribers and concertgoers.