American Symphony Orchestra plays U.S. premieres by Israeli composers

“Composing a Nation: Israel ’s Musical Patriarchs” is American Symphony Orchestra’s Season Finale at Lincoln Center on Sunday, May 31

Leon Botstein Conducts Three U.S. Premieres by Israeli Composers Mordecai Seter, Ödön Pártos, and Paul Ben-Haim and Second NY Performance of Josef Tal’s Symphony No. 2

The names of those who built the State of Israel are legendary, but those who forged its cultural voice played a vital role in communicating the new country’s identity. The American Symphony Orchestra presents premieres by three of Israel 's European-born musical patriarchs – Paul Ben-Haim, Ödön Pártos, and Mordecai Seter – and a rarely-heard symphony by Josef Tal. All composed within a decade of the founding of the State of Israel, the four works will be performed during the final ASO concert of the season, “Composing a Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs,” at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday, May 31 at 3 pm, conducted by ASO music director Leon Botstein. Maestro Botstein will also give an informative free pre-concert lecture in the hall at 1:45 pm.

Botstein’s program note lays out an enlightening historical background for this concert:

“The new Israelis had the Bible and the story of the ancient kingdom of Israel, but when they arrived from their European towns and villages to the Middle Eastern landscape and encountered indigenous populations both Jewish and Arab with whom they were entirely unfamiliar, these newly minted citizens realized they had to construct a new unifying national sensibility. …
“Amazingly, a tremendous portion of this effort at national self-invention was assigned to the arts. [Theodor] Herzl’s dream of the new state as one of high culture was embraced by the Zionist pioneers. The creation of orchestras, dance and theater companies was considered an essential act of national self-assertion.”

All four of the featured composers were thoroughly assimilated Europeans when they took up residence in their new homeland. Three had arrived in middle-eastern Israel as refugees from the Nazis. “Ödön Pártos, Paul Ben-Haim and Josef Tal brought with them a deep familiarity and attachment to the modern European vocabulary of musical expression,” explains Botstein in the program notes. Ödön Pártos was Hungarian; Paul Ben-Haim and Josef Tal were both German. The fourth, Mordecai Seter, was born in Russia , and was the first of the four to arrive in Palestine , in 1926, at the age of ten, and more likely escaping the newish Soviet Army than the burgeoning Nazi movement to Russia ’s west. When still in his teens, Seter left for Europe to study with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, returning only in 1937 after completing his studies.

Mordecai Seter (1916-1994), the youngest of these four, became a professor at the Rubin Academy at Tel Aviv University , where one of his important pupils was conductor Gary Bertini (1927-2005). Bertini was a first-rate advocate for Israeli music throughout the world and conducted many of Seter’s works. Seter’s Midnight Vigil (tikun hatzot) began life as an orchestral work, and became – after four revisions – an oratorio for soloist and three choruses based on ancient Yemenite song texts. The ASO is performing an instrumental version published in 1958 as Op. 39a. The tikun originated as a late-night public Bible study associated with good works. According to Yuval Shaked of Haifa University, who contributed a program note for this U.S. premiere performance:

“The first version of Seter's Midnight Vigil was completed in 1957, written for oboe, trumpet, harp, percussion and unison singing of Jewish Yemenite traditional songs. … Portraying a kabbalistic vision of redemption in Zion , it is among the first explicit manifestations of a mystic aspect characterizing Seter's oeuvre which later gained an ever increasing significance. The work is imbued with renaissance aesthetic ideals and musical forms, which Seter considered optimal to ensure the East-West synthesis he aimed at.”

Josef Tal (1910-2008) was a prolific composer; he wrote a half-dozen operas, several concertos, three symphonies, and dozens of other works – including many for tape. Born Joseph Grünthal in Pinne (now Poland), he moved as an infant with his family to Berlin, where he earned a degree from Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik and studied music formally with Paul Hindemith, among others He left for Palestine soon after the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Arriving in Palestine in 1934, he worked first as a member of Kibbutz Gesher, and then at the Jerusalem Conservatory (which later became the Israel Academy of Music), of which he was director for several years. He eventually became the first chairman of the musicology department at Hebrew University and became involved in its electronic music center. The Second Symphony, written in 1960, was performed by the Israel Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1972, and described by a New York Times critic as “a ‘sound’ piece, more effective for its sonorities, percussive rhythms and color than for its formalism … Its impulses, probably unconscious, actually go back to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’ This is no mean ancestor”.

Ödön Pártos was born in 1907 in Budapest . He was a violin prodigy who studied early with Kodály, and reached Palestine in 1938 as a young man leaving behind a busy career in Europe as a soloist, teacher and chamber musician. He came to the attention of the great Hungarian violinist and composer Jenö Hubay (1858-1937), and studied with him before moving on to the Budapest Academy of Music. Born in 1907, he had an active performing and composing career throughout Europe before being forced to leave for Palestine relatively late, in 1937 (the Nazis did not invade Hungary until 1944). Pártos visited the Kibbutz called Ein Gev as early as 1943, played concerts in its dining hall, and returned several times. In a program note for this U.S. premiere by the ASO, Yuval Shaked writes:

“Feeling connected to the Kibbutz, Pártos decided to compose a piece bearing its name. He wished to pay tribute to the perseverance and heroism of the embattled settlers. Written in 1951-52, Partos' Symphonic Fantasy Ein Gev remained his only program music piece. It depicts laying the fundaments for the Kibbutz as an outpost on the edge of the Syrian border, its growth, life, and fight for existence.”

Although Pártos didn’t write a lot of program music, Shaked states that he composed “a Symphonic Elegy entitled Paths (Netivim), which uses the Ein Gev motif as a starting point.”

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), the eldest of the composers on this program, was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger. A rigorous German music education prepared him for a successful career as a composer; he was conductor of the Augsburg opera until an anti-Semitic boss fired him in 1931, a full 18 months before the Nazis seized power. He went to Palestine in autumn 1933. Before being forced out of Germany , Ben-Haim studied composition and conducting in Munich with Friedrich Klose and Walter Courvoisier. He and Josef Tal are the only composers on the ASO program who have works currently available on recordings; in fact, Ben-Haim’s discography is quite large, in several genres. Ben-Haim’s Symphony No. 2 is also receiving its U.S. premiere on May 31. His second symphony is quite different from his first. As essayist Jehoash Hirshberg notes in the program:

“Symphony No. 1 starts with a painful expression of the despair in view of Hitler's monumental victories and moves to an optimistic hope for a better world. By contrast, Symphony No. 2 was completed in October 1945 when World War II was over. On the title page of the autograph Ben-Haim wrote a motto from a poem by Israeli poet Sh. Shalom, 'Wake up with the dawn, O my soul, on the peak of the Carmel above the sea.' The poetic motto sets the post-war idyllic world which dominates most of the symphony, save for the third movement.”

Sunday, May 31, 3 pm

“Composing a Nation: Israel 's Musical Patriarchs”
Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra
Avery Fisher Hall

Mordecai Seter (1916-1994) Midnight Vigil, Op. 39a (1958) U.S. Premiere
Josef Tal (1910-2008) Symphony No. 2 (1960)
Ödön Pártos (1907-1977) Ein gev, Symphonic Fantasy (1952) U.S. Premiere
Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) Symphony No. 2 (1945) U.S. Premiere

Tickets start at just $28; call (212) 868-9ASO (9276). Group discounts available. All ticket sales are final.

Leon Botstein will give an illuminating pre-concert talk at 1:45 pm in the auditorium of Avery Fisher Hall, free to ticket-holders.

Learn more about this concert and the 2009-10 season at www.americansymphony.org or from (212) 868-9ASO (9276).

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