NETIV HALAMED-HEH, Israel — “I’m glad they hung in there,” said Debbie Fleischman, a classical-music fan who accompanied the Philadelphia Orchestra on the Israel leg of its 2018 tour, which ended Tuesday and had faced pro-Palestinian protests in Philadelphia and Europe — including disrupted concerts in Philadelphia and Brussels.
Fleischman, a well-known public relations maven in Philadelphia, is also a classically trained musician. She was one of 55 travelers on a seven-day, $7,500 patron tour organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that included the orchestra’s concerts in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and a tourist itinerary that extended two days beyond Tuesday’s last concert, including a stop at the Ella Valley Vineyards here.
Other patrons on the tour, not all of whom were Jewish, included orchestra board members Richard Worley, Mark Dichter, Joseph Manko, Ken Davis, Sandy Marshall, Connie Smukler, Ramona Vosbikian, and Ronald Kaiserman. Worley also serves on the board of directors of Philadelphia Media Network, which operates the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com.
When the tour was first announced in February, orchestra co-president Ryan Fleur said the ensemble was visiting Israel in part to build bridges to its Jewish supporters and donors.
“We have had a spotty history, if you go back far enough — it was 35 years before we allowed a Jewish board member, that sort of thing,” he said, “and I think we’ve overcome that. … But there are still some trailing remnants of, ‘Are we truly responsive to the Jewish community?’ ”
One of the marquee events was a “Dinner in the Desert” Wednesday with the Israeli-born, Philadelphia-based star chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav fame.
A constantly-in-motion presence, Solomonov talked of “our wonderful day together” and used the word epic to described the undertaking of creating the dinner
It was originally planned as an event under the stars in the Netivot area, near the Gaza border, but was relocated to the inland rolling hills and more contained circumstances of the Ella Valley winery, a kibbutz located near Bet Shemesh. There was just enough room for a series of long, semi-outdoor tables — family-style dining — and an Israeli band.
“If there’s one iota of concern, we make different plans.” said Melissa Greenberg, development director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Solomonov gave ample credit to Israeli chef Nadav Malin for the execution of something he begun curating last fall. He was in Israel only for three days for an event whose central conceptual idea was “slow food” made from local ingredients. The menu included rustic root vegetables, grape-leaves meatballs, and Solomonov’s famous hummus. Outdoors, prior to the dinner, he gave a demo and talk on Israeli foods.
Joseph and Jeanette Neubauer, who were the lead funders — along with Smukler — for the Israeli leg of the orchestra tour, originally suggested the idea of a food element, and Solomonov was the first chef whom the orchestra contacted. He jumped on board, floating ideas during a meeting last fall at the Rooster Soup Co.
Before departing early from the dinner, the Neubauers pronounced themselves very satisfied with the Philadelphia Orchestra tour. The palpable dialogue between music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Helene Grimaud during the Haifa performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, said Jeanette Neubauer, was an example of the kind of communication that makes music “a bridge builder…in a time that’s very complicated.”
Susanna Lachs Adler, board chair of the Jewish Federation, shared hopes to expand the cultural exchange between Philadelphia and Israel to other areas of the arts.
Earlier Wednesday, a group of musicians who had likewise stayed on for an additional two days in Israel gave a chamber-music concert in the town of Netivot.
Orchestra violinist Paul Arnold called it the most important one of the tour because of its diverse audience: The population in the town of 36,000 reflects two dominant waves of immigration – one from Ethiopia and another from Russia — along with Israeli Jews and Bedouin.
The concert was held at the Tanenbaum Conservatory of Music, created to bring culture to the region but also to give local children the kind of musical training that would give them the possibility of further studies in Tel Aviv. It was an after-school audience, much of it elderly townspeople.
The region has a large mandolin culture. Among the players is the charismatic, 52-year-old Shmuel Elbaz, the conservatory’s director, who joined the quartet for a Vivaldi mandolin concerto with minimal rehearsal and then an improvisation that was a testament to on-the-fly inspiration . It was easily one of the more sizzling performances of the tour.
Finally, on Thursday, a small contingent of Philadelphia musicians went to the Yitzhak Navon Music School for the Gifted and Excellent in Lod to play chamber pieces.
There, principal Meny Matalon told them how much the orchestra’s Tuesday concert in Jerusalem had meant to students.
The U.S. State Department had donated roughly 1,000 tickets to schoolchildren for the Jerusalem performance, and 150 of those went to Lod students, ages 6 to 18, plus their parents. “They didn’t know what to expect,” said Matalon, “but when they came in the next day, they were 50 centimeters above the ground.”
The children “were talking about specific instruments that we don’t have in our band, like bassoon and oboe,” the principal said. “They wanted to know, `What is that sound?’ ”
David Patrick Stearns’ coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra on Tour is made possible by a partnership between the Philadelphia Inquirer and WRTI 90.1.