Israel has its share of international rock stars: Idan Raichel, David Broza, Noa, Rita, Rami. Sure they’ve traveled the world, hung platinum albums on their walls and achieved fame far and wide, but none has the longevity, grandeur and unadulterated popularity as Israel’s original “rock star” orchestra: the Israel Philharmonic.
On Sunday, the Israel Phil returns to the red-carpeted halls of the Kennedy Center under the baton of principal guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The 120-member, critically claimed orchestra will play an all-French program featuring the lush works of Faure, Ravel and Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique.
Founded in 1936 by Polish Jewish violinist Bronislav Huberman and then called the Palestine Orchestra, its first conductor was the world’s greatest of that time: Arturo Toscanini. In the decades since, superstars of the classical music world have graced its conductor’s podium and soloist spotlight, among them Koussevitsky, Bernstein, Heifetz, Stern, Menuhin, Rubenstein, Solti, Dorati, Ormandy, Perlman, Zukerman, Barenboim and Gould, to name a few. Bombay-born conductor Zubin Mehta took the helm as music director in 1977 and in 1981 his musicians voted him music director for life.
One of two IPO concert masters, Ilya Konovalov, was a classical “rock star” in his own right. Seventeen years ago, as a 20-year-old, he auditioned and was accepted as the then-youngest member of the orchestra.
“I was studying in Vienna at the time and came to audition here in Tel Aviv,” he said, speaking last week from Israel. “I really wanted this orchestra.”
Born in Novosibirsk in the then-Soviet Union, Konovalov began his violin studies at 7 with Professor Zakhar Bron and received prizes in the All-Russian International Violin Competition before leaving for the Vienna Academy of Music.
As the youngest concert master ever at the IPO he was leading musicians more than twice his age. But, said Konovalov, “they were very nice to me then and they are still. I’m very grateful. It’s what I’m trying to do now: To give back now to young players.”
Also a violin teacher, Konovalov has had the pleasure of seeing some of his advanced students apprentice with the IPO; two will be joining the orchestra on this U.S. tour.
As an official orchestra of the Jewish state, the Israel Philharmonic does not play on Shabbat, he noted. While he estimates that about half of the orchestra is composed of Israeli-born musicians, the other half hails from across Europe, Asia and North America.
“We have many people around the world,” Konovalov said. While music is a universal language, he noted that the musicians and conductor work in English. When they go on break, he hears a lot of Hebrew, Russian, some Italian and other languages, too, for Israel is a nation of immigrants.
Typically, whenever the IPO tours abroad, it performs at least one piece by an Israeli composer. But for this Kennedy Center performance, no Israeli composers are represented.
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, will perform on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in the District. Tickets, at $55-$175, are available by calling 202-785-9727 or visiting www.wpas.org.