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Proposed Wagner Concert Stirs Israeli Passions : Music: The composer, known as Hitler’s favorite, evokes painful memories of the Holocaust. Some say it is time to break the taboo.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Play Wagner over my body!” the enraged usher screamed as he charged the stage and pulled open his shirt to expose scars inflicted by Nazi overlords in concentration camps.

The tones of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” had yet to sound when the audience burst into an uproar. Fistfights broke out. The orchestra packed up and fled.

It was 1981 and Zubin Mehta, conducting the Israel Philharmonic, sprung a surprise as his encore selection: a piece from Wagner, a composer not heard in area that now is Israel since the 1930s because of a virtual taboo. As Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer and a 19th-Century exponent of anti-Semitism, Wagner was unwelcome in the Jewish state.

Among Holocaust survivors, some of whom heard his works played over death camp loudspeakers, such an idea was a gross irreverence.

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Ten years later, another internationally known conductor is intent on bringing Wagner to an Israeli audience, and again an uproar is building. The conductor, the Agentine-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim, says that this time, things are different. Time has passed, and relations between Israel and Germany, both political and cultural, have matured. The pieces--excerpts from “Tristan und Isolde,” again, and from “Der fliegende Hollander"--will not be sprung on an unsuspecting audience.

And it is time, Barenboim says, to break the taboo--in the interest of music in Israel and for the promotion of free expression. “We have to understand those who make deep and horrible associations with Wagner,” he told reporters Monday. “But no one has the right to prevent us.”

Barenboim, 49, seemed taken aback by suggestions that someone might disrupt the concert, scheduled for Dec. 27. Ten years ago, Mehta managed to complete the first concert, including Wagner, before he was stopped. As for the chance of interruption at the upcoming concert, Barenboim said: “I should hope not.”

The appearance of the conductor at a press conference followed lightning criticism of the concert from Holocaust survivors and their offspring, politicians and some musicians. In defending the decision, which was reached after a vote of the orchestra members, Barenboim said that as “one of the most important composers in history,” Wagner was a necessary element in the development of the Philharmonic’s skills.

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He argued that he was aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings, but pointed out that the German composer was far from the only anti-Semite in music or in a whole range of other professions in his time. He pointed out that Wagner had no control over the Nazi usage of his music, which was frequently played at party gatherings.

“I can’t help but feel that there are a lot of people in Israel who still think that Wagner lived in Berlin in 1942 and was a personal friend of Hitler,” said Barenboim, who is also music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Wagner was misused and abused as a symbol, and I think that refraining from playing Wagner now . . . does justice only to those who misused and abused him. I don’t think that is right.”

Wagner arouses uncommon passions in Israel, and there is bitter opposition to his works being played by the Philharmonic--itself a national icon, many of whose original members were musicians taking refuge from Nazi repression. One reason for the passion is the direct association of his music--however much it may have been beyond his control--with Hitler. And there is Wagner’s own attitudes, which in the 19th Century helped give anti-Semitism public respectability.

“This whole problem is a problem for the Jewish people, and they should decide,” declared Avram Melamed, a violinist with the Philharmonic who declined to take part in the coming concert. “Like it or not, Wagner is a symbol of Nazism, as sure as the swastika is.”

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Melamed is himself a concentration camp survivor who bears the tattoo with which Nazis branded their prisoners for identification. In the past, he has fought against proposals to perform Wagner, but this time he refrained from voting. “The skin that has the number written on it is old,” he said, “and I am tired.”

Dov Shilansky, speaker of the Israeli Parliament and another Holocaust survivor, remarked: “They want to do this for pleasure. But for a lot of people it will cause pain.”

Barenboim insisted that because the concert is outside the normal subscription series, individuals can decide whether or not to attend. Those who are offended should stay away, he argued, and he noted that for three years a provincial orchestra has been playing Richard Strauss, another German composer known for his association with the Nazis.

Many of Wagner’s writings on Jews are inflammatory. He attacked Jewish influence in German music and referred to Jews as a “demon causing mankind’s downfall.”

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“I regard the Jewish race,” he wrote on another occasion, “as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything that is noble in it.”

In discussing Wagner, the Encyclopedia Judaica writes: “In ambiguous terms, under the guise of speaking of their redemption, he conceived the idea of the extinction of the Jews.”

Barenboim is fully aware of the rawness of Wagner’s published opinions. “I wish he had written another opera instead of spending his time on this,” he said.

Over the years, Israel has come to grips with Jewish-German links, however slowly. West German reparations paved the way for diplomatic relations between the two countries, although there is still some question whether East Germany, now integrated into the unified German state, will also pay.

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For many years, purchase of German cars was frowned upon, but now Volkswagens and BMWs are common sights on Israel’s highways. German and Israeli orchestras have exchanged visits. One, the Berliner Philharmonic, toured last year not long after the death of its conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Karajan despised Jews and showed no desire to come to Israel, and Israel did not invite the Berlin orchestra while he was its leader.

Breaking the Wagner taboo has been a work of several years. The Philharmonic planned as early as 1966 to play some of his works, but protests aborted the proposed program. A 1974 concert was canceled at the last minute. Mehta’s 1981 effort was viewed as underhanded by some.

But Mehta said that after the Wagner concerts, the orchestra polled its subscribers and found 86% in favor of the programming, and that then only two of the musicians refused to play the music.

“I spoke to the audience, and told them how much we sympathized with their feelings,” recalled Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic, who remains in Los Angeles after conducting three weekend L.A. Philharmonic concerts. “We gave them the opportunity to leave before we played. Nobody left.

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“Then one young gentleman stood up and said, ‘You will not play Wagner!’ I started the Prelude and a lot of catcalling began. The riot ensued because our followers responded.”

However, Mehta proceeded with the performance, eventually completing it to a loud ovation.

“We tried it again the following night,” Mehta continued. “Then the opposition came into the hall after the concert, prepared for it. The ruckus was so much that I stopped the performance myself.”

Mehta said it was his idea to wait 10 years. “It should be done by an Israeli conductor--and who better than Daniel Barenboim?” he said.

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If the concert comes off as planned--and Mehta said that while the orchestra is completely behind it, anything might still happen--Barenboim will lead the same “Tristan” excerpts, plus music from “Der fliegende Hollander,” as well as playing the solo part in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

“There’s still obviously sentiment lingering,” Mehta acknowledged. “There are people who are pained by listening to music which they were forced to hear in concentration camps. We’re very sensitive to their feelings, which is why this is a non-subscription concert--we’re not obliging anybody to come.”

Last year, Wagner’s great-grandson Gottfried Wagner lectured in Israel and argued that as shameful as were the composer’s writings on Jews, his music was untainted. Gottfried Wagner, who lives in Italy, said he often receives insulting phone calls for his defense of the composer.

“One must show patience if one believes like me in the unity of German-Jewish culture,” said the great-grandson as he talked to a crowd of 400 gathered in Tel Aviv during his 12-day lecture tour.

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Barenboim is being peppered by tough questions. One reporter asked him if he had not once performed Wagner abroad on the eve of Yom Kippur. “Maybe I did perform,” the conductor answered curtly.

Another took issue with Barenboim’s opinion that Wagner’s attitude toward Jews was occasionally ambiguous.

In any case, the conductor appears committed to carrying his project through. “You can’t keep putting responsibility for the Holocaust on Wagner,” he concluded.

Times staff writer John Henken contributed to this article in Los Angeles.

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