The 110-member Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, often described as Israel's foremost cultural asset and regarded by many as the "Orchestra of the Jewish People," has emerged in its relatively short life as a world-class ensemble.
Central European musical traditions made their way to the Middle East from the time of the first mass migration of Jews to Turkish-controlled Palestine in the 1880s. Following Turkey's defeat in World War I, the Balfour Declaration designated part of Palestine as a "national home for the Jewish people," which resulted in an increase of Jewish settlement in the area. Institutions of musical education were established as the Jewish population grew. As scores of Jews fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s, the population grew ever greater. One of that number was violinist Bronislav Huberman, who arrived in 1933 and immediately urged the leading Jewish orchestral players in Germany, many of whom had lost their jobs, to come to Palestine. Huberman brought together a number of musicians as the Palestine Orchestra. Conductor William Steinberg helped organize and prepare the orchestra; the premiere concert took place under the baton of Arturo Toscanini on December 26, 1936. The ensemble began touring almost immediately with appearances in Cairo and Alexandria. When the Israel's independence was proclaimed in 1948, the group was renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Philharmonic had no permanent conductor for nearly the first 40 years of its existence; it was instead led by a succession of prominent guest conductors. This exposure to a remarkable array of leading maestri lent the orchestra a certain flexibility and versatility, but at the cost of attaining cohesion and a consistent sound. However, two names dominate its history: Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and Zubin Mehta. Bernstein began conducting the orchestra nearly from the time he rocketed to fame during the 1940s, and led the historic concert at Beer-Sheva in 1947 just after the Israel Defense Forces took the site. He also conducted an important concert at the Lebanese border and, following the 1967 war, led the legendary Mount Scopus performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in celebration of the capturing of Jerusalem. His 40-year association with the Philharmonic was deep, committed, and intense, even though he never held an official position with the orchestra.
Mehta was appointed music advisor to the orchestra in 1968 and, in 1977, became its music director. In 1981 he was named music director for life. He demonstrated continued commitment to the orchestra even as he received more prominent appointments, including the music directorships of the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics. Kurt Masur has served as Honorary Guest Conductor, and Yoel Levi is the Principal Guest Conductor.
The orchestra is a true "philharmonic" in the traditional sense, meaning that it is a cooperative owned by its musicians. The Philharmonic performs concert series in its home city of Tel-Aviv and in Haifa and Jerusalem, and makes frequent appearances elsewhere. Its main venue is the Mann Auditorium in Tel-Aviv, a hall with whose acoustics have often proven especially problematic for recording companies.