On December 26, 1936, corresponding to today’s Hebrew date, the 12th of Tevet, the Palestine Orchestra, founded by Polish-Jewish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, held its initial concert in Tel Aviv. At that time, Jewish musicians were being fired from orchestras all across Europe due to growing antisemitism. Between 1938 and 1945, the Palestine Orchestra was led by Leo Kestenberg, a German Jew unable to work anymore in his home country, Germany. While the initial performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, the famed conductor of the ubiquitous NBC Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg served as the orchestra’s first principal conductor. That initial concert featured music from German composer Richard Wagner, a practice that ceased after Kristallnacht, and has become the de facto policy.

During World War II, the Palestine Orchestra performed 140 times in front of Allied troops, including a concert before the Jewish Brigade of the British Army at El Alamein, Egypt.

After Israel declared independence, the orchestra was renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).

In addition to Toscanini, the IPO has been associated with other great conductors and musicians. From 1947 through 1988, acclaimed composer Leonard Bernstein shared his talents with the IPO. In 1988, the IPO named Bernstein, Laureate Conductor, a title he kept until his death two years later.

Celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta, was appointed Music Advisor of the IPO in 1969, having appeared as a guest conductor since 1961. In 1977, Mehta was appointed Music Director and in 1981, he was granted the title “Music Director for Life.” Although he himself was not Jewish, Mehta was associated with the IPO for five decades, having conducted thousands of concerts in Israel and abroad during his tenure. He flew back to Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, to conduct several concerts as a sign of solidarity with the Israeli people. In 1982, he brought the IPO to Southern Lebanon where Arabs in attendance rushed the stage after the concert to hug the musicians. During the 1991 Gulf War, with its threat of Iraqi Scud Missiles falling on Central Israel, Mehta conducted the IPO with an audience that had gas masks at their sides.

Since October 2013, Israeli pianist and conductor Lahav Shani (born in 1989) has served as guest conductor. In January 2018, he was appointed IPO’s Music Director.

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