An interview with the IPO’s longtime Secretary General
Avi Shoshani, the Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, joined the IPO in 1973. At 25, he began a historic artistic partnership with Maestro Zubin Mehta, who four years earlier was appointed IPO Music Advisor. Together, as Israel marked its 25th Anniversary, they would reinvigorate both the roster and role of this influential institution.
Last fall, while accompanying the Israel Philharmonic on its North American tour, Mr. Shoshani took time to share his global perspective on the IPO’s twin purposes: “One, it is the orchestra of the Jewish world, of the diaspora, for every Jew outside Israel. And, two, it is the nation’s ambassador of goodwill, representing what our country is really all about. In that diplomatic ambassadorial role, the IPO stands alone.”
AFIPO: How has the Israel Philharmonic changed during the 44 years you have been part of it?
AVI SHOSHANI: I came to the orchestra when the last of the founders, who came from what Zubin calls the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were still there, but then the big wave of ex-Soviet Union musicians arrived. The Russians, who very often played strings, were fantastic players. During the last five years, about 40 people have retired, and we now have a lot of young Israelis. It really is a very new orchestra: a very strong orchestra. We don’t have any weak point. Our string section is excellent, our brass section is very good, and so on.
It’s a very versatile orchestra with a very different sound. They play Prokofiev in the right style. They play Mozart in the right style: The strings are very exciting and warm. They are also very opinionated musicians, which we welcome. These are personalities who want to express themselves through the music.
When people come to Israel and walk on the stage of our concert hall, they fall in love. It’s a very special atmosphere. The late Kurt Masur once told me that what made it so special for him was that when he rehearsed the Mahler 1 on the stage everybody in the building knew we were rehearsing Mahler 1. That is not always the case with other orchestras.
AFIPO: Can you describe your own path with the organization?
AVI SHOSHANI: I was a student at Tel Aviv University, studying comparative literature and theater. Basically, I am a teacher. I’m a teacher of Hebrew literature, but I thought I wanted to be an actor. I started to go to auditions and I was bored to death. One of my teachers, who is still around, told me, “You don’t really want to be an actor. How about applying to be the Assistant Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra?” I said, “You must be kidding me. This is the job in Tel Aviv. I don’t stand a chance.” She said, “What do you have to lose? Submit your CV.” She happened to know some meaningful people at the orchestra and convinced them to let me be interviewed. And, as they say in Hollywood, the rest is history.
What helped me was that, from our first meeting, I clicked with Zubin Mehta. We really clicked. I never forget that he’s Zubin Mehta, and so I give him all the respect in the world. But he is also my family and I am his family.
AFIPO: What are the highlights of your time with the orchestra?
AVI SHOSHANI: There are several, but the one experience that I will never forget was during the first Gulf War. That’s when I came to understand what Israel is and what the orchestra is all about. We couldn’t play in our regular concert hall because, according to the regulations, it was not sufficient to be a shelter. So we found a little theater in Jaffa. For obvious reasons we couldn’t play in the evenings, so every afternoon at 4 o’clock we would play our concerts. The hall was always packed. All of a sudden you understood how vital it was for people to hang on to what it meant to be a human being and the things in life we care most about. I remember that during those days the program we played was Mozart’s “Requiem.”
There are many other occasions. One was when we performed in Buckingham Palace and we played “Hatikvah.” With the history of Israel being a British colony, that was kind of a triumph.
AFIPO: Clearly, the Israel Philharmonic means a great deal to Israel.
AVI SHOSHANI: I think we are the ambassadors of the beauty of Israel, of the culture of Israel, of good values. Our concert hall was built in 1957, and those were very, very difficult days. They were the “Tsena” days in Israel. There was no food, no money. But Israelis understood that the orchestra was our culture, and if there was no culture, no music, there was no meaning to the state of Israel. We still represent that culture, the good values. We are humanitarians, both educating and giving people pleasure. As the saying goes, if 2,000 people are listening to our concert and after the concert they go home and smile, that’s who we are.
AFIPO: How would you describe the Israeli audience?
AVI SHOSHANI: It’s a very involved audience, one made up of individuals who grew up with a background in classical music. It’s an audience that cares … and understands.
AFIPO: What is the role of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra?
AVI SHOSHANI: Without the help of the Friends associations, we couldn’t manage. Let me put it like this: everybody who is in the orchestra world knows that there is no way for us to cover our expenses. If anyone attempted to run an artistic organization the way a business is run, no one would come. If I charged the ticket prices needed to pay for what the product is costing, nobody would come. In addition to the AFIPO we have groups in England, France, Australia, and a South American Friends of the IPO in Buenos Aires, and all the organizations around the world help us cover the gap between our actual costs and what the box office brings in. In addition to that there is so much good will created by being Israel’s voice in America. Essentially, though, the AFIPO and the other foundations help us raise the money we need to remain at our high level. It is a level that requires our musicians to work very hard. I don’t know any other orchestra that plays 150 concerts a year, or is willing to tour the way we do, playing almost every night.
AFIPO: What is the most important thing you’d like people to know about the orchestra?
AVI SHOSHANI: I think they know. They know that we are an excellent orchestra doing what we are meant to do in the best way imaginable. They also know, and are grateful, that we go on doing the right thing by playing wonderful music in a wonderful way, providing great education to ensure new generations of audiences and artists who will carry on our message.
AFIPO: What do you hope the future brings for the orchestra?
AVI SHOSHANI: The future should be as good as the present is: a great orchestra of excellent musicians who are devoted and dedicated, and who care about playing good concerts. I must say that this generation has really surprised me: in their involvement. They care. They want to know what’s going on. They want to have their impact.