On the occasion of his forthcoming concert in Bayreuth, Robert Paternostro comments on the problematic relationship between Richard Wagner’s notoriously famous anti-Semitism and bridges being built between Israeli musicians and German culture.

In 2009, Paternostro became Artistic Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the last in a long list of renowned artists, such as Luciano Berio, Rudolf Barshai, Shlomo Mintz and Philippe Entremont.

In 1978, he had been appointed as assistant to Herbert von Karajan; before that, he had studied with Hans Svarowsky in Vienna, as well as with György Ligeti and Christoph von Dohnanyi in Hamburg. Today, Paternostro is not only renowned for his international and very diverse slate of symphonic performances, but also for his well-received new productions of works by Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss.

His frequent appearances with youth orchestras and up-and-coming artists, and the many television broadcasts of his concerts have cemented his reputation as an artist with a very special flair. A lot of recognition is also based on the good sense for interesting and challenging projects this Viennese conductor with Venetian roots is known for.

Just back from his successful American debut in June, Paternostro is now preparing for the forthcoming concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth.

Works by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and the contemporary Israeli composer Zvi Avni will be complementing Wagner’s music.

The concert, scheduled for July 26 in Bayreuth’s Stadthalle (town hall), is part of „Lust auf Liszt“, a series of events celebrating the 200th birthday of Bayreuth’s famous son, Franz Liszt.

The Wagner Festival on the “Green Hill” starts on the eve of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s Bayreuth performance and lasts until August 28, 2011.

Ilona Oltuski: Maestro Paternostro, how did the concert in Bayreuth come about?

Roberto Paternostro: I love, and I have been conducting Wagner’s music for many years now, and I also feel very connected to Israel. Not only professionally, through my work as a conductor, but also personally; many of my relatives live in Israel. When I took up the position of principal conductor in Tel Aviv, I was hoping to be able to somehow combine the two. I was very well aware of the fact that it still is very difficult to play Wagner in Israel. But I wanted to find a way to break the ice.

Ilona Oltuski: It appears that Katharina Wagner, in particular, displays a very refreshing and open-minded attitude …

Roberto Paternostro: Yes … and I have known Katharina Wagner, as well as her father, for quite some time. Serendipitously, her new concepts and ideas for Bayreuth coincided with what I had in mind. I talked with her, and she was very excited about the idea right away; as patron of the concert, she supported me a lot. The city of Bayreuth also offered an incredible amount of support.

Ilona Oltuski: What made you stick with your decision for a concert in Bayreuth, despite all opposition?

Roberto Paternostro: Even before my decision to play the Bayreuth concert I felt a certain curiosity and an openness to take on Wagner’s music in many of my conversations with musicians in Israel. I have to add that for me, above all, this was an artistic decision. I am not a politician.

And I want to again state very clearly that I understand the reservations of people who are opposed to this concert. I do not want to hurt anyone, and I have also discussed the matter with my family – a family in which we are mourning many victims of the Shoa. We do not force anybody to listen to this music. And it was totally up to the musicians in the orchestra to decide if they wanted to go and play, of course. But all of them are going …

I very much agree with the whole discussion, but not if it’s used to score political points, as has happened just recently. On another note, and irrespective of my activities, the first Wagner Association was founded in Israel. This is also a very interesting development.

Ilona Oltuski: Does the performance by the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Bayreuth contribute to coming to terms with the past?

Roberto Paternostro: That’s a very difficult question. The relationship between Israel and Germany is very good, isn’t it? We do not need to elaborate further on the exchange taking place in many areas here. At the same time, I think we can best deal with this past if we come together; also, everything has to be done so that Auschwitz and Birkenau will NEVER be possible again. Perhaps music can contribute to that.

Ilona Oltuski: Artistically speaking, which level of importance would you assign to the Bayreuth performance?

Roberto Paternostro: To speak about the significance of Wagner’s music is pretty much superfluous. Yet, in Israel it has become a symbol for some people. A symbol for everything that is horrific and which can – rightly so or not – be associated with this symbol.

There were composers who were very active in Hitler’s Germany – Carl Orff, for example, or Lehar – and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Richard Strauss was a very specific case. He had a Jewish daughter-in-law – I knew her personally – and he distanced himself from Nazism.

I have attached a lot of importance to including works of a contemporary Israeli composer, as well as works by Mahler and Mendelssohn in the Bayreuth program. For us, it’s a great joy to do all that.

Ilona Oltuski: Is it, or should it be possible to separate Wagner, the musician, from Wagner, the anti-Semite?

Roberto Paternostro: Yes, because a piece like the very tender and gentle “Siegfried Idyll” which we will be playing – is that anti-Semitic?

Ilona Oltuski: From today’s point of view, what can be said about Wagner’s essay, “Judaism in Music”?

Roberto Paternostro: Terrible. I cannot understand that this man deemed it necessary, for whatever reason, to write such a thing. There’s nothing to be glossed over here.

Ilona Oltuski: Thank you for this conversation, Maestro Paternostro.

Roberto Paternostro


Perhaps one can best fight the spirit of an anti-Semitic pamphlet like Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” by a strong Jewish presence in the music business. This is also a position shared by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni who will perform at the Bayreuth concert.

And perhaps one should hope for a time when artistic talent – in this case Wagner’s genius – can be granted a free and open space, to be judged and enjoyed independent of the artist him-/herself.

In the context of this long overdue discussion, the recent announcement that the Wagner archives will be released by Katharina Wagner und Eva Wagner-Pasquier is of particular significance.

Excerpts of this article have been published at Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/10832 (in German) 7-21-11

Ilona Oltuski@getclassical

By Ilona Oltuski

Ilona Oltuski was born in Berlin (Germany), the city her family returned to after her grandmother’s escape to Palestine. Through her parents – the father from Krakow in Poland, the mother from Berlin – Ilona experienced cultural diversity early on in life. Growing up Jewish in post-war Berlin and Frankfurt would add to this. Although deeply connected to German culture, Ilona was always acutely aware of the differences between herself and her environment. Perhaps it was the search for her very own identity, which led her to study art history and complete her doctorate on the Bezalel Art Movement, a part of her investigation into the existence of an explicitly Jewish art. Besides art history, Ilona studied piano at the Hoch’sche Conservatory - the Frankfurt music school founded by Clara Schumann. After moving to New York with her husband, she continued to study her favorite instrument and met and befriended many pianists - from amateurs to professional performers. A passionate amateur herself, Ilona decided to combine her love for the piano and the world of music with her interest in writing and the sharing of ideas, resulting in her first articles on http://blogcritics.org. Next was her German blog, ‘Wohltemperiert aus New York’, which she continues to write for Naxos Deutschland (http://blog.naxos.de); see the ‘Naxos America’ link for Ilona’s English blogs). Her English-language blog, http://getclassical.blogspot.com, can be found on Facebook’s blog network; it recently migrated into the collection of blogs on her own website, http://getclassical.org/ She also still maintains her ‘Piano Salon’ group on Facebook, connecting pianists and their friends. Forever interested in an exchange of information and ideas, Ilona hopes that her very own website will provide a wide platform for a conversation among readers, performers and music lovers. “Reinventing my creative side by writing about my diverse encounters in the world of music, about inspiration and artistic expression, and the very human side of these endeavors, reaching right under my skin - that’s my shtick”, she says. Ilona lives in New York City with her family.