NAs recently as 2016, an internationally active conductor with an Israeli passport was not allowed to enter the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Another Israeli conductor and pianist, together with his orchestra from Tel Aviv, has now even been invited to Abu Dhabi for a cultural state event steeped in history: Lahav Shani and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which he has conducted since 2020 as successor to Zubin Mehta.
The orchestra’s longtime, visibly moved General Secretary, Avi Shoshani, could never have believed that this would be possible. The IPO last appeared in an Arab country, in Cairo, in 1938, two years after it was founded. But at that time the State of Israel did not yet exist. And for the soccer World Cup in Qatar, which just ended, Israeli citizens only received an entry permit as an exception.
Qatar is not one of the seven United Arab Emirates with the capital Abu Dhabi. Represented by their Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayid Al Nahyan, they signed the so-called Abraham Agreement with the then and current Israeli Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu in September 2020. The aim was to normalize relations on the diplomatic, economic, military-political and cultural levels – a “beacon” for peace and prosperity, as it was called.
Since then there has been an Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and the only licensed Jewish community in the Emirates with Rabbi Levi Duchman, whose community center in Dubai has become a focal point for Jews from all over the world. A Jewish cemetery and other institutions of Jewish life and faith are planned. In view of this dynamic, the German Ambassador Alexander Schoenfelder speaks of the “lived Abraham Accord”. Word just hasn’t gotten around enough.
“We want nothing but to live in peace”
According to Shoshani, it only took two steps for the concert to take place at the highest political level: “Abu Dhabi turned to Herzog, Herzog to me” – meaning Israel’s President Jitzak Herzog. During the diplomatic process, Shoshani had the first lady, Michal Herzog, at his side, who then also traveled to the gala concert and personally thanked the state orchestra. With the performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, his international audience received standing ovations.
This symphony is as much a part of the orchestra’s history as Beethoven’s Ninth is to the Berlin Philharmonic, and it also marks the breakthrough in Lahav Shani’s career: with it he won the 2003 Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg. And since he sees his task in frequently performed works as “taking the brush and removing the dust”, as he revealed to the students after the orchestra rehearsal, the symphony experienced a presence after very effective detailed work that took the audience to the foothills of the Alps, in Daydreams, horrific visions, despair and euphoria. There was also Jewish mourning.