Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles” uses archival footage, poignant interviews and well-staged sequences with actors to tell the highly dramatic and (for me at least) little known story behind the founding of what is now the Israeli Philharmonic during the height of the barbaric Nazi regime in Germany.
Along with making documentaries and music videos, Aronson is a concert pianist and plays chamber music regularly. So he knows his stuff when it comes to making a movie revolving around music.
But clearly from his film he is a humanist with a keen sense of history and the dynamics of personalities within the context of history.
The hero of his story was not only a musical genius but, more crucially to the story told here, a dogged man of principle, vision and humanity who read the tea leaves better than those around him, understood the nature of the beast that confronted European Jewry and figured out a way to fight back.
His name was Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish violinist.
His early life was spent as a child prodigy, virtually supporting his family with his astonishing ability at such an early age. Rave reviews from a concert given in Vienna in 1895 cemented his fame.
The story is told that at age 12 he played for Brahms himself who did not approve of children playing his music. The master was won over in his case.
Encountering fame and its pressures at such an early age came at a price, the movie makes clear. One was his lack of real schooling other than in music and another was isolation from the real world and its hardships.
So the carnage of World War I came as a shock. The war politicized the young man, now an adult, and he joined with other artists and intellectuals in the pan-European movement against strident nationalism. Many in this movement were, like Huberman, Jewish.
Huberman understood that Hitler and his Nazis were no passing fad in tumultuous post-war Germany. He watched as Jews lost jobs and were harassed by Nazi hoodlums.
While as a top concert violinist his job was secure for a while, he was not deceived by the bargains the Nazis made with the Wilhelm Furwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic to continue to employ Jews in order to mollify world opinion.
He visited Palestine as early as 1929 and toured extensively in 1934. As top Jewish musicians all around Europe and especially Germany began to lose jobs, he conceived a plan to form an orchestra of Jewish musicians for the growing Zionist community in British-ruled Palestine.
When Arturo Toscanini turned down an invitation to conduct in Nazi Germany in protest of the draconian racial laws the Nazis promulgated, Huberman went the next step and asked the great Italian conductor to lead this Palestinian Symphony orchestra in its inaugural performance.
Many hurdles remained: to audition musicians in Germany, Austria and Poland as he wanted only the best (and, he perhaps knew, he was sentencing those who did not make the grade to possible death), to arrange their immigration to Palestine and to get them and their families granted permanent resident status.
To do this he had to fight with British and even Zionist authorities to get those documents in the face of rising and violent protests by Arabs to these newcomers.
It took utter tenacity. But he prevailed.
Toscanini conducted the Palestine Philharmonic for the first time December 26, 1936. Huberman himself did not play as he wanted nothing to take the spotlight from the conductor and the new orchestra of exiles.
Actor Thomas Kornmann plays Huberman as an adult and looks not unlike him when compared to old photos and archival footage. Aronson smoothly blends these staged scenes with the old footage and interviews with those who recall those events (mostly as children).
Even Zubin Mehta, music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic, is interviewed about Huberman’s legacy.
The film differs considerably from most Holocaust films due partly to its subject matter but also in discursive musings such as the idea that the violin is perfect instrument for a Jewish musician since it’s easy to carry and hard to hide one’s emotions behind the instrument.
The film plays little if any attention to the plight or viewpoint of the Arabs under British domination. It also makes sweeping assertions such as Huberman “saved Jewish culture” in founding the orchestra.
These are minor flaws though in a doc that splendidly unfolds a timeless story of tenacity and courage.
The screening took place at the 500 First Screening Room in the building that was formerly known as Copia, an edifice originally designed as an art and wine museum in downtown Napa but now sadly abandoned to that purpose.
Afterwards I walked out into a wine pavilion where small artisanal wineries were pouring wines and was reminded once more that no opportunity for quaffing vino gets passed up at the Napa Valley Film Festival. So I’ll let my wife once again relate what happened the rest of the day.
This festival has as many food & wine events as film screenings.
So I was off to see my good friend Michel (Michou) Cornu, Culinary Director of Raymond Vineyards, show his skill. Dressed in a velvet robe and a goofy chapeau, Raymond Vineyard’s Le Chef Roi was holding court behind a shiny Gaggenau induction stove cooking up apples for his famous Tart Tatin.
The tented food demo pavilion sponsored by Gaggenau was set up amidst Raymond Vineyards. While one tart was baking in the oven, Michou was on to the second one, gently coaxing the golden delicious apples to caramelize in the cast iron skillet.
“Take your time to cook, don’t rush the process,” he advised.
The fine crusty tart drizzled with sensuous creamy caramel sauce was just too divine and actually paired well with the apple and pear aromas in the Chardonnay.
Next stop, the eco-friendly LEED certified Bardessono Hotel in Yountville for the Alpha Omega Winery-sponsored afternoon reception. This was the first time I had tasted this wine and I must say the delicious 2011 Sauvignon Blanc just knocked my socks off. It has balanced acidity and minerality and is laced with fragrant pear and vanilla notes.
Back at Raymond Vineyards that evening for the sumptuous dinner whipped up by Michou. Hosts Jean-Charles Boisset and Gina Gallo joined us to the bordello-like Red Room where we sipped the JCB No. 21 sparkling wine.
Then on to the Crystal barrel room unlike any barrel room I’ve ever seen. It’s more like a Parisian cabaret club with Baccarat crystal chandeliers and scantily-clad mannequins swinging from trapezes.
The four-course meal started with chestnut bisque, duck confit with foie gras on toast paired with 2009 JCB #81 Chardonnay from Sonoma. The number signifies 1981, the year when the vintner first visited the U.S.
The main course was buffalo cheek, bone marrow and veal sweetbreads. But since I don’t eat red meat, Michou made a special chicken course for me. Raymond’s 2008 Appellation Collection Cabernet sauvignon was served here.
A selection of Burgundian cheeses was washed down with the brilliant 2008 Generations Cab. The Tart Tatin was perfectly paired with Neige, a Canadian dessert wine made from green apples.
Ever the showman, Jean Charles couldn’t help but interrupt each course with a Burgundian cheer.