News Column

THE VIOLINIST WHO SAVED THE MUSICAL CULTURE OF ISRAEL [Strings]

June 1, 2013

YellowBrix

New film documentary shows how humanity and the arts merged through violinist Bronislaw Huberman

"As I uncovered this story, I was shocked," explains filmmaker Josh I Aronson, director of the new documentary Orchestra of Exiles, currently screening at film festivals around the country. "I was shocked that so few people seemed to know much about it. I felt like I was touching history."

Orchestra of Exiles tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, the Polish-Jewish violin virtuoso and conductor who formed the Palestine Orchestra in 1936, importing hundreds of Jewish musicians to the Holy Land, as the Nazi threat grew across Eastern Europe and the persecution of Jews grew. Eventually, the orchestra became the Israel Philharmonic. The film - using a combination of archival photographs, letters, voice overs, and lovingly filmed recreations - is an emotionally gripping piece of film work that shines light on a little-known chapter of musical history.

Sure to gain the attention of Oscar voters in 2014, Orchestra of Exiles might do something even more notable. It may bring back into public awareness the nearly forgotten musician who used his own passion for music and his humanitarian ideals to establish one of the great orchestras in the world while saving hundreds of Jewish lives at the same time. "I've screened the film 30 times," says Aronson, speaking on the phone from his office in New York City, "and I always ask the question, 'How many of you have ever heard of Bronislaw Huberman?' Usually there are about five hands up. Over and over again, I've had people stand up and say things like, 'I'm a music teacher. I've been going to Israel for many years. I know music. How can I not have heard this story before?'"

Aronson - the Academy Award-nominated director of such documentaries as Sound and Fury, Bullrider, and Beautiful Daughters - is married to violinist Maria Bachman of Trio Solisti. In addition to playing violin on portions of the soundtrack, Bachman also served as unofficial musical director on the film. "She was a tremendous help to us, just in helping me select music, suggesting different kinds of music to be in different places," Aronson says. "She listened with me, very carefully, to all the Huberman CDs. She's more-or-less uncredited, but we really did this movie together."

In the film, a number of prominent living musicians and conductors contribute memories and reflections in "talking head"-style interviews: Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, and Joshua Bell, who now owns Huberman's 1713 "Gibson" Stradivari violin (renamed the "Gibson, ex-Huberman").

The most powerful voice in the film is Huberman's own, recreated by actors reading from the musician's writings as he discovered a profound sense of humanitarian commitment midway through his life. "The true artist," we hear him say, "does not create art as an end in itself. He creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal."

Aronson says, "In 1936, no one knew exactly what was coming in Germany. There had been waves of anti-Semitism in central Europe for hundreds of years, coming in and out of Germany, so a lot of people believed that this new wave would pass over them. But Huberman had a sense that something terrible was about to happen. In his writings, he kept saying that his efforts to build the orchestra in Palestine were a 'mission of rescue.' And he was right."

Aronson, whose next film will also explore the world of music and its power, is gratified that Orchestra of Exiles continues to be so deeply appreciated by audiences. "I've made quite a few movies," he says, "but with this one, I hear things I've never heard before. I've never heard anybody tell me I should be proud of my film, but with this one, I hear that over and over again. 'You should be so proud of this movie.' And I hear, 'Thank you! Thank you for telling the story of this Jew who saved a thousand Jews, this musician who saved the musical culture of Israel."

"The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. Humanity is the goal.

- Bronislaw Huberman

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