The History of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) is Israel’s national orchestra. One of the oldest orchestras in Israel, it is highly regarded as a cultural institution in the country. The symphony orchestra performs at its home venue, the Heichal HaTarbut (also known as the Culture Palace, officially the Charles Bronfman Auditorium) in Tel Aviv. It is among the renowned symphony orchestras in Israel and abroad.

Early years as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra

black and white picture of violinist Bronsilaw Huberman

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1936 as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra by Bronisław Huberman, a Polish-Jewish violinist born in Częstochowa, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). Huberman assembled a symphony orchestra consisting of Jewish musicians who had been forced out of their posts due to the rising Nazism in Europe, thus providing them refuge. These musicians were professional, of high caliber, and considered among the best and the most talented symphonic players in Europe.

Also, in the same year, the orchestra made its official debut in Tel Aviv under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, one of the world’s most renowned conductors (side note: he was the father-in-law of the legendary virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who was a Russian Jew). Its first principal conductor was William Steinberg. He was a Jewish-German conductor who had been dismissed from his post by the Nazis and subsequently moved to the British Mandate of Palestine, now Israel (he would later emigrate to the United States).

At the end of the Second World War, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra performed in recently liberated Belgium.

From 1938 to 1945, the orchestra’s general manager was Leo Kestenberg. Like many other Jewish orchestra members at the time, Kestenberg was forced to flee from the Third Reich and the persecution of Jews in Europe.

As the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the orchestra changed its name to Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Throughout its history, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been led by a number of internationally renowned conductors, particularly Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta.

Even before it became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein had already been working with them. The IPO bestowed Bernstein with the title of “Laureate Conductor,” a position he maintained until his death in 1990. With Bernstein, the IPO made a number of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, mainly consisting of his own works and works of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Mehta is primarily known for his long tenure with the IPO, whom he first conducted in 1961. In 1968, he was appointed as the orchestra’s “Music Advisor” at the time when the IPO did not have its own “music directors” but “music advisors.” But that changed in 1977 when the IPO named Mehta as its first Music Director. Four years later, in 1981, his position was elevated to Music Director for Life. With Mehta, the IPO has made several recordings for Decca.


Like many other symphony orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs the standard Western classical music repertoire, mostly from the Classical and Romantic periods.

As Israel’s national symphony orchestra and a leading force of Israeli music and culture, the IPO performs traditional and classical Israeli music and works by modern and contemporary Israeli composers.

IPO has also collaborated with other composers. For instance, they worked with Japanese musician and composer Yoko Kanno, who composed the score for the anime Macross Plus. The IPO performed and recorded the entire score, except for “Dogfight,” which was performed and recorded by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

For several years, the IPO has maintained its ban on the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner, who was anti-Semitic, and the association of his music with Nazism.

The IPO is an awardee of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest cultural honor.

For more information and news updates about the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, go to their website (in English and Hebrew):

Videos of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra

“Hatikvah” (Israeli national anthem)

Carl Maria von Weber – Overture to “Oberon”

Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 – Maestro Mehta’s 80th birthday