When noted Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber raises his baton on the stage of Symphony Hall this weekend, the audience for his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut can expect the unexpected, something new woven into the familiar.
The award-winning Wellber, known for his flair conducting opera, is music director of the Volksoper Wien in Vienna and also serves as music director of the Teatro Massimo Palermo in Italy. The Be’er Sheva native has maintained a long association with Israel’s Raanana Symphonette Orchestra.
The Jan. 5-7 BSO program includes a well-known repertoire from the European classical canon that boasts renowned solo violinist Midori on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and two familiar works by Beethoven: the funeral march from his Eroica symphony and the Leonore Overture.
But there’s a hint of something out of the ordinary with the American premiere of “The Eternal Stranger,” by acclaimed Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff, recipient of the Israeli Prime Minister prize among others. The performance also features Israeli actor Eli Danker, suggesting an element of drama and performative staging that is less common.
Milch-Sheriff’s stirring composition, set to text by Israeli poet Joshua Sobol, was commissioned by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany, where it premiered in 2020 for the anniversary of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Under Wellber’s baton, it has since been performed in Palermo, Hamburg, London, and across Europe.
The riveting monodrama for actor and orchestra takes as its starting point a little-known correspondence between Beethoven and his publisher about a dream the deaf composer had where he traveled as a stranger through Arabia and ended in Jerusalem. It relates Beethoven’s feelings of alienation some two centuries ago to a modern-day Syrian refugee, who yearns to be accepted and welcome.
The concert is the first of four BSO programs this season that focus on the themes of war and tragedy.
“Of course, I’m excited,” Wellber said in a phone conversation ahead of his arrival in Boston. “But it’s a different kind of excitement,” than if his BSO debut was in the early years of his career, the 41-year-old said.
He’s grateful that the BSO offered him the chance to lead a program of his design. They’ve tailored this American premiere of Milch-Sherrif’s composition for Boston, with an English translation that includes some passages in Arabic and a unique suspenseful scene.
The composition came about as a result of an extraordinary “aha” moment, Wellber revealed.
As he and Milch-Sheriff were exploring ideas for the commission for Beethoven’s anniversary, they were searching for something that would strike a relevant tone. He was taken by surprise when he learned about Beethoven’s letter to his publisher about his dream, one that Beethoven also shared in letters with friends.
The tip came about four years ago, from Noam Sheriff, one of Israel’s most celebrated composers and Milch-Sheriff’s husband who has since died. Sheriff mentioned that he had run across a reference to the letter decades before. In all of Wellber’s studies, he had never heard of it.
“We were shocked. It was amazing. I would never expect Beethoven to dream about Jerusalem,” he said.
Dreams are a very Jewish concept, Wellber added, from biblical stories to the Talmud and Sigmund Freud. “Dreams have a very important role in Jewish tradition,” he said.
In one part of the letter, Beethoven described the Jerusalem of his dreams as an unfamiliar place that he does not know and where no one knows or understands him. It struck the right note for Wellber.
“There is a claustrophobic feeling,” Wellber remembers thinking. It reminded him of the huge waves of immigrants who leave their homelands at great risk to cross borders, including the most recent flood of Ukrainians fleeing the Russia invasion. It was a discovery the Israeli was eager to embrace musically.
Under Sobol’s pen, the dream sequence is reversed, with a Syrian refugee arriving in Vienna, addressing Beethoven. For Wellber, the monologue takes on even more poignancy because Danker, the actor, is an Iraqi Jew, reflecting the multiple identities of Israel’s Jewish citizens who fled Arab lands and cultures.
One point in the performance that resonates deeply for Wellber comes about halfway through when the Syrian refugee calls out to his son who has been lost in the journey. It’s an emotional moment that fuses Milch-Sheriff’s score as it moves into a violin solo with Danker’s theatrical monologue.
In conducting and creating programs, Wellber champions innovative perspectives that bridge the past with contemporary interpretations, a quality he admires in guest soloist Midori.
For more information, visit bso.org