Growing up in Jerusalem, Asher Fisch had almost no contact with the music of Richard Wagner, public performance of which has been banned — informally yet implacably — for decades throughout Israel. And there was little mention and no serious study of Wagner during his training at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem.
But in 1992, Fisch was hired as assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper Berlin. Barenboim is an ardent Wagnerian, and in October of that year, Fisch was tasked with helping him prepare the orchestra and cast for performances of “Parsifal,” the composer’s last completed opera. At the first rehearsal, Fisch was supposed to cue a pair of offstage musicians at the beginning of the famous grail scene in Act I. But Fisch, listening to the incandescent music that serves as a transition from the preceding scene, had become transfixed.
“I was standing on the side stage watching Daniel conduct and listening to the music of the transition,” Fisch said recently by phone from Seattle, where he is principal guest conductor of Seattle Opera. “I was so taken that I forgot to run backstage and conduct my entrance.”
That stretch of music, he added, “infected me with Wagner forever.”
It was a propitious beginning. Fisch has gone to make a name for himself as a Wagner conductor, and on Saturday he makes his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut with an all-Wagner program that replicates a concert from the orchestra’s first Tanglewood season, in 1937. The program is a sort of greatest-hits assemblage: the overtures to “Rienzi” and “Tannhäuser,” excerpts from “Tristan und Isolde,” “Siegfried,” “Die Walküre,” and other operas, along with the “Siegfried Idyll.”
Most of Fisch’s work has been in the opera house, though he’s doing an increasing number of symphony concerts. (He takes over as music director of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2014.) He’s assembled dozens of Wagner programs in the concert hall, and while he said that he would never have chosen the Tanglewood program, he’s realized that it can make a valuable point about the span of Wagner’s achievement.
“What I expect the audience to understand from this program is how different ‘Rienzi’ and ‘Tannhäuser’ are from ‘Tristan’ and ‘Parsifal,’ ” he explained. “And this is unique to Wagner.”
He made a contrast with Brahms, all of whose piano works are being played this summer at Tanglewood by Gerhard Oppitz. “You can hear late Brahms in early Brahms,” he said. “But you cannot hear ‘Parsifal’ in ‘Rienzi.’ What Wagner did in his lifetime was so revolutionary that he remade the language of his idiom many times over.”
For the last decade, Fisch has wanted to program a Wagner concert in his homeland. But Israel’s ban — adopted because of the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism and Hitler’s closeness to the Wagner family — makes such a performance impossible by a state- or city-funded orchestra, Fisch said. But this past June, he assembled a privately funded orchestra for a concert at Tel Aviv University. It was to be part of a conference sponsored by the Israel Wagner Society called “Herzl-Toscanini-Wagner,” a reference to the fact that both Toscanini, the great conductor who was outspoken in his denunciation of the Nazis, and Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, adored Wagner’s music.
Just weeks before the concert, the university withdrew permission to use its facilities, citing complaints by Holocaust survivors. So Fisch and the society cast about for a new venue and rescheduled the concert at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Shortly thereafter, the hotel also withdrew its support for the concert. According to Fisch, “there’s not one venue in Israel willing to let us do this concert.”
The ban on public performance of music of acknowledged genius to which Fisch has devoted much of his life is understandably frustrating. It is all the more so since both of his parents lost family members in the Holocaust.
“There were many German Jews, like my mother, who thought that if you play Wagner in Israel, you’ve proven that you’ve prevailed,” Fisch said. “You protest the Nazification, the nationalization of Wagner by the Nazis.” This, he noted, was the approach of both Toscanini and Herzl.
“It’s mostly frustrating because there’s so much ignorance and disinformation connected with the ban,” he went on. “If I knew that everyone knew the facts and was making a clear, logical decision, I could live better with it.”
As an example, Fisch recalled being taught in school that Wagner’s music was played as Jews were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. “Which is complete nonsense,” Fisch said, citing repertory lists from a women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. “We know exactly what they played — they played Mozart and Beethoven, and polkas and mazurkas, and Johann Strauss.”
Wagner has been played occasionally in Israel, most famously by Barenboim, who conducted the “Tristan” prelude as an encore to a 2001 concert in Jerusalem, setting off protests and exits from the hall. The Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director for life, did something similar in 1981. But, as Fisch noted, neither came from a Holocaust survivor family. “I was the first one to try who really came from this background. And I thought that they will let it go because of that.”
But, he added, “it didn’t help.” He sounded downbeat about the prospect of conducting Wagner in Israel, even though he vowed that “at some point I will. It may take a few more years, but it will happen.”
Even when discussing other music, his thoughts seemed to turn back to Wagner. He mentioned that in Seattle he was rehearsing the Seattle Opera for a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot.” It was originally supposed to be “Parsifal,” but the repertoire changed because of budget considerations.
“It’s OK, because I love ‘Turandot,’ ” he said. “But it can’t compare to ‘Parsifal.’ ”