Leonard Bernstein Visits Eilat

In June 1950 Leonard Bernstein, Jennie Tourel and Zigi Weissenberg came to Israel to see the 2-year old Jewish State and bless it with a short series of concerts.

I was at that time a C-46 and C-47 pilot in 103 Squadron. My rank was Captain. On the 21st of June 1950 Major Shlomo Landau (Lahat) who was at that time the Squadron-Commander called me to his office and told me that we would have to fly a grand-piano from our base (Ekron) to Eilat next day.

Next day (22.6.1950) a truck arrived loaded with a grand-piano and several porters. The piano was found in Yaffo after a search among the furniture which was left behind by the Arabs who fled the city when it was occupied by the Israeli Army.

The piano was loaded on a C-46 by the porters who treated it as if it was an old sofa. Shlomo flew as Captain and I was Co-Pilot. We took-off from Ekron and shortly afterwards landed on the hard mud landing-strip at Eilat. The porters who flew with the piano disembarked it onto a military truck which drove it not very far off where they offloaded it on the beach of Eilat-Bay (part of the Red Sea) not further than 100 feet from the waterline. All this time nobody, including myself, did not think that we had to bring along a piano-tuner so as to tune this piano after it had gone through all its miseries.

When we flew back to base in Ekron Shlomo told me that I would have to fly Bernstein, Tourel and Weissenberg to Eilat the next day in a C-47, and remain with them in Eilat so as to fly them back the next day . He had to be in IAF HQ in Tel-Aviv and could not perform this VIP flight.

Next day, the 23 of June 1950 a Staff-car arrived with the three musicians. Our Adjutant requested that they sign the regular form which was signed by all civilians who flew with us and which absolved the Air Force from any responsibility in case of damage or death. After our return from Eilat the next day I succeeded to finagle the three forms from our Adjutant and have them to this day in my scrap-book. Leonard Bernstein and Zigi Weissenberg signed in Hebrew and Jennie Tourel in English. The bunks were taken out of this C-47 number 1408 and passenger seats were installed. The weather was fine all the way and I made one of my smooth landings at Eilat.

My VIPs were taken by the Eilat Miltary Commander on a tour and then lunch. After sunset every single soldier who was not on duty arrived at the beach and sat down on the dry sand surrounding the piano. There was quite a mass of people and there were several MPs who kept order. The three musicians arrived. Bernstein sat at the piano while Tourel and Weissenberg sat aside chairs which were brought specially for them. A deep silence fell on the buzzing uniformed public, Bernstein lifted both hands and brought them down for an opening accord and a horrible hoarse tone came out of this piano. Bernstein’s face went into a sour grimace, his mouth opened and he shouted: “Oy Vey” and let his hands fall down on his knees. I was a 23 year old saucy fellow: I rose up, pointed with my left arm towards Bernstein and shouted out loud: “Paganini went on playing his violin when only one string was left on it and you cannot play this piano?” The officer in command of the MPs, Mike Acharkan, pounced on me and made me sit down back on the sand shouting at me: “Shut-up!” and Bernstein turned around and said: “Who said that?” I lifted my hand , he nodded, turned back and brought his hands back to the keyboard and played a piece of music by Franz Liszt, hitting the register with his fingers furiously and disregarding the false notes that came out sporadically from this aching piano. It was wonderful. It was Magic. When he finished I joined the crowd, applauding for a very long time.

Despite this terrible piano Jennie Tourel, who was the most famous Mezzo-Soprano of the NY Metropolitan Opera sang first the Aria of the letter from Yevgeni Oniegin by Tchaikovsky and then the Wine-song from La-Perichole by Offenbach. Finally, Weissenberg took his violin out of its case and pointing with it towards me played something by Paganini. I will never forget this night and this “concert”. It was awesome.

Late next morning, the 24th of June 1950, they all arrived in the Jeep of the CO of Eilat. I was standing by not far from the airplane. Bernstein came to me, put his left arm around my shoulders and asked: “Are you a musician?” and I replied: “No Maestro. I learnt a little music in High-School and my mother who is a Music teacher tried to teach me to play the piano but I preferred flying instead.” Jennie Tourel then said, “Come to Carnegie Hall and the NY Metropolitan Opera when you fly to NY!”

It was not before 1954 when I could use her advice. I am a music lover and especially love Opera and I am proud and will never forget that I had the left arm of the great Maestro Leonard Bernstein round my shoulders in June 24, 1950 in Eilat, Israel.


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