Controversy and outrage mark a milestone performance at the Bayreuth Festival.

Today the Israeli Chamber Orchestra will make history by performing the music of Hitler’s favourite composer at the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany.

Conducted by maestro Robert Paternostro, a descendent of Holocaust survivors, the orchestra will play Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in a poignant program that includes two Jewish composers despised by Hitler: Mahler and Mendelssohn.

It will be the first time an Israeli orchestra has played Wagner in Germany; with a boycott on the anti-Semitic composer in place throughout Israel since 1938. Paternostro has pointed out that the orchestra did not rehearse Siegfried Idyll in the state.

Although Wagner died half a century before Hitler rose to power, the Nazi dictator admired the composer’s writings on Germanic racial purity and drew on his polemical writings on Germanic racial purity, which called for the destruction of the Jewry.

The venture has the official support of Israel’s Ministry of Culture but has sparked heated debate in the wider community. One of the most outspoken detractors is Zionist group My Israel, which asks the orchestra via Facebook, “Do you have no Jewish self-respect?”

Tensions flared last year when Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter Katharina, now co-director of the festival he founded in 1876, extended the invitation to the ICO. In the face of international criticism and controversy she was forced to cancel a trip to Israel at that time. But with today’s landmark performance the Wagner family offers an important olive branch on the road to healing.

Maestro Paternostro believes it is time to separate the man and the music: “Bayreuth’s relationship to the Nazi regime can neither be justified nor whitewashed,” he said in a statement, “Yet I am convinced that it is possible to convey the musical significance of Wagner in a new and sophisticated way to the generation which is now coming of age without having to ignore the burdens or historic responsibility.

“I know in Israel this isn’t accepted. But many people, especially younger people, have told me, ‘It’s time we confront Wagner’.”

The orchestra’s performance is part of a concert series alongside the Bayreuth opera season that attracts thousands of Wagner devotees every year.