Late in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven had a dream in which he was magically transported across the east through Syria and India, and finally landing in Jerusalem. About 200 years later, Beethoven's dream inspired another composer, one who knows Jerusalem well: Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff’s musical drama, “The Eternal Stranger,” was commissioned in 2020 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. It just had its American — and English-language — premiere at the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, led by guest conductor Omer Meir Wellber.

Wellber joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss his BSO debut. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Could you tell us more about "The Eternal Stranger" and the story? Because it goes well beyond Beethoven's dreams and touches on some very deep aspects about the Jewish people in Israel, right?

Omer Meir Wellber: Yes, I don't think it's even about only the Jewish people. Beethoven is still so relevant and still so deep in the culture of society. And actually because of these things, this kind of subtext, these kinds of messages that he tried to bring forward — and of course, at his time, it was connected more to the French Revolution, to different kinds of political influences in Europe. But of course, the influence continues.

Let's take the simplest example: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that we all know and cherish with the Ode to Joy. This symphony was, on one hand, played on Hitler's birthday, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. On the other hand, it was conducted by Leonard Bernstein when the Berlin Wall fell down. So this kind of huge, deep impact still exists in Beethoven's music.

And of course, in this piece, we tried somehow to take it even a step forward, in a way, because we are reversing the roles. We basically take a piece from the past and, through the present, we bring it to the future, which is quite an interesting philosophical process.

In our concert, we are not only playing the new piece by Sheriff, but it's also going to be a part of what we can even call a new peom, a symphonic poem by Beethoven, because basically this piece of Sheriff has no end. It's going to end into the second movement of the Eroica, the funeral march. And this funeral march is going to end into the Leonora Overture, which was the big, big overture that celebrates freedom from Fidelio. So this whole thing is about 40 minutes of, let's call it, we can even say a new symphonic poem by Beethoven, composed by him and by a contemporary composer.

Rath: That's fascinating because I saw the other Beethoven work on the program, but I didn't realize it's all incorporated into this.

Wellber: When I commissioned this piece from Ella, I already had this idea that I want to have a modulating piece. It means that a piece has an ending that I can always choose into which Beethoven piece we are going into.

For example, when we did it in Leipzig, we went into Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. When we did it in Palermo, we went into Beethoven's Mass in C. We're going to do it inside Beethoven's Ninth next year. We're going to do it in a few months, in Stockholm, where we're going to play it into the Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. And each one has a different ending, basically, to bring us into this piece.

So what's interesting is that basically the contemporary music doesn't sound so contemporary, it actually sounds like what Beethoven would probably have written or something like that. And also what's interesting is that Beethoven's music now under this lighting, or in this context, it has a completely different impact.

Rath: So the pieces that you chose for Boston, there's the funeral march you mentioned from Eroica and the overture from Leonore, which is Beethoven's opera that involved gender fluidity. Tell us about what those things will reflect for us here in Boston.

Wellber: Yes, absolutely. I mean, as you already mentioned, those choices — I don't want to expose all the surprises, but those choices, of course, are not just a choice. I mean, of course, it's everything has to do with message and with narrative. And when you take a story like this story: of our Syrian immigrant that is arriving to Vienna and through Beethoven, all the way through the Western culture, he says goodbye to his past, but is actually accepting his present and accepting his future.

What we did, basically, just for the sake of discussion, what we tried to do is we took Beethoven's dream, which was Beethoven himself going from Vienna to Jerusalem through Arabia. We basically did it on the other way around. We took our creature — the dream creature, let's call it — from Arabia into Vienna.

"The mourning is a very, very important part of starting a new thing. And in this piece, in this new poem by Beethoven, we basically deeply touch this mourning issue."
Omer Meir Wellber

When you think about it now, when you go into the Eroica, which is the second movement: the wonderful funeral march that comes eventually after this immigrant loses his child in the story of the piece. And through music, through this drum he gets from his child, he basically rediscovers his new identity. So this goes into this funeral march, because we all know that in order to go through things in life or in order to achieve things in life, sometimes we have to say goodbye to other things. And we can go from the extreme example when we lose someone close.

For example, in the Jewish culture, we have Shiva, which is seven days in which we mourn the person who died. And basically after the seven days you are supposed to say goodbye. The mourning is a very, very important part of starting a new thing. And in this piece, in this new poem by Beethoven, we basically deeply touch this mourning issue. I mean, our immigrant, he speaks in English, he speaks in Arabic. He dreams. He discovers new things, but he also loses his son and his old culture, his mother tongue — he also speaks about his mother tongue.

And through the funeral march, basically, we celebrate freedom and we celebrate what we can even call happiness, somehow. But not before you mourn your past.

Rath: Well, and "The Eternal Stranger" here is an immigrant, but also a refugee as well, so it's reflecting all of that.

Wellber: Yes, absolutely. I mean, if you think about this — at the moment we have, of course, a huge wave of refugees from Ukraine. This piece was commissioned in 2018, and I was still a principal in Dresden in Germany. And we had the huge discussions in Germany, especially in East Germany, about the immigrants and about the refugees from Arabic countries. And so this is basically, this was one of the triggers for this piece.

I mean, as an Israeli, what can I contribute and what kind of arguments can I bring to the table? And, to say the truth, I think as Israelis — for better or for worse — we are a political people and we have to also deal with it. I mean, let's say, if I would have been born in Copenhagen, maybe I would have other choices. But as an Israeli, I saw it as a connection to Beethoven naturally through human rights, through freedom, through political issues.

Rath: I love Beethoven, I love what you are doing with this and I've loved this conversation with you. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.