The London Symphony Orchestra has been touring to Israel since 1960. Rob Cowan followed their latest trip
Caught in the midst of big-time political shadow-play, the 50- year-old State of Israel carries on much as usual. True, cafe gossip tosses the odds of an uncertain future and, yes, the "official" issue of gas- masks has caused mild alarm. And yet a feeling of community is, as ever, all-pervasive. When an elderly Arab offered a lady journalist in our party a surplus gas-mask, he explained that he wouldn't be needing it because his daughter was away at university. Similar gestures are commonplace, and the streets of Tel Aviv still teem with excitable representatives of a dozen or more disparate cultures: secular Jews from Russia, America and Middle Europe; Yemeni Jews trading fruit or falafel, and the hatted Orthodox hurrying between public prayer-houses and private rituals.

Drive north to Mount Carmel and the Haifa Auditorium - as Sir Colin Davis and the LSO did earlier this month for the penultimate concert in their latest tour of Israel - and stifling humidity vanishes on the tail of a bitter winter wind. The oddball seating arrangement in Haifa's hall incorporates large areas behind the orchestra that are currently reserved for half-price bookings by Israel's substantial (largely Russian) immigrant community. Israel is indeed a land full of extremes and paradoxes, with art, music and culture as leading priorities.

Still, future LSO tours will hopefully spread to other areas of the Middle East as well. "When we were planning this particular trip, I did go to see the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors," explains LSO managing director Clive Gillinson, "and, although it didn't work this time, they were both keen to pursue the idea for a future occasion."

Israeli nationals were lost in admiration at the LSO's resolve to honour its touring commitment, even in the face of distant but definable danger. Gillinson had insisted that everyone be fully aware of "all the implications all the time", although adding that "if we were told by the Foreign Office to leave, then of course we would leave". Fortunately, that wasn't necessary, and the tour went ahead to widespread acclaim.

But then it was the LSO alone that had responded seven years ago to an Israel that was traumatised by the recent Gulf War and anxious to re-establish its cultural links. Those 1991 concerts under Michael Tilson Thomas are still talked about (not least by the players) and there are even those who remember Antal Dorati's LSO tour back in 1960 - the very first time that a foreign orchestra had visited the fledgling state.

This latest tour was under the auspices of the Israel Philharmonic, with sponsorship from the Rover Group Ltd, which has inaugurated a three-year arrangement that will help ease the LSO's financial pressures into the next century. Six separate concerts shared two basic programmes, with Beethoven's Violin Concerto - and violinist Maxim Vengerov - as the central attraction.

Vengerov bowed a consistently vigorous, clean-limbed interpretation, with a flamboyant, Paganini-style first-movement cadenza (his own) and a courtly Larghetto that gained in repose as the tour progressed. Although not yet fully "inside" the piece, he triumphed over its technical demands. Certainly the audience had no problems with his performance, nor with the Dvorak Seventh Symphony that followed in two of the concerts. Dvorak is something of an Israeli favourite, as I discovered when a local cab driver briefly abandoned his steering-wheel to conduct an "in-car" rendition of the Eighth Symphony. Luckily I survived to hear Davis and his players revel in Dvorak's Brahmsian string writing (lots of affectionate rubato in the finale); the audience raised a communal smile for the rustic Scherzo.

Sadly, the Sibelius item fared less well. Prior to arriving in Israel, the LSO had already played both its programmes in Athens, with an amusing side-show from one member of the audience. Sibelius's Fifth closes with six loud, well-spaced chords, the first of which prompted one local to bellow a premature "Bravo!". Thereafter, each subsequent chord received a diminishing level of applause until, ultimately, there was none at all and Sir Colin himself had to indicate that the piece was over. The Israelis were marginally more comprehending, though each of the three Fifths I heard included applause after the first of those six chords. What's more, the sombre lament of The Swan of Tuonela - exquisitely played by cor anglais soloist Christine Pendrill - saw nonchalant audience members shuffling out of the hall even before the last chord had faded.

True, the "Gala Subscribers" crowd was easily the worst (aren't they always?) but even the more informed Israeli audiences seemed fazed by Sibelius's Nordic sound-world. Clearly, the Kalevala isn't quite the Kabbala, and Finnish pines are perhaps too distant from desert palms. As to the Fifth, the audience suddenly seemed like disoriented travellers left stranded at some unfamiliar port. Judging by his urgent handling of the first movement, Sir Colin must have sensed their relative lack of engagement. "If the audience doesn't seem to understand," he told me afterwards, "then the best thing to do is throw yourself into the music."

More heartening was the genuinely positive response to the local premiere of Michael Berkeley's Secret Garden, a joint-commission by OUP and the LSO first heard at the Barbican in January. My guess is that Berkeley's primary colours suit the region rather better than Sibelius' desolate blacks and greys.

Local press response to the tour was mixed. One Israeli paper questioned the choice of repertoire ("We like big tunes and a bit of razzmatazz," as someone in the hall put it), another levelled obscure criticisms at the orchestra, but most critics were generous with their praise. And I have to say that the audience backed the majority. "It is such a refined sound," said one elderly listener, "so very clear." Others commented on executive precision, warmth of phrasing and the sympathetic musical axis of Sir Colin's conducting.

For the players themselves, the tour afforded ample opportunity both for sight-seeing and for promoting the orchestra's out-reaching "Discovery" education programme. No one could be more concerned about the current state of music education than Sir Colin, who laments the decline in British school-room music teaching. The LSO's own "Stabilisation" programme allows individual players to structure their musical and creative lives in such a way that they can also pursue solo, chamber or educational careers, provided that the orchestra can always field the requisite numbers "on the night". While we were in Israel, the LSO's trombonists spent their free day giving unpaid master-classes in collaboration with members of the Israel Philharmonic.

And there are some valuable individual initiatives, too. Violist Peter Sulski, for example, did splendid work with Palestinian youngsters, while violinist Michael Spencer is investigating ways in which music might help groups of people - businessman, non-musical professionals, or whatever - function together in a creative way. These and other initiatives are helping to nurture the idea of music as an essential life-force, not just in terms of standard repertory, but as improvisation and spontaneous composition.

Chatting to orchestra members over beer and falafels confirmed the wisdom of Gillinson's methods. Artistic goals are viewed as more vital than short- term commercial "killings", though excursions into cross-over repertory have inspired varied "inside" reaction (the film-score for Brave Heart is more widely admired than McCartney's Standing Stone). Recent concerts have employed such diverse talents as Riccardo Chailly, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, John Eliot Gardiner and, of course, Davis himself. All have stimulated individual players to reconsider repertoire they thought they knew, or to take a fresh look at music they might otherwise merely have played and not thought about. "Our librarian has suddenly become extremely busy," one player told me; "people are ordering up orchestral parts because they want to play them, not just because they have to!" Anyone listening to Christine Pendrill's Swan will have known that for sure.

The LSO's next concert in its complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich is on Sunday at 7.30pm at the Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171-638 8891)