Sunday, May 15, 2016

Talking to harpsichordist and conductor Shalev Ad-El about Baroque music, conducting, different programming, music education and more

Maestro Shalev Ad-ElAdd (jpost.com)

On April 25th 2016, Shalev Ad-El and I spoke at length on Skype. Born in Israel in 1968, Ad-El made his name as one of Europe’s most sought-after continuo players. As a soloist, he has performed several times with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and with most other Israeli orchestras and has frequented most major stages, such as Carnegie Hall (New York), Wigmore Hall (London), Suntory Hall (Tokyo), the Berlin Philharmonic, and more. In 1992, together with some Norwegian singers, he founded the Oslo Baroque Soloists. A member of “Il Gardellino” (Belgium) and the Dorian Consort (Switzerland), he is musical director of the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and “Accademia Daniel” (Israel). Shalev Ad-El has held teaching positions at the Dresden Academy for Early Music, the Brno Masaryk University and Boston University, also holding master classes. He has recorded over 80 CDs for such leading labels as Deutsche Grammophon, CPO, Chandos and Accent.

PH: Shalev Ad-El, where were you born?

Shalev Ad-El: In Ramat Gan, Israel.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

S.A-E: My mother and my maternal grandmother both played the piano for enjoyment. Actually, my mother’s maiden name was “Schneider” and it was only after my grandmother’s death that I found out I was related in some way to the great violinist Alexander Schneider. Till now I have not had time to go into that but may do so now that I am retiring.

PH: What is your earliest musical memory?

S.A-E: I was about 6 and in England with my parents. I saw a sea lion and was so impressed that I composed a small song for it. I still remember the song. My really early memories are more of animals, having lived in Ethiopia for several months, where my grandfather was working. We had a giant turtle and there were monkeys, ostriches etc.

PH: When did you begin music lessons?

S.A-E:  I was seven, I believe. My first piano teacher gave up on me after a year, saying that “this kid” would be no good, was not doing what he was supposed to do. I was anti authority and thus was never really good at school...likewise with piano lessons.  My second teacher was Vera Boiko, wife of Israeli Philharmonic violinist Yefim Boiko (he became first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet.) She is a very special person. I spoke to her not long ago. She lives in Milwaukee to where they moved after leaving Israel. Her son is a very fine conductor, having a great career. Vera told my mum that I was very talented, that I played my own notes without regard to what was written on the page, but that everything would be fine. She left the country and I moved to another amazing teacher, who died at quite a young age. I took it really badly and stopped learning the piano.

PH: So no more music lessons?

S.A-E: I played the recorder, accordion and some other instruments for fun, but at age 11, I began playing the flute, which I continued playing for some years.

PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?

S.A-E: Yes, I was accepted to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts as a flautist.

PH: So the flute became your direction.

S.A-E: Not exactly. I was under the impression that I was the best flautist in the world, but I was the only one holding this opinion. One year into my studies there, my classmate ‘cellist Zvi Plesser expressed that he would like to play something with harpsichord. I did not really know what the harpsichord was, but agreed and then, of course, had to find a harpsichord. I volunteered to do this as all the class pianists were so busy with their solo careers that they did not waste their time going to other people’s lessons to accompany on harpsichord. And I really loved playing with other people.  I was a member of the school jazz group. The only person in the Tel Aviv area with a harpsichord was Shimon Rochman, who was teaching at Bar-Ilan University. He had recently immigrated to Israel and did not speak much Hebrew. I went to see him. He did not understand what I wanted of him and thought I wanted him to teach me the harpsichord.

PH: So did you begin taking harpsichord lessons?

S.A-E:  A couple, but at 15 I was sure I knew everything, including how to play the harpsichord, as it would be “the same as the piano”!   Shimon Rochman had a huge harpsichord in a tiny apartment and it became clear that taking it out would be impossible.

PH: So what came of all of this?

S.A-E: The concert with Zvi Plesser never eventuated, but I started to really like the harpsichord and this new, amazing world was now opening up to me. After two or three lessons I announced at school that I was a “harpsichordist” if anyone needed one. (When you are 15, two lessons are enough for you to imagine you know something!) But it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. I started getting calls, the first being from Ada Yadlin, general director of the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, asking me to play the harpsichord in “Messiah”, with Avner Itai conducting the very superb Cameran Choir and alto Mira Zakai as soloist. I agreed – all I would need was a figured bass and off I went to the Tel Aviv Museum. I listened to the recording of the performance a couple of years later and it was a total disaster: it sounded like a harpsichord concerto accompanied by a pantomime of soloists, choir and orchestra!  There were two concerts. Music critic Hanoch Ron wrote “And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) …a surprisingly good critique for the really poor job I did. Within a few days, this write-up brought me a heap of ‘phone calls – from the Israel Philharmonic, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Haifa Symphony to the Beer Sheva Sinfonietta. All these orchestras appointed me as their official harpsichordist. This went right through my last year at school. So I was hardly at school: I was rehearsing, playing concerts and not really knowing what I was doing, but gaining more and more inspiration to study the thing I was considered knowing; also, realizing more and more how endless the path to knowledge really was.

PH: Where did you study?

S.A-E: On finishing school I was able to defer my mandatory army service to go to Holland to study. Following one year of studies with Gustav Leonhardt and one with Bob van Asperen, I then came back to Israel. Actually, what I really learned in Europe was mostly from playing with other people and not through anyone teaching me “how to play”. I joined the Israeli army (in the Outstanding Musicians’ Unit) as a harpsichordist – I was the only army harpsichordist in the world.

PH: Where did you start to work after your army service?

S.A-E: I went to Prague, where I lived for 11 years. I had one job in Dresden and one in Brno and the beautiful city of Prague was right between the two. It was relatively easy.

PH: Why Prague?

S.A-E: I had thought of going to Brussels, where I had a really good group I had played with when studying in The Hague – including oboist Marcel Ponseele, flautist Jan de Winne and violinist Ryo Terakado, all big names today. We were classmates, we continued playing together and still do! But life was much nicer in Prague; I had a lot of work there as I was the only representative of the Dutch-Belgian-French early music scene in the city.

PH: Was this an advantage?

S.A-E:  Yes and no. If you are the best you are less challenged. In a place with a lot of fine early music specialists you compete and improve. But there is a lot of music in Prague, we were very active and there were a lot of festivals; I am happy I made that decision. Prague was also very cheap at the time so it was easy to make a living there. Seven years into my stay in Prague I got an apartment in New York and started dividing my time between the two cities.

PH: Where did you go then?

S.A-E:  I spent 11 years in Berlin. I changed my USA centre from New York to Chicago. Then, in 2001 I started doing a lot of work in South America, spending time there, and in 2005 began spending time in Asia.

PH: So this was all a focus on Baroque music.

S.A-E: Yes. But in 2010 I began saying goodbye to the Baroque…gradually and naturally.

PH: What happened?

S.A-E:  I said “No more bloodshed”, which was synonymous with “No more Baroque”. I was still doing some Baroque music with orchestras abroad – in Bogota, etc. But I also began with a Romantic program in Bogota and one in Rishon LeZion and with the Jerusalem Symphony. I was abusing all the trust people had had in my knowledge of Baroque as I was trying out later music.

PH: Was this a kind of crisis?

S.A-E: No. It was so amazing actually seeing the Baroque in Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms’ music so thoroughly, a complete Bach fugue, for example, in the middle of the Schumann Piano Concerto. And, before orchestrating it, the sketch Schumann wrote for his ‘Cello Concerto was written in the form of the ‘cello part and figured bass!  So the Baroque has influenced everything ever since. With all the respect and love I have for the Baroque, I have been drawn into the newer ways of expression, experiments and new harmonies. It is impossible to go back – you use your knowledge of earlier music, but you do not go back. Music has evolved and our history has evolved.

PH: End of story?

S.A-E:  Not entirely. In a week, for example, I will be playing a harpsichord recital in Germany. But I am now more interested in trying to see a bit more of the “new world”.

PH: Are you referring to conducting?

S.A-E: Well, I have been conducting for a long time. For ten years I was regular guest conductor of the Baroque series of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Halle, Germany – I directed a lot of Passions, cantatas, CDs, etc. but I am referring to conducting later music than the Baroque.

PH: Do you play modern music on the harpsichord?

S.A-E: When I was a teenager I played the three amazing pieces Ligeti wrote for the harpsichord. But today I lack the patience and the time to learn this repertoire.  However, three years ago, the Israel Philharmonic asked me to play the de Falla Harpsichord Concerto. I should have refused, but, in a moment of weakness, I agreed and I then spent many months working out where my fingers should land in this piece.  Baroque figures flow naturally after 250 years. One is so accustomed to the style and patterns. De Falla has completely different patterns and it was really hard for me to adapt to them.

PH: How do you see the state of musical performance today?

S.A-E: The more professional you become the more difficult it is to get a profound performance.  Professional work is preventing us from that. In order to survive today you have to spend time lobbying, PR-ing, commercializing yourself, meeting with sponsors and working on your relationship with your directors (some of them music directors of four or five orchestras at the same time). You are so busy running around, playing as many concerts as possible that there is not enough time to invest in doing things well or making changes.

PH: Would you like to talk about your time as conductor and musical director of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra?

S.A-E: Yes. I have had a lovely time. It was the first time I ever actually managed an orchestra. I took over the orchestra as it was on the verge of closing down. It owed money to everybody. Musicians were owed money several years back. The bus company refused to work with us, the printer was refusing to print our programs, halls refused to have us perform in them, etc. Already one year into my term there, we finished with more than NIS 150,000 profit. In achieving that, I had to make some enemies my first ever enemies - mazal tov!.  But I am older now and, in retrospect, am happy to be surrounded by the people there. The orchestra had not travelled for 17 years; we have had two very big tours -  eight concerts in China and eight in South America. We have raised salaries by 40% and have people working only full time rather than four days a week. So we are now fully functioning, paying in full, have had three years of amazing soloists and have commissioned many new pieces and experiments. We stick almost strictly to classical music. My predecessor did some cross-over and ethnic music which I have not done, so the orchestra has had to attract a new public and it has attracted an excellent audience and added to its list of subscribers. All this was a major risk; a lot of people around me predicted failure.

PH: What repertoire does the orchestra play?

S.A-E: We stick to relatively known, attractive classical music because we want people to hear music they love, but to listen to it in a very different and inspiring way. You could call it “mainstream but different”.

PH: What is different about the NKO’s programs?

S.A-E: We do not have any of the soloists performing their usual repertoire. Each has to present something he has never performed before. For example, first flautist of the Vienna Philharmonic Karl-Heinz Schütz played Beethoven’s Concerto opus 61, originally for violin, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, countertenor Andreas Scholl sang contemporary Israeli composer Menahem Nebenhaus’ “Dowland Song Remix Suite”, trombonist Christian Lindberg played the Mozart Horn Concerto and Latvian accordionist Ksenija Sidorova performed J.S.Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in d-minor. We have just had German baritone Klaus Mertens singing Schubert Lieder with Max Reger’s orchestration. We also commissioned the excellent Israeli composer Israel Sharon to orchestrate Fanny Mendelssohn’s epic piano cycle “Das Jahr”, which was performed during our tour of South America. What is interesting is that these artists have continued with this “twist”. It’s a great compliment. Andreas Scholl took Nebenhaus’ score away with him and has offered it to other orchestras.  Sidorova has continued recording and performing Bach all over and Karl-Heinz Schütz has toured extensively with the works he performed with us; these pieces inspired him to reconstruct Brahms Violin sonatas and record them beautifully. For the last concert of the season we are going to reconstruct the premiere of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which took place in Vienna on December 8th 1813. We will present the public with exactly the same program. There were 123 musicians on stage. We cannot do that but we will have almost double the number of players of our orchestra nonetheless. We will also inform the public as to who was in the orchestra on that occasion, how much each earned for taking part, how many rehearsals they had, etc.; there were many famous composers playing at that historical performance, among them, Salieri, Meyerbeer, Hummel and Louis Spohr. And we have also hired some amazing chefs to serve food made from recipes from an 1800 Viennese cookbook. 

PH: Some most original ideas.

S.A-E: We also had a competition concert.

PH: Who were the competitors?

S.A-E: J.S.Bach and German harpsichordist and composer Christoph Graupner. The works chosen were written in 1723 when both were competing to get a job in Leipzig. We played works by both, not specifying who had written what and 90% of the public chose Graupner as the winner! They were sure the music of his we had played was by Bach.

PH: Do you conduct the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in modern works?

S.A-E: We have done quite a number, of course, though for me, personally, even Poulenc is modern. I did, however, conduct Alma Deutscher’s opera “Cinderella” last summer. Besides being a wonderful piece of music written by a true genius, if this is to be considered “modern”, just show me where to sign to do that for the rest of my life.

PH: What are you happy performing nowadays?

S.A-E: I am feeling more and more comfortable with Brahms. Am “living” in 1850 or 1860 at the moment. Conducting 20th century music is fine, but I do not feel I understand it well enough to present it respectfully to the public. Performing it once, observing dynamics and conducting it in time is not really the meaning of musical performance. In February-March I conducted Bruckner; I managed to grasp it well as his music is very conservative, religious and very structured. I felt comfortable about the result. I could not say the same about performing Mahler – it is way too early for me to tackle his music. Listening to it, I sit there adoring it but conducting it means being fluent in the “language”. Talking of language, I remember conducting the Norwegian Soloists Choir; we did mostly Baroque music and a lot of Bruckner motets, Brahms motets, those by Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolff. For a concert in Tel Aviv, the concert tour was supported by the Norwegian Embassy, and they insisted we perform music of Grieg.  The choristers knew Grieg’s Four Psalms for baritone and chorus very well. They sat there singing them by heart and I, not understanding a word, had to conduct them from the music, which was a bit ridiculous. So I learned them by heart (Norwegian vocal music, with a long tradition of great choral composers, is very particular and rich; I was very privileged to have experienced it).  Out of the corner of my eye I was focusing on one tenor who was very expressive, one of those singers whose facial expression shows you what is going to happen in the next bar. Having him in sight, I conducted what I saw, changing the character of my conducting according to his expression. This man is a very famous tenor now. Several years later he gave an interview, saying that, strangely enough, after all the Norwegian conductors with whom he had sung the Grieg pieces, mine was the closest to his musical taste!

PH: Do you compose music?

S.A-E: No.

PH: Do you edit?

S.A-E: I did it for several years…before the internet stole my attention. When bass-baritone Klaus Mertens and I met in 1995, we decided there were many, many amazing composers we wanted to research and find works of theirs. We did that with Fasch, a lot of Graupner (we could never finish Graupner; he wrote 1200 cantatas.  We went over some 20 of them) and Telemann (who wrote 1400 cantatas, of which we also took on some 20). We concentrated on baritone-bass cantatas. Each of these projects meant going to libraries, taking out microfilm and figuring out the instrumentation to see if it was something we wanted to perform. The manuscripts of Graupner’s works are sometimes very illegible, so we could not really get any idea of the music. Discovering the correct scoring might mean needing 5 corni da caccia, 3 oboi d’amore, 2 chalumeax; not having these instruments, we could not tackle such a work. But where we found a suitable score we edited it. Of those we edited, there was not one bad piece:  the Fasch, Graupner and Telemann works turned out to be amazing pieces of music. We were so lucky and privileged to perform them - truly touching pieces.  Graupner (as does Fasch) has his own very special language. It is like eating black beans: once you have started with it you cannot be without it. I really became addicted to Graupner’s music, as did some other friends of mine.  And, as I mentioned before, our public also voted him in.

Then, around 1995 I started working on the Hebrew version of Händel’s “Esther”. The libretto was scattered around Europe. It is an amazing story, but complicated. Händel was working at the Hamburg Opera. The head of the Opera was a Jew, who was very, very kind and generous to Händel, making it possible for the composer to travel and Händel travelled a lot.  In 1723, Händel went to Venice. It was February, everything was closed and the only event in town was the Purimspiel (a traditional performance for the Jewish Purim festival). Händel witnessed the Purimspiel and was so moved by the story that, on his way back to Germany, he had already begun his sketches for the Haman and Mordechai tragi-comedy that later became his first oratorio. And, as he was most famous for his oratorios, this was really the “opening shot” of his great career. In London, he was known for his empathy with the Jewish community and he served it well. They had a great friend in him: he was famous, open-minded and influential, which also meant financial support for him.  Händel, a liberal thinker, was one of the most vocal artists on the subject of co-existence, an uncommon practice in those days. He once said that he did not “have the honour of possessing any prejudices”.  A Venetian rabbi, Jacob Saraval, who ended up working for the Portuguese congregation in Amsterdam, was commissioned by them to go to London to hear “Esther” played at Covent Garden in 1759. Saraval, brilliant both musically and with words, was so impressed with the oratorio that he rewrote it in Hebrew – a beautiful libretto based on the existing libretto. We do not know whether it was ever performed in Amsterdam or not; perhaps it was too difficult for them there to perform. Austrian-born composer Christian Joseph Lidarti (1731-1795), living at a time when style was constantly changing, took the text and wrote new music to it. He was already writing in a totally Classical style. A non-Jew in service of the quite liberal Amsterdam Jewish community and writing pieces for them for different holidays etc., Lidarti was no genius, but his “Esther” is a very nice piece. What I needed to do was to collect all 159 of Händel’s direction scores of “Esther” (each different as each time he performed it in a different way, with different players, different soloists. Händel was a very pragmatic, practical person) and I recreated the piece. It took me almost 10 years. We performed it in New York in 2002 and 2003 and it was very successful. I had some really excellent soloists – Michael Chance (singing in Hebrew!), Suzie LeBlanc, Charles Daniels and I also brought my choir from Norway. It was a very expensive project, of the kind only New York could pay. I had planned to do it with the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in Israel next year, but that will not happen as I am leaving the orchestra.

PH: What, in your opinion, is happening in the world of musical performance?

S.A-E: Music is an amazing thing, an amazing mode of expression. One has to keep it in proportion. The music world today is very disproportionate, often not being really about music now. There are many, many things at stake.

PH: What are your thoughts when playing a recital?

S.A-E: I’m hoping they will not shut the kitchen of the restaurant I was intending to go to after the concert.

PH: And your thoughts on teaching…

S.A-E: Nowadays, I only give master classes. It means less responsibility, like being the lover rather than the husband. But I did teach in mainstream frameworks for many years. I have to say I was never a great fan of the academic system and definitely not as a teacher. In Baroque times, ten people might meet together twice or three times a week, playing for each other, writing music, each performing and explaining his own music. For me, the nearest thing to it is the groups I had – my choir and Accademia Daniel, an amazing group of a few people, such as Kati Debretzeni, Nima Ben David, Ofer Frenkl, Dafna Ravid, Ira Givol and Amos Boasson, really the finest musicians. We exchanged ideas. At the beginning, Kati and I were the more experienced, so we contributed more. We all learned a lot and improved so much. This process is much closer to what I personally understand as “music education”. Sometimes a manner of playing is taught is like teaching someone to fly a ‘plane, but without the ‘plane. Music is like a language and you can only learn to speak it in a market, where nobody speaks any other language.  I did teach conventionally, either for the importance of being a professor at 23 or for the money or for whatever, but I have never really believed in this process.

PH: So what attracted you to working in the third world?

S.A-E:  Firstly, making music there is about anything but making money or career, which already is great. My goal is to make them realize how wonderful classical music is and how it can enrich their lives. If you go into a village in Bolivia, everyone plays an instrument. We played the St. John Passion for them for the first time; they are very religious Christians and they have never heard music of Bach. I also conducted the first St. John Passion in Cuba. These are much more meaningful experiences for me. In Mitzpe Ramon I started a mission in 2008, in which I have brought a lot of excellent people down there to play concerts, to play in schools and show the children the instruments – most of these children have never heard classical music. They are an underprivileged society with close to no possibility to even get to Beer Sheva to hear the orchestra there. Luckily, a year ago I managed to get the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra there for the “Sulamot” (scales/ladders) program, thanks to its “magician” of a director Sarah Elbaz. We now have over 100 children playing in an orchestra there. Once a year they go to Tel Aviv to play with the Israeli Philharmonic. For disadvantaged children with many issues, an instrument is such a great solution and they invest all their energy into playing it! Within one year, school violence there has dropped dramatically.  And it has been proved that children who play instruments are better in school studies because of other qualities they develop – discipline, coordination, concentration. This, for me, is of greater significance than teaching someone how to play the harpsichord.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

S.A-E: My wife and I like many things. We travel a lot to concerts. We love traveling wherever we are, we like to try the local food. If there is some dish we especially like, my wife knocks on some door to ask somebody to teach her how to make it. I also obsessively love all kinds of animals…always did, but after learning more about human nature from the point of view of an orchestral director, even more so. I also like to see the world through the eyes of real estate markets, not from a financial- but rather from a psychological point of view - what things are considered to be, that very often are not.  Also, not the most expensive restaurant will necessarily be the best – sometimes the opposite is true. Likewise, in music.

PH: Do you have any hobbies?

S.A-E: I like collecting air miles. I happily declare that I have some very good “students” who have followed my instructions and are having a wonderful time travelling, living up to their  miles in the most fulfilling way.  In fact, I recently received a letter from a stranger who was sitting next to me on a ‘plane from San Francisco to Tokyo some months back. He invited me to lunch for having saved his life with a little trick I had revealed to him. The fish was great…very fresh.

PH: Maestro Shalev Ad-El, many thanks for your time and for sharing so much of your experience and so many thoughts.
 
 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Speaking to Dr. Jörg Hansen (Germany) in Jerusalem, curator of the exhibition showing Mendelssohn's part books for his performance of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829

Dr. J. Hansen (Eisenach.thueringer-allgemeine.de)
On a wintry March 16th 2016, I met with Dr. Jörg Hansen, curator of “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: brought back by a Jewish boy”, an exhibit showing at the Jerusalem Theatre and coinciding with the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival. Dr. Hansen is director of the Bachhaus in Eisenach, Germany.

PH: Dr. Hansen, how did you come to direct the Bachhaus, Eisenach?

Jörg Hansen: My university studies were in Philosophy, in Logic actually, but I love Bach’s music and became involved in the Bach Society. I have been the museum director since 2005 and it has been a great honour for me.

PH: Would you like to talk about the material for the exhibit you have brought to Israel?

JH: It was in 2013 that we managed to acquire the bulk of the material for Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion of 1829, the big event of the Bach Renaissance – the starting point. We acquired 62 of the 158 music books from which the choir sang. All this material was scattered throughout the world since being used in 1854 for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in London. It never went back to Germany. Fortunately, Mendelssohn’s score was acquired by the Bodleian Library (Oxford, UK), but all the other material became scattered. So, that was something big for us and an exciting project for people to fund.

PH: Was it difficult to find?

JH: Well, one or two years before we acquired it, I had been trying to buy it at Sotheby’s in London. Eight of these leaflets were on auction, but our grant of 25,000 Euros was not enough to buy them all.  There were some anonymous telephone bidders who almost doubled the amount. I was very disappointed. Then, a year or two later, we received the offer to get 62 of the booklets and they are really now almost all there is. So it is good to have the material in a museum dedicated to J.S.Bach, as it represents such an important event.

PH: There are a number of Bach festivals nowadays.

JH: Yes. Actually, the Bach Festival idea comes from when Bach’s music was known only to musicians but not to the public. They came into being to promote Bach’s music and initiate Bach music societies. The Bach Society that owns our museum has been sponsoring Bach festivals since 1901, mostly in Germany, but also in other European cities such as Paris, Vienna and Brussels. It also sponsors the Eastern European Bach Academy. Bach festivals have become quite a tradition.

PH: So now we are having our first Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

JH: Yes, it is splendid to have a Bach festival here in Jerusalem and an honour for us to be a part of it. In November, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra asked us to do this exhibition, as the St. Matthew Passion was to be featured at the Bach in Jerusalem Festival. We got funding for it from the Free State of Thuringia; it has been exciting to produce it. And we have all this material coming from the big events leading up to Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew. Indeed, what led up to it comes from a tradition that was essentially that of Jewish musical families, families such as the Itziks and the Mendelssohns.

PH: Can you elaborate on this?

JH: Sarah Itzik Levy (1761-1854) maintained an active musical salon, where she developed what might be called a “J.S.Bach cult”. Among her early visitors were Mozart and Haydn; the latter’s early biographer G.A.Greisinger gave her the autograph of Haydn’s Heiligmesse, which she later passed on to her great nephew Felix Mendelssohn. An accomplished musician, she had studied harpsichord with Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. As W.F.Bach’s main student in Berlin, it was Sarah who actively promoted music of the Bach family.

Sarah Levy’s sister, Bella Salomon (1749-1824) was taught music by Bach’s student Johann Philipp Kirnberger. One of the first to recognize the importance of the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, (Bach’s keyboard music had been performed regularly since 1802) she sent a copy of the work to her grandson Felix Mendelssohn in 1823. Six years later he produced the performance.  Without that gift to her grandson and Mendelssohn’s momentous performance, there might not have existed a Bach House or Bach festivals in Israel or anywhere else.

PH: Can you tell me about the scores in the glass cabinet?

JH: Yes. I first saw a handful of them in an exhibition at the Mendelssohn House and was deeply touched that they still existed. The interesting thing is that they were copied from the score Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn’s grandmother, had given Felix when he was just 14 years old (1823). With Bach’s sacred music no longer performed, she asked the owner of Bach’s own score – a collector from Hamburg then living in Berlin and whom she had met a number of times – for a copy. So what we see here is a copy of Bach’s 1736 autograph – the parts used in 1829 and they were the start of Mendelssohn’s almost-obsession with Bach and was the incentive to performing the work again in 1829, for the first time after Bach’s death.

PH: Whose handwriting is this?

JH: That of Mendelssohn’s fellow students - students of the Singakademie (where it was performed); they have now almost all been identified. Having been a singer myself, it was so interesting to see the singers’ personal pencil markings, such as things they underlined.  Changes were made by Mendelssohn himself for the performance in 1829, such as “corrections” to the harmony of a chord and inserting the BACH motif, things a 20-year-old would do. Mendelssohn also decided the chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (When I once must depart) be sung unaccompanied, as this would make it more dramatic. If you look here, you will see he has changed Bach’s major chord to a minor chord to be more effective in this such sorrowful piece. These choral parts were then taken to Leipzig in 1843, where Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion, this time with the St. Thomas Choir. A Bach monument was erected there, still standing today (unlike the Mendelssohn monument, which was pulled down in 1939). Then, in 1854, these same parts were taken to London for the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion there.

PH: Whose picture do we see here?

JH: This is a recently-found portrait of Bella Salomon. It is a reproduction. The portrait itself is tiny and painted on ivory; it was found in a drawer by a cousin of the current Mendelssohn family.  It is a wonderful painting of Bella. Bella Salomon was a staunch Jewess and disowned her own son when he converted to Christianity; he had been baptised in a moment of hasty decision in 1822, then adopting the name of Bartholdy. Felix Mendelssohn was baptized at age 7 and his parents kept the event secret from Bella for fear she would cut off relations from him, too. In honour of his philosopher grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, Felix did not want to give up the name of Mendelssohn, despite the fact that his father insisted Felix would never really be considered a Christian if called Mendelssohn. All this reflects the difficulties under which Jews were living at the time and the limited career opportunities available to them as Jews. But Bella Salomon and her sister did not go along with the idea of conversion: they donated a lot of money to the Jewish education system. Essentially, the whole Jewish social system was run by donations from wealthier people of the community.

PH: An interesting map here.

JH: It is a 1592 map of the world in the form of a clover leaf, with the continents placed around the city of Jerusalem. It appears in “Travel Book to the Holy Land”, a book of a number of curious maps like this one. The interesting thing is that Bach probably had in his own library the old folio format copy of this book of strange maps. In his private library he also had Flavius Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” and “Judaism and the Stubborn Unbelief” (which, incidentally makes reference to Jewish traditions, to the Talmud and Kabbala), later prompting Nazi musicologist Karl Hasse to stipulate Bach’s “anti-Semitism”, although we cannot know whether Bach had even read the book. Bach, however, would never have met a Jew.  

PH: And this building?

JH: It is the Berlin Singakademie, which saw the famous 1829 re-performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Bella’s sister was a pianist there for more than 20 years, where the Mendelssohn family also had social- and professional connections with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who had taught Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.  Zelter considered Bach’s religious works too outdated, too priestly for contemporary ears, but he did direct further performances of the St. Matthew Passion in Germany when Mendelssohn was in England. 

PH: And the bust of Bach here?

JH: It is of a correction. There are not many of the original casts left. And here is one of Mendelssohn.

PH: And the two video films?

JH: One explains the St. Matthew Passion, the story of its rediscovery, the way Bach composed it, how it differs from how the St. John Passion was written: the St. Matthew lays emphasis on sacrifice and there is commentary throughout, making it a more poetic work than the St. John. 

The other screen shows a short video dealing with the question of whether Bach’s Passions are anti-Semitic, a strange question I would say, considering the fact that Bach would not have ever met a Jew.  But the question has been asked constantly since 1941. This may have been sparked by Bach’s dramatically operatic moments of fury in these works. However, if you look at the arias, they impart the message of compassion. The St. Matthew Passion gives reflexion on individual guilt and salvation.

 
PH: Dr. Hansen, thank you so much for your time and so much fascinating information.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Talking to young Russian-born virtuoso violinist Marianna Vasileva

Marianna Vasileva (photo:Maxim Reider)

On February 6th 2016 I met with 28-year-old violinist Marianna Vasileva (Russia-Israel) at the Dan Eilat Hotel, where she performed in two of the concerts of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Ms. Vasileva took her first violin lessons with her father, later studying with such prominent teachers as Vladimir Ovcharek (St. Petersburg), Zakhar Bron (Cologne) and Dora Schwarzberg (Vienna). She has won prizes in several international competitions, including the prestigious Henryk Wieniaski Violin Competition and the Prague Spring International Music Competition. In addition to her international performing career, Ms. Vasileva holds master classes and is currently teaching at the Music Academy in Madrid. She has over 40 concertos to her repertoire.
PH: Where were you born?

Marianna Vasileva: I was born in St. Petersburg to a family of musicians. My father is a violinist and my mother is a pianist.

PH: What is your earliest musical memory?
 
MV: As a small girl, my eyes, reaching the level of the piano keys, watched my mother’s fingers. I seemed to understand how the piano sound was produced, but I did not understand how my father produced the sound on the violin. When I was alone at home I tried to imitate them. But the first instrument I touched was the piano and I tried to improvise something. The first violin pieces with which I became familiar were the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and the Chaconne from J.S.Bach’s Partita no.2 in d-minor. Those works were the beginning of my childhood musical memories.

PH: Did you start your early musical training with the violin?

 MV: Yes. Since my father was my first teacher it was hard work right from the start at the age of four or five and, fortunately, I was already practising in a professional manner – for a few hours a day, with only around one hour free for me to take a walk and twenty minutes to watch cartoons. My father was a good teacher for a child.
PH: Did you attend a music school?

MV: Yes, at the age of seven I started attending a special music school which was under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This meant that children at the school were taught by professors of the Conservatory.
PH: What about higher studies?

 MV: After finishing school, I then completed studies at the Conservatory itself, but, by the age of eleven, I was already also studying with Dora Schwarzberg at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University of Music and Performing Arts) in Vienna. From the age of 17 or 18, I studied with Prof. Zakhar Bron at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz (The Cologne University of Music) in Germany. So, from age 11, I was actually studying in two conservatories at any one time.

 PH: When did you start performing?
MV: My first concert was at the age of eight. At age ten I won my first international competition. That was in Russia. In that year I made my solo debut playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with orchestras in Russia and in Germany. 

PH: I believe you have immigrated to Israel.
MV: Yes. I came to live in Israel in May, but I am always traveling. Still, I am happy to have the opportunity to spend time here in Israel. I am in love with this country and feel at home here. I feel at home only in Russia and in Israel.

PH: So you are busy with your international concert schedule.

MV: Yes, very busy. For example, I recently played a concert in Palermo with the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. That was a day before I arrived in Eilat! I also have to be in Madrid frequently to teach my students at the Music Academy.
PH: As a performer, how would you classify yourself – as a soloist, recitalist, chamber musician?

 MV: I am a soloist, but really enjoy playing chamber music as well. I find playing trios and quartets most pleasurable. And sonatas, of course, are chamber music, too.
PH: Do you have any chamber music ensembles you play with regularly?

MV: Unfortunately not, but I have pianists in different countries with whom I like to perform. Here in Israel, for example, I like playing with Tal-Haim Samnon.
PH: How would you sum up your performance schedule of the last year?

MV: It was taken up with performances with orchestras and with my concerts of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. That is how it turned out. Maybe next year will be completely different.
PH: Would you like to mention any special projects in which you are involved?

 MV: Yes. The first Violin Festival in Russia, in St. Petersburg, a fantastic festival. Next season, the concerts will not only be in St. Petersburg, but in Moscow and other big Russian cities. There are plans to have some of the festival events outside of Russia. I opened this year’s festival with my performance of the Paganini Caprices in the large St. Petersburg concert hall and I will close the festival on March 2nd with a program of “The Eight Seasons” - Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”. I will be the soloist and the orchestra will play without a conductor. Following a week that I will spend with my students here, who will be coming here from different countries, I will travel to St. Petersburg for rehearsals with the St. Petersburg Academy Orchestra, with whom I will be performing the Eight Seasons concert.
PH: Will this be the first time you perform the Piazzolla work?

MV: No. The last time I played it was in Poland with the Silesian Chamber Orchestra.

PH: Do you record?
MV: Yes. I have recorded a CD with Dmitry Kogan, Leonid Kogan’s grandson. It consists of repertoire for two violins – the Ysaÿe Sonata for two violins, a Telemann Canonic Sonata and Boccherini on the Delos label. We tried to imitate the spirit of Dmitry’s grandparents – Leonid Kogan and Elizabeth Gilels. They played these works many, many years ago.  Many recordings of my playing appear on the Internet.

 PH: When you play Baroque music, do you play without vibrato?
MV: No. We are in the 21st century and I play on a modern violin. I don’t play a Baroque violin or with a Baroque bow, neither am I playing in Baroque acoustics. Everyone should imagine how this music would have sounded, but it is always a compromise. One needs to create the Baroque atmosphere but to bring it in line with our times.

PH: Do you write music?

MV: Writing music takes a lot of time. At the moment I am not writing music, but perhaps in the future.
PH: Do you write your own cadenzas?

MV: Yes.
PH: How do you find Israeli audiences?

MV: Warm. For me it is very comfortable and relaxing to perform here. I enjoy having this “conversation” with the public. I was very thrilled seeing such a large audience this morning when I played the Paganini “Caprices”, possibly because hearing this work is rare. The audience seemed made up mostly of people who are not musicians and I can imagine how difficult it must be for non-musicians to listen to a program as serious and difficult as the 24 Caprices.
PH: How do you view the work?

 MV: It is really folk music. Paganini wrote what he heard around him. There are some simple things, like the Scottish bagpipes – but they are still not easy and the work goes on for more than one and a half hours. I really appreciated the warmth I felt from the public today.

PH: How long have you been working on the Paganini Caprices?
MV: Two years, but I am only at the beginning. These pieces are a project for one’s whole life!

PH: Well, playing all 24 Caprices is about as ambitious as it gets!

MV: There are very few artists who have done it. It was violinist Shlomo Mintz who told me I should do it!
PH: What other challenging works would you like to have in your repertoire?

 MV: All of J.S.Bach’s sonatas and partitas and all of Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas. The latter may be my next project. It is fantastic music and very interesting.
PH: What music are you mostly enjoying at the moment?

MV: Repertoire is like a rainbow. I am in love with all the works I am presently playing. It is impossible to play and understand music without being in love with it…even contemporary music. I understand some composers better than others, but it is a question of how fast I will recognize the idea. For example, I sense Shostakovich’s music immediately…it is in my blood. With a composer like Brahms – I love his music very much – it will take some time to get into – it is not immediate. I am not willing to perform music on stage before I am deeply involved with the composer.
PH: What about contemporary and new music?

MV: I do play it sometimes, but I am not such a big fan of contemporary music. There are nice pieces, but this, unfortunately, is rare. Of course, we can sometimes find some very interesting contemporary pieces. But did you see the Concerto for ping pong and orchestra on the Internet?
PH: No. So how will the concert scene survive?

MV: I know we are not at a “golden age” of music at the moment, but I am sure that will return – it always comes in waves. But everyone is thinking of how to survive, how to bring new public to the halls. I am really sure that classical music will survive when performed in an absolutely professional way. The great Russian artist Grigory Sikolov, one of the greatest pianists of our times, is such an artist, and he always plays to full houses. 
PH: When you are not busy with your career what interests you?

MV: I love to sing Russian romances. However, I do not have much free time.

PH: Marianna Vasileva, many thanks for your time and sharing your experience and thoughts.

 

 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Israeli conductor Dalia Atlas talks about her career and of forging her way as a woman into the world of conducting

Professor Dalia Atlas
On December 15th 2015, I met with Prof. Dalia Atlas at her apartment in Tel Aviv. Born in Haifa (Israel) Prof. Atlas has toured the world conducting more than 80 orchestras in 33 countries. Her wide repertoire covers some 750 works, among them, little-known works, works newly discovered by her and works arranged by her. She has founded three orchestras in Israel - the Technion Orchestra and Choir, the Pro Musica Orchestra and the Atlas Camerata.  Maestra Atlas has made a deep study of works of Ernest Bloch, recording 25 of his neglected works for the ASV and Naxos labels.

PH: Dalia Atlas, where were you born?

Dalia Atlas: I was born in Haifa.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

DA: Yes. My mother came from a rabbinic family from Lublin. (I visited the house where she was born when on a tour to conduct there.) My father came from a long line of cantors, cantors with baritone voices, not tenors. He studied music with a man called Friedmann-Lvov, a man who would walk around town with his harmonica in order to make music wherever he was. He taught my father to read music and singing. As a child I would accompany my father’s singing of Schubert songs on the piano. Every Friday evening, all our local friends would gather at our house to sing. Mother also sang in the Haifa Choir. So I grew up hearing a lot of singing. My father sang to his very last day! I also had a good singing voice (but was shy when my family asked me to sing for guests.)

PH: What other music did you hear?

DA: From a very early age I listened to a lot of music on the radio. My father installed a large antenna on our roof, enabling me to hear music from France, Italy and other countries. I mostly listened to operas. I grew up hearing opera and loved it.
 
PH: So how did you start your musical training?

DA: The question was what musical training I was to receive. I should start by saying that from a very early age I knew I wanted to be a conductor. When I was eight I began to understand what music was about and, before I could even read music, I ran a girls’ singing group in our youth group, hearing the second voice in my head.

PH: Did you take piano lessons?

DA: Yes. But, being an especially curious person from a young age, my introduction to the piano was different to that of most children. Before learning to play the piano, I opened it up to see how the various piano sounds were produced. As it was clear I was musically gifted, my parents sent me to a local piano teacher at age nine. The teacher also happened to be a singer. She taught me for three years. We were not able to buy a piano, so Father and Mother arranged for me to go to people who rented practise time for piano pupils on their piano; so I had 45 minutes a day to practise there and absolutely loved it, so much so that I started looking for more piano music in addition to what I was studying in lessons. Then the piano teacher called a meeting with my parents and me. She told my parents that she had given me all she could, that I, a child prodigy, should start more serious studies at the Conservatory and that my parents should do their utmost to buy me a piano. Aware of my deep love for music, my parents actually took a mortgage on the house in order to buy me a second-hand piano!  So I began studying with a very good piano teacher at the Conservatory, where I also learned theoretical subjects.

PH: How long were your studies there?

DA:  I completed my studies at the Conservatory within a year, playing my final recital at the age of fourteen and a half. I will never forget the recital: as I was playing, there was a power cut and I continued playing in the dark. It was a Bach work and, at one stage, I got a bit confused, so then improvised in the style of Bach before reaching a point where I could continue with the Bach piece. A teacher I met years later said that what had made a big impression on the teachers there was my improvisation!

PH: And further studies?

DA: I studied all the theoretical subjects with Yonel Patin in Haifa. He was a composer and conductor. I found the lessons very interesting; he really gave me a lot. We analyzed many works together. My Haifa piano teacher then sent me to study with Ilona Vince-Kraus, who was considered the best piano teacher in Tel Aviv. In Tel Aviv I studied Harmony with Alexander Boscovich, who then issued me with a letter proclaiming I could teach the subject.  Vince-Kraus wanted to make a professional pianist of me. She was a fine teacher but insisted her pupils play her exact interpretations of works, while I remained faithful to my own. Still, it was through her that I got work teaching piano at Kibbutz Giv’at Brenner twice a week.  However, what I really wanted to do was to study conducting. Ilona Vince-Kraus’s husband, who was head of the Conservatory, said he understood me and that I was an excellent musician, but insisted that conducting was not a woman’s profession and I should make my focus the piano.

PH: Were you discouraged by this?

DA: I was hurt. If I had the same ability as a male conductor, why should I not be accepted into the profession? I began collecting scores, imagining conducting them when I was out in nature. Sitting in the Carmel Forest or by the sea, I created the finest orchestra in the world, performing them in my mind. And I was hearing my ideal, spontaneous interpretations and sound…based perhaps on collective memory…or might it be genetic?

PH: So did you actually take studies in conducting?

DA: It wasn’t that easy! One day I read in the newspaper that the Jerusalem Academy of Music was holding a competition to award scholarships for prospective students.. I decided to apply, won and applied for the conducting course. I felt I was meant to study there because of my long-standing mystical attraction to Jerusalem. When I told Ilona Vince of my intentions she cried, claiming I was her first failure!  I was accepted to the Jerusalem Academy, receiving the scholarship. There I felt I was suddenly in the right place: we were all talking about the same things and all were enthusing about what interested me. Till then I had been alone and misunderstood in my musical world and career plans, but now I knew I was where I belonged. On Friday evenings we would meet to sing Bach chorales together and we had many house concerts.

PH: Who taught conducting at the Jerusalem Academy?

DA: The composer and conductor Arthur Gelbrun. He was a very erudite person but a chauvinist. He did not want to hear of a woman conductor, said that I should get the ambition out of my head and that I could be an excellent pianist. I, however, wanted to study everything about music and, to this end, had also been taking private composition lessons with Oedoen Partos. I wrote a few works – a symphony, a sonata, a song…and then stopped writing. Partos wanted me to become a composer but I informed him that all the inner workings of composition I was learning from him were to assist me as a future conductor.  Back to Gelbrun, I tried to convince him to allow me to at least sit in on his lessons. His answer to me was that if I could be a conductor anyone could! However, being an autodidact, I was familiar with scores and transpositions, playing them on the piano. Anyway, I had conducted the Carmel Forest- and Ocean Orchestras!  No orchestra could compete with them…So I had got to know a huge orchestral repertoire! The 1952-3 academic year was about to begin. The conducting class consisted of ten students (needless to say, all men). I was not accepted to be one of the students, but they needed a pianist to play the orchestral role for the course, as they do here. (Not really satisfactory way of teaching conducting, as one needs to hear the different instruments and colors.) Surprisingly, the Jerusalem Academy had no orchestra, so I got the job of playing the orchestral part on the piano for the budding male conductors. I also asked Yocheved Dostrovsky, vice-head of the Academy, for permission to attend all the various courses of all the classes. She very much believed in me and agreed. There I was attending a great many classes and absorbing all I could.  There was a very fine team of teachers – among them Dr. Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Hanoch Jacobi, Haim Alexander - and it was an enriching experience listening to all they had to say and learning from their extensive knowledge. In short, I finished the three-year Academy course within one year and what an outstanding experience it was, too. (The only mandatory course I did not attend was that of the Jewish cantillation trope. Was too young to understand how basic this was to Jewish music and tradition, but needed to pass the course in order to graduate. My luck was that one of the conducting students agreed to tutor me the night before the exam.  I passed it, receiving a higher grade than my friend, as he was so tired! That year at the Academy was the happiest of my life!

PH: But your main study had been piano.

DA: Yes. My teacher was Karol Klein, who had recently migrated to Israel from Poland.  I chose him after hearing his interpretation of music of Chopin. On completing my studies I performed César Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” with the Israeli Radio Orchestra.

PH: So where did you actually study conducting?
DA: A composer friend from the Academy, Theodor Broder, told me he had read in the newspaper about a competition for conductors wishing to take an advanced conducting course with Franco Ferrara. I was already married with three very small children. My parents agreed to look after the children and I, not knowing a word of Italian, went off to Italy to audition for studies with him at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory (Venice). The judges chose the 11 best candidates to be students in the course; those not qualifying could audit the course. For my audition, I conducted the Overture from Cimerosa’s “Il matrimonio segreto”; I remember almost falling over on hearing the power and intensity of the two opening chords played by a real orchestra! That was my first experience at actually conducting an orchestra. I was the only woman auditioning, but was among those selected to be in the course. Ferrara taught us in Italian and I learned a huge amount from him, mostly from the examples he gave. I was one of the four students chosen to conduct in the final concert. As the course was spread over three years, I went back to continue studies with Ferrara a year later. (Having a family of young children at home, that was the only way I could engage in studies.) At the same time, there was also a course being taught by Maestro Sergiu Celibidache in Siena. I was a great admirer of his, so I registered for both courses, spending three days a week in Venice and three in Siena, studying two totally different methods and spending my time on night trains back and forth learning scores to be discussed in the courses.

PH: So how did you spend your time back in Israel between courses?

DA: Learning scores on my own and conducting the orchestra of the Haifa Conservatory, where I was also a piano teacher.

PH: Perhaps a few words about your teaching piano there.

DA: It was an interesting experiment for me. About half my students were highly talented and half not. However, I proved that with ear training the less gifted pupils could also do well, as I believe that music is a primary center of the brain. The brain interests me a lot, but more about that later.

PH: So you completed your three years of the courses in Italy. What happened after that?

DA: I met Zubin Mehta in Israel and asked him if he would agree to teach me. We made an appointment to meet and that I should bring a score with me. I came along with the score of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”. He asked me some questions and was impressed with my knowledge. He said he did not teach but that he would send me to his teacher, Professor Hans Swarowsky. (Swarowsky had taught many great conductors, including Claudio Abbado and the young Daniel Barenboim.) Inviting me for a week in Vienna, he was impressed with my knowledge and large repertoire; so his method for me was to just pick out the complicated parts of a work and concentrate on those. He believed in me and really gave me so much in each of those concentrated private week-long courses. His parting words to me were that being a conductor was a difficult profession and that conductors need to struggle a lot…even considering the fact that they are men. “You are a woman with the wrong attributes: you are too honest, you will not pander to a person you need and you will not make requests”. My face fell. How right he was! All I wanted was to conduct a professional orchestra…nothing more. In light of that, he suggested was that I should perhaps try for international conducting competitions. So I registered for three international competitions and one day before each I would visit him (in whatever country he happened to be) to get his approval on my preparation.

PH: Would you like to talk about the competitions?

DA: Yes. I received prizes in all of them. I competed in three countries within a year and a half. The first was at the Guido Cantelli Conservatory in Novara, Italy, where I won a gold medal and a certificate.  That was the first time I conducted a professional symphony orchestra. Actually, I was not interested in winning a prize there, just in the opportunity to conduct the orchestra. The English competition was with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.  I received a prize there, not first prize, but the greatest honor was being invited to come back and conduct a few concerts and orchestras. Actually, I received a lot of offers for work as a conductor – from the BBC Radio Manchester Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra (Barbirolli) and the Royal Liverpool Orchestra, Bournemouth and the Royal Philharmonic of London.  Six months later, in December 1964, I went to compete in the most challenging and prestigious competition – the Metropaulos Competition. This was the most difficult of all. There, I got through all five rounds, including one which took the form of a task where I was given a newly composed work, was sent to a room to look over the score for a few minutes and then had to run a rehearsal of it, pointing out the players’ mistakes. I did just that, heard the mistakes and also pointed out that the timpani were not tuned correctly. Three of us made it to the last round and we each had to conduct a concert. I conducted Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The judges were all great names in conducting, among them, Antal Dorati, Fausto Cleva (then chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera) and Alfred Wallenstein.  Leonard Bernstein was the chairman. He was not present at the early stages of the competition, only arriving to hear the fifth round. I did not care about the prize, but winning first prize meant spending a year as Bernstein’s assistant conductor. I was to have received it, but, in 1964, as there were still no women players in the orchestra (as in Berlin and Vienna) how could Bernstein present me with the award under these circumstances? With the dilemma at hand, my flight back home had to be delayed. In the meantime, Fausto Cleva asked me to be his assistant at the Metropolitan Opera. Antal Dorati offered me an opera conducting job not far from Vienna.  Isaac Stern also had an offer for me – to bring me to the USA for my career, to be assistant conductor in Philadelphia. I did not take up any of these offers. Knowing that my ideology would take me home to Israel, to spread music around the country voluntarily, I returned to my homeland to raise my children there.

PH: Do you have any amusing memories of those performances?

DA: Yes. I was still very naïve as to the various concert customs. About to open a concert at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” I raised my arms to signal the pianissimo beginning of the work when, to my surprise,  the orchestra got to its feet; the concertmaster was trying to get my attention, whispering “anthem, anthem”. It was only then that I realized the concert was to open with the British national anthem! He then hinted me to conduct it in three!

PH: So you went back to Israel. What projects did you take on?

DA: I established and developed two chamber orchestras and two choirs in Haifa.  In 1963, I went to talk to the president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.  I stressed the importance of having music there, claiming that scientists become too focused on science and need something as direct as music to fire their imagination and emotions. Being involved with music would also to the good of their own professions, making them more open people. The administration did not want to hear of it and turned me away.  Six months later I approached them once again and offered to work there voluntarily to prove my belief. They agreed. So I worked at the Technion voluntarily for one semester, getting together a group of young men (there were almost no women there at the time), men who had initially felt embarrassed admitting that they played music lest they be looked upon as wimpy. I started with a group of eight players, then more, and we put on a concert of music of Hindemith and other works I had slightly arranged to suit the forces we had. The administration was impressed and hired me to be a member of faculty. I was the Technion Orchestra’s musical director and conductor for 38 years, conducting a huge number of concerts – a concert every month, performing a wide range of repertoire. Using my own method, I taught the players things not taught in professional orchestras here; for example, how to sight-read properly, to grasp the musical detail of the score, to build each phrase. By the way, some of my Technion students ended up choosing music as a profession!

PH: Would you call yourself a pedagogue?

DA: Definitely. I later went to MIT (Boston) and other universities as guest professor to teach students the same method.  And, anyway, conducting is 80% pedagogy! Without that there is no control over the orchestra. The players need to understand the music’s contours.

PH: Let’s go back to the other small orchestras you formed.

DA: We are talking about 1964-5 when nobody was concerned with peripheral areas. These were areas in which immigrants from a lot of countries were settled. I needed to adapt my programs (with explanations) to the fact that many of these people had never in their lives heard a concert. I gathered a number of wonderful people who played chamber music and who were idealists like myself, told them of my plans and they formed a very good team. We first called it the “Haifa Chamber Orchestra” and then we changed it to the “Pro Musica Orchestra”. Leonard Bernstein gave his honorary sponsorship in this project, with Antal Dorati, Pierre Boulez, Sir Charles Groves following.  Some years later, in the 1990s, with massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, I set up a more professional orchestra, the “Atlas Camerata”. The players, mostly new immigrants, were outstanding musicians; I chose 25 from 250 who had auditioned. The orchestra made its debut appearance in Paris, the reason being that this was at the time of the Gulf War and Haifa was shelled every evening at 5 o’clock. The Paris concert was held in the prestigious Salle Gaveau; among the people in the audience there were critics, musicians and people involved in Israel. For this new orchestra of mine I made an arrangement of Schubert’s Quintet opus 163 (the quintet with two ‘cellos), a great love of mine; I especially love the second movement. My aim was that the work should not lose its intimate quality when played by an orchestra. The result of our performance of the Schubert was that recording companies approached me requesting to record it. I, however, wanted the orchestra’s first recording to be made in Israel, and so it was. 

PH: Would you like to talk about the repertoire you have performed?

DA: That would be difficult. I have some 750 works in my repertoire. Why so many? What has fascinated me to this day is interpretation, of course, at the same time, being true to the composer. To be totally in keeping with the composer, I have made use of my own skills in graphology. Likewise, I have chosen to conduct in as many countries as possible in order to pick up on the specific atmosphere of each and learn what each offers in its music education. (I have wanted to write a book about that, also my autobiography, but there is no time.) An example of this is that I went to Bonn for two weeks to learn more about Beethoven. There I studied his handwriting. I later went to Vienna to see the places where he had lived (there were many as he was always rowing with his landlords) and I even walked the “Beethovenweg”, the path he took for his daily two-hour walk, thus learning  to sense what Beethoven had imbibed when he took these walks. One day I reached a place where there were benches, trees and many birds and I found myself writing down motifs he must have heard there and that are present in his sonatas and also in his 5th Symphony.  So that is how I began to research the DNA of Beethoven’s music.

PH: On the subject of repertoire, you are known for your deep enquiry into the music of Ernest Bloch.

DA: True, but it all happened absolutely by chance. I have always been interested in finding rare works (even of great composers), many of which turn out to be no less important than better-known works. For example, Dvorak’s superb “Symphonic Variations” do not seem to be known or performed, possibly because of the difficulty of the changes of atmosphere throughout the piece. In June 1995, I had a call from ASV Records (London), a company specializing in the recording of rarely-performed works and for which I have recorded.  They were interested to record me conducting Anton Rubinstein’s symphonies. I do not know why but I declined, saying I wanted to record music of Ernest Bloch and they agreed. So I took a summer break from the Technion and went off to trace Ernest Bloch’s life and music according to a map of where he had been. I was informed that he had a daughter in New York. I went to Switzerland and to Germany (he wrote the last of his eight symphonies in Germany). His symphonies were performed during his lifetime, but, after his death, they did not become a part of regular orchestral repertoire.  What did become a part of world repertoire were his Jewish works and there are only eight or nine of those. Ernest Bloch was a composer who wrote works in a variety of styles and with the greatest of skill, this trait also being problematic as he had no signature style.  So I began researching Bloch’s music, which continues to fascinate me till today. Of late I have been recording some of his unknown works. I recently recorded his 1st Symphony, a brilliant work written when he was 20. If he had continued to develop that same style he would have been the greatest late Romantic composer, an even greater composer than Mahler! But no. Each new style interested him. For me it has been very interesting to perform each of his works in a way that is authentic. Ernest Bloch is a very great Jewish composer, proud of his tradition. There are Jewish motifs all through the range of his works. He has not received the respect he deserves in Israel.

PH: What about conducting new works?

DA: I took two courses with Pierre Boulez, one in the 1970s (Basel) and one in the 1980s (USA). I was eager to learn new methods. From him I learned how to approach contemporary works. I conducted his “Éclat” with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He, like Bloch, also composed in a variety of styles.

PH: And Israeli works?

DA: I mostly conduct overseas. In every program I conduct I try to include one Israeli work but also a work written in the country where the concert is taking place.

PH: Have there been works written for you?

DA: Yes. At the moment, someone is writing a symphony for me. Tzvi Avni dedicated his Concerto for ‘Cello and Piano to me.

PH: Are you in touch with other women conductors?

DA: Yes. I very much like to encourage women conductors. Wherever I perform women conductors approach me.  Yehudi Menuhin, who was president of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and knew and valued my work, would always refer women to me who were interested to conduct. Several of these meetings have resulted in ongoing contact.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

DA: The human brain. I have been interested in the workings of the human brain since my childhood and have amassed a very comprehensive library on it but there is still so much to be learned on the subject. The brain is the whole of creation. Am on the board of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning in Jerusalem and have attended its conferences. It was founded and run by Prof. Reuven Feuerstein, who died in 2014. This interest very much ties in with my own professional work. I also like to embroider; all the embroidery you see on the wall here is my work. And, as I mentioned before, am into graphology.

PH: Professor Dalia Atlas, many thanks for sharing so much of your career and thoughts with me. It has been most interesting talking to you.