On April 26th, 2009, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elli Jaffe. Jaffe is known to many as the musical director and conductor of the choir of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, Heichal Shlomo, and as an orchestral conductor. He is also a composer and arranger. In 2007, Jaffe was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for his contribution to Jewish music.
Pamela: Elli, when did you begin your musical education?
Elli: I was born in Jerusalem. Like all Jewish children, I studied some recorder, a bit of piano and sang in a choir but it was only at age 19 that I decided to become a professional musician. I enrolled at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where I had the privilege of studying with some of Israel’s leading musicians – with Mendi Rodan, Ami Ma’ayani, Mark Kopytman, Chaim Alexander, Tzvi Avni, Shabtai Petrushka and Nachum Amir. I completed my Artist’s Diploma with distinction in conducting and music theory, after which I spent a year studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Pamela: How did your career develop on your return to Israel?
Elli: Back in Israel, I took master classes with Leonard Bernstein and Igor Markevich and began conducting in countries all over the world. I was offered the position of conductor of the Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra but refused it for reasons of Sabbath observance. I have, however, conducted all the major Israeli orchestras and am always interested to further young performing artists, inviting them to play with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, The Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I usually conduct the final concert of the Young Artists’ Competition, which is under the auspices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Pamela: Would you like to talk about the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir and your interest in education?
Elli: Yes. I conduct this men’s choir in memory of my late father, who was a driving force behind the establishment of the synagogue. My aims are to create a standard of excellence in performance but also to promote a deep understanding of the piece and the composer’s ideas, to bring out the “Neshama” (spiritual meaning) of each piece. We rehearse at least once a week and there is a homey, easy-going atmosphere in the choir. Choir members come from many walks of life: many are professional people – businessman, lawyers and doctors – as well as music-lovers and some professional musicians. One of our choir members is Adrian Isaacs, a retired synagogue choir conductor himself.
We have toured much, performing in such venues as the Mozarteum Hall in Salzburg, the Sydney Opera House and with orchestras such as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Symphony and the Manchester Camerata in the new hall of the Halle Orchestra.
Pamela: I do know of your interest in education.
Elli: I will mention just one of my educational projects: I established a school of cantorial music, now in Petach Tikvah, in order to produce a new generation of cantors and some of my own students are teachers there. Some of the cantorial music I have written has pedagogical content and students should analyze them as they would a Beethoven symphony.
Pamela: You also write music and about music. Would you tell us something of this side of your professional life?
Elli: Yes. I both compose and arrange Jewish music, including orchestral- and cantorial arrangements of Israeli-, oriental- and Hassidic songs. My symphony, “Kaddish”, has been performed by the IPO and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a quintet of mine has been played by the IPO Quintet. I have written a violin concerto, “Ode to Ida”, dedicated to Ida Haendel. I am hoping she will perform it.
At the moment, I am writing a book about modes of the prayer of Ashkenaz (nusach tefillah) used throughout the year. The recording that accompanies the book – 15 discs – has already been issued.
Pamela: How do you find Israeli audiences?
Elli: I have always found Israeli audiences to be warm and appreciative and, actually, not as narrow-minded as some musicians claim. Cantorial music in symphonic dress attracts many different kinds of people. If this can break down barriers between religious and non-religious people, I would be very happy.
Pamela: What are your plans?
Elli: At the moment I am composing a work commemorating 400 years since the death of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), one of the most seminal thinkers in the post-medieval period. The work will be scored for large orchestra, choir and soloists.
I will be conducting in the Mahler Festival in Prague in 2010.
Pamela: How do you see the role of music in your life?
Elli: For me, music is the greatest gift after Torah. It helps me raise my level in Torah and I conduct my Torah way of life through music. It promotes communication between human beings: people play and sing different voices but they do hear each other. Music can create bridges between nations and between Jews and it does it better than politicians can. I believe music is a gift of G-d. When conducting Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, I claimed it was a gesture of gratitude to the Almighty for creating those monumental mountains.
Pamela: Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and ideas with our readers. We wish you continued joy in your various musical activities.