In November 2008, I had the privilege of interviewing violist, teacher, composer and arranger Ze’ev Steinberg in honor of his 90th birthday.
Pamela: Ze’ev Steinberg, can you tell us about your childhood and early musical training?
Ze’ev Steinberg: I was born in Germany in 1918 and spent the first fifteen years of my life in the city of Trier on the Mosel River, a small historic city with a long history of culture, beginning with Constantine the Great. Trier was also the birthplace of Karl Marx. My parents were both physicians but my father was also a graduate of the Cologne Hochschule fuer Musik, where he had studied violin. At the age of five, I also wanted to learn the violin and my father agreed to this on condition that I join the choir school at the Cathedral of St Peter in Trier. I am grateful to my father for this: there I studied sight-singing and sang choral works from Medieval- and Renaissance music to later periods and I loved it! However, when Hitler came to power, my parents, being Zionists, felt I should leave Germany, and so I joined the first group of Youth Aliyah and left for Palestine.
Pamela: How and where did you spend your first years in Israel?
Z.S: In 1934, I was sent to Kibbutz Ein Harod as an agricultural worker for two years, moved to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where I met my first wife, and then to Be’er Tuvia.. We then moved to Tel Aviv, where I became an inter-urban taxi driver with the Aviv Taxi Company. At that time I joined the Tel Aviv Physicians’ Orchestra, conducted by Otto Selbach. We performed one or two concerts a year. Selbach was also the conductor of the Palestine Orchestra, the orchestra which was to eventually become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. As a driver, I did some extra work – driving members of the Palestine Orchestra to various locations to perform; this gave me the opportunity to hear a lot of chamber music.
I went to study violin with Lorand Fenyves and with Oeden Partos. Partos later founded the Tel Aviv Academy of Music where he also taught chamber music. One day, Partos told me he was in need of a viola player; I saw this as an opportunity to study further and ended up taking part in his viola- and chamber music classes. Partos became my mentor and friend.
P.H.: You were known to many of us as a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. When did your many years as violist in the IPO begin?
Z.S.: In 1942, the IPO lost some of its string players to cafes and places offering light musical entertainment. Partos suggested I audition as violist and I landed the job as substitute violist in the orchestra. A year later I took another audition and was accepted as a member of the IPO. In 1969 I received the job of assistant principal violist and I feel I was a good leader. I have traveled the world with the IPO, officially playing in it till 1984 and, then, for another extra ten years.
I have also made many solo appearances with all major Israeli orchestras – with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, The Israel Sinfonietta Beersheba, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the IPO, the Kibbutz Orchestra and the Ramat Gan Orchestra.
P.H.: Let’s go back to your interest in chamber music and teaching.
Z.S.: In the 1942-3 season I started a professional string quartet with another three players, and founded another quartet in 1949 - the Tel Aviv String Quartet. In 1959, I joined the Israel Quartet, in which I played till 1993. We were organized in such a way that our programs would not clash with those of the Tel Aviv String Quartet, which was led by Chaim Taub.
In 1953, Partos, then head of the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, asked me to take the position of senior lecturer there teaching viola and chamber music. I accepted and was busy with that till around 1985. After that, from 1986 to 1987, I taught chamber music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Till today, young colleagues come to me for tutoring, preparation for auditions, etc.
I have also engaged in chamber music activities promoting contemporary music – Israeli and otherwise. Evelyn de Rothschild provided the financing for the “Musical Evenings” series, directed by Gary Bertini. In these concerts, which took place at the Tel Aviv Museum, we performed music of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Copland and other composers in ensembles of various numbers of players. I loved this repertoire and performing in these concerts.
In around 1986, I was one of the co-founders of Musica Nova, an organization of leading musicians, most of them from the IPO and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, whose aim was to perform very contemporary music. Working with local and overseas conductors, we performed five to seven concerts of 20th century music per year, at least half of each concert being made up of works by Israeli composers. Works of mine were also performed by Musica Nova; for example, “Seven for Eleven” – seven pieces for eleven players. Ten years ago, we traveled to Houston to take part in a festival of contemporary Jewish music. The ensemble still exists and I continue to sit on its committee, but no longer play in it.
P.H.: Well, on the subject of your own works, would you like to elaborate?
Z.S.: Yes. I have composed string quartets, a few songs, but, mostly chamber music. As a leading member of the Ramat Gan Orchestra since the 1980’s, I have written a number of arrangements for strings to be played by this orchestra; for example, Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”, Bach’s “Art of Fugue” and Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata. The latter arrangement has been performed all over the world, most recently in Germany. I still write arrangements.
My biblical cantata, “Rahab and the Spies” (1969), scored for contralto, two recorder players, ‘cello, harpsichord, light percussion and narrator, using texts from the Book of Joshua, won me the Avraham Kartch Prize for Jewish Music. It was and continues to be a successful work.
P.H.: With what activities are you busy at the moment?
Z.S.: I continue to play with the Ramat Gan Orchestra, where I am musical adviser to the conductor. I also play in the Emeritus Orchestra, an orchestra conducted by Sam Zebba. Members are retired players from the IPO, the JSO and the Israel Sinfonietta Be’er Sheva, some fine amateur players as well as a few young musicians looking to get experience in orchestral playing. We all play in this orchestra for the fun of it, but do give some concerts; not long ago, we traveled to Cyprus to perform.
I would like to mention one more of my musical interests: for some 30 years, I have been a member of both executive- and musical committees of the International Harp Contest, a competition that takes place in Tel Aviv every three years. In October 2009, the contest will celebrate its 50th anniversary and I will have the honor of being one of the judges. I do enjoy my involvement in this prestigious competition.
P.H.: Ze’ev Steinberg, thank you for sharing the many inspiring facets of your musical life with us. We wish you much joy and good health on the occasion of your 90th birthday.