Monday, February 13, 2012

Israeli conductor Yaniv Dinur talks about his work and ideals

On February 3rd 2012, Dr. Yaniv Dinur and I met in the music room of my Jerusalem home to talk. Born 1981 in Jerusalem, Yaniv has conducted orchestras in Israel, the USA and Europe.

PH: Yaniv, what were your first musical experiences?

Yaniv Dinur: I should start by saying I was born into a musical family. My aunt was my first piano teacher and my mother studied Musicology. We had a piano at home. There is a picture of me as a baby sitting on my mother’s knee, playing on the keys of the piano. This must have been among my first musical experiences. Both my brother and sister studied the piano with our aunt, but today have chosen different careers.

PH: Where did you start your piano tuition?

YD: I was a pupil at the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music. My aunt, Olga Shachar, was a wonderful teacher. I did not get special treatment just because I was her nephew and she was most demanding. She really encouraged and developed my musical intuition and I owe her a lot. For the duration of my IDF army service, I was in the Outstanding Musicians Program as a pianist. I went on to study with Professor Alexander Tamir at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. After graduating from the Academy, I studied with two Russian teachers – Tatiana Alexanderov and Mark Dukelsky - who taught me together, one seated either side of me. They really changed my musical world: these lessons added a new dimension to my playing – both technically and musically. Tatiana and Mark were collectors of historical recordings, and listening to them drew my attention to the interpretations of great pianists and conductors of the past; it was there that I heard recordings of renowned artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, conductor Felix Weingartner and also of Rachmaninov both conducting and as a pianist. These really made an important impression on me, especially in the specific kind of sound heard then.

PH: When did your interest in conducting begin?

YD: When I was 16, I started studying conducting with Yevgeny Zirlin in Jerusalem. He was an excellent teacher, gave me a very good basis and taught me much about the profession. Under his guidance, I completed two degrees in conducting at the JAMD. After graduating, I went to study conducting privately with Professor Mendi Rodan. This was also a unique experience; actually, I never actually conducted in his lessons – I would go to his home, where we would sit at the piano and discuss scores. He was such an expert on the orchestra in general, and on stringed instruments, in particular. I learned so much from him. He was a special person, with his own particular brand of humor!

PH: I understand you went to the USA in 2007 for further studies. What influenced this decision?

YD: Two years previously, I went to Canada, with the help of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and its CEO Gideon Paz. The purpose of this trip was to attend the Summer Music Institute in Ottawa. The program, which also offers coaching in string-playing and chamber music, is run by Pinchas Zukerman and there is a wonderful orchestra there – The National Arts Centre Orchestra. That year, the conducting course was run by Finnish conductor Jorma Panula and it was a great success. Zukerman invited me to come back the following year, and this time the course was run by Kenneth Kiesler, an American, who teaches at the University of Michigan. On completing the 2007 workshop under his guidance, I decided to follow Kiesler and study with him in Michigan. I spent three years in Michigan, completing a doctorate in conducting. The course itself rose above all my expectations, but adjusting to Kiesler’s approach was no easy task for me. My career had been developing very nicely and I had already had much conducting experience for my age: I had conducted the Israel Camerata Jerusalem when I was 19, being the youngest person ever to conduct an orchestra in Israel. I had travelled Europe conducting many orchestras – in Portugal, Russia, Italy and in Ireland. I had won the Yuri Ahronovitch First Prize in the 2005 Aviv Conducting Competition in Israel. You could say that I was a little arrogant when beginning the course in Ottawa – I was an experienced conductor and was, indeed, familiar with the world of conducting. Kiesler, however, took upon himself to teach me new things, things I was not accustomed to, and it took me a little while to open up to this new experience. But it was there that I discovered new sides to the profession that, till then, had not been familiar to me. Kiesler’s approach certainly changed my way of thinking.

PH: Can you elaborate on that?

YD: Yes. For him, the most central issue is that the conductor should be the visual expression of the music. That means that every little detail of the music…to the point of one conducting movement being suitable to the key of C major and a different movement to interpreting E-flat major! This is most important, because it has a direct effect on orchestral musicians and, therefore, on the quality of the sound they produce. Producing a forte sound does not require large conducting gestures, rather, intense movements. Indeed, if the horns are to play an interval of a fifth, my gesture will be different than if they are playing a fourth. In other words, everything you do as a conductor must be tailored to the music. The important question is how one gets to that. It is a matter of developing a very expressive body language and of reaching the stage that you do not need to “plan” each movement. Kiesler’s advice was “You have to be vulnerable to the music.” This is a very beautiful idea, but suggesting it is easier than putting it into practice. I think that it is only recently that I have learned how to do this myself: to forget all and free myself in order to be open to having the music exert its influence on me. Only following that process can you convey the music to the players, letting yourself be the music. Needless to say, this approach has changed me very much and done much to form me as a conductor.

PH: Did you only conduct orchestral music in Michigan?

YD: No. As doctoral students, we were required to conduct complete opera productions. I conducted “Armide” by Gluck and Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring”. It was there that I fell in love with opera and I am really looking forward to conducting more operas. What was wonderful was being in a university town (Ann Arbor) where these opera performances were part of local cultural life and took place in the centre of town. Ann Arbor is a really international cultural centre. It has a fantastic concert hall – the Hill Auditorium - and many of the world’s greatest orchestras come to perform there. While I was there, I got to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and some of the world’s most famous conductors and soloists. Being in a place like that for three years really changes your life.

PH: What other conductors have influenced you?

YD: Another great musician who has influenced me immensely is Pinchas Zukerman. He is simply a magician. I learned a lot from watching him rehearse the orchestra, from discussing music with him and studying his own personal markings on orchestral parts. We are frequently in touch and I learn something new from him every time we meet.

I also conducted the Miami New World Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s musical director, invited me to spend two days studying with him. We met later in Michigan, also in Israel, and the time I spent with him was most valuable. We talked about how best to learn a score. Tilson Thomas said that, when learning a new work, he asks himself four questions: what is happening in the work, why is it happening, what it means and what I am going to do about it. I also ask myself these questions when learning a new work or reviewing a familiar work, and discover many new things this way.

And then there is Daniel Barenboim. As a young boy, I grew up listening to recordings of him and attending his concerts in Israel. He has been a role model for me from an early age and I had always wanted to meet him. Last December, I finally did. I spent a month in Milan, observing his rehearsals at La Scala. I was amazed at his incredible knowledge of the orchestra and at how he would build the “big picture” of a work by working thoroughly and persistently on every small detail. It was an unforgettable experience.

PH: What were your plans following completion of your doctorate?

YD: To have my own orchestra. At this time, I am a candidate to be musical director of two orchestras in the USA – one in Florida and one in Minnesota. It is quite a lengthy procedure, taking from 18 months to up to two years; this is different to the European- or Israeli procedure. I know the Florida orchestra had 250 applications, the number being narrowed down to five! Following interviews, the five are invited to be guest conductors – my concert with them will be in October and only at the end of the concert season they will make their final choice of new musical director.

Following my studies in the USA, I have been guest conducting in Israel.

I also took part in a project called the “National Conductor Preview”, organized biennially by the League of American Orchestras. Following applications, they choose a few conductors to conduct an orchestra (a different orchestra each time). Representatives of many American orchestras attend the sessions to hear these conductors. I was chosen to conduct last year. My participation has led to my being invited to be guest conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in 2013.

And I will also be going to Sicily to conduct. This will be my first time there.

PH: Would you like to elaborate on your current projects in Israel?

YD: Yes. I recently conducted the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for the Young Artists Competition; since 2003, I have been conducting the JSO for that annual event. It is important for me to be part of this project that promotes young artists; beyond being a duty, it gives me great pleasure to work with young people and to add to their knowledge. This year’s competition was for pianists. We performed both Liszt piano concertos; it was enjoyable and interesting to perform both concertos in the same concert, as well as Chopin’s second piano concerto. I really grew up with the JSO; my grandparents would take me to their concerts. At age 21, I began conducting the JSO, so I know the orchestra well and the players know me. Working with them is literally “coming home”.

I also have concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra coming up in May of this year. There are two programs. One will be on Lag B’Omer (a joyous holiday which children celebrate sitting around bonfires); we will perform works to do with fire: Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite, de Falla’s “Ritual Firedance” and Beethoven’s “Prometheus” Overture. The second program will include the “Firebird”, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.4 and some movements from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”. I conducted the IPO last season. Contact with the players was very pleasant and totally natural; am very much looking forward to working with them again.

And another exciting venture: the Conservatory of the JAMD has asked me to establish a studio for young conductors. Till now, this has not existed there. (As a young person, I studied conducting there privately.) The Conservatory is aware of the importance of this discipline and intends to make conducting an integral part of studies there. I will be teaching the course and am very excited about it.

I will also be teaching a course of eight sessions at the External Studies Institute of the JAMD. I have called the course “Good Performances, Bad Performances and the Fine Line Dividing Them”. We will confront questions of what makes a good performance and of whether there is such a thing as a bad performance. We will work on some musical analysis; the course will focus on a different composer each time. One session will be devoted to discussing singers and another, to conductors.

PH: Let’s talk about audiences. Do you find differences between Israeli audiences?

YD: Yes. Indeed. I mainly sense a difference between Jerusalem audiences and other Israeli audiences. The Jerusalem audience is tough: it is very genuine in its reactions. Jerusalem concert-goers will make it clear if they don’t like what you do (not in any extreme way) but if they like what you do, they are “on fire”. Outside of Jerusalem, life is different, the man-in-the-street is different, and so it stands to reason that audience reactions in the concert hall will be different.

PH: What about working with different orchestras?

YD: American orchestra members are usually very polite and quiet in rehearsals. If not, they risk losing their jobs. Here in Israel, it is very different, as it is also in countries like Portugal and Italy…freer, noisier and more Mediterranean in atmosphere. However, despite all that, the standard of performance is frequently high.

PH: What issues are important for you in particular in today’s musical world?

YD: One of my fervent desires is to bring young audiences to concerts. This is very high up on my list of priorities and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of doing this. I began working towards this when I was in the USA and will make it my mission to do wherever I end up. Wherever I conduct, I always make contact with the local university, I meet students, give a lecture, often on the connection between music and other art forms. This is a field that has interested me since my teens. One hears many people lecturing on the connection between music and dance or music and painting. However, a lecture I gave in Chicago, and also here at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, for example, focused on the connection between music and architecture. I also talk to the university students about the upcoming concert and invite them to attend. Till then, some of them have not even been aware that there was an orchestra in the town. Of course, I end up seeing them at concerts and am happy about that. What is important is to approach them in the environment of their schools and interest them in the concerts. When I have my own orchestra, I will be able to invest more energy in this important community activity.

PH: How about bringing young people to concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? The average age of their audiences seems to be very high!

YD: I intend to. The IPO does have youth concerts. In fact, it (and many other orchestras) has a very fine educational program – many concerts for young children and high school pupils, prior to which the pupils are taught about works and styles on the program. The IPO also gives family concerts, explained concerts for adults, the “IPO in Jeans” series, etc. But no orchestra I know of includes a program to involve adult non-music students or, indeed, relates to this age group. Including them will be advantageous not only to the students but also to the orchestra. Orchestral players are certainly influenced by who is seated in the concert hall and whether the hall is full – they play infinitely better to a full hall.

PH: What about early music?

YD: Till the previous summer, I had little to do with early music, when my curiosity regarding this repertoire took me to Vienna to take a course in conducting early music with the Austrian pianist and conductor Manfred Huss. We worked with an orchestra of period instruments. For the first time, I conducted Händel’s “Water Music”, and from the harpsichord. It was an amazing experience! I very much liked the mellow, rich sound and lower tuning of the early instruments. This does not mean that I will now conduct only early music, but I found it enriching and learned much there about musical interpretation. I hope to play the harpsichord in the future…not as a soloist, but in Baroque ensemble music.

PH: Let’s go back to the subject of the piano.

YD: It is difficult to work on the piano and also at conducting. They both need so much time. I do get to the piano now and then. At the moment, the piano is suffering. But I do miss it and will return to practicing, time permitting.

PH: Apart from music, what interests you?

YD: I really like writing. Before I went to the USA, I would write a lot of short stories. A few years ago, I even won third prize in a countrywide short story contest run by the army radio station. Being in America put an end to that temporarily; but I miss it and hope to continue writing at some time. I also love action films – I am addicted to the Dexter TV series!

PH: This is a far cry from conducting! Who is Dexter?

YD: Dexter is an atypical hero who works for the police; he analyzes blood in order to catch killers. The twist is that he himself is a serial killer…but a serial killer with a conscience. The episodes are excellent – full of humor and suspense.

PH: Anything else?

YD: Coffee. I love coffee. I would not say I was an expert on coffee, but I do have a taste for good coffee. When I was in Italy, I went crazy over the coffee there. I could not sleep at night, but it was worth it.

PH: Yaniv, many thanks. It has been very interesting talking to you. I wish you much joy and success in your career.