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

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.