GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor

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The Boston Herald
Saturday, April 17, 1999

Orchestrating her next move

Pro Arte's outgoing conductor is ready for the big leagues

By Ellen Pfeifer

Gisèle Ben-Dor has a big dream. She is the outgoing principal conductor of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, and a guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic, Boston Pops, English Chamber Orchestra, Israel Chamber Orchestra and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. But now she looks forward to the time when she can "play a concert and go home afterward."

Having helped guide Pro Arte's fortunes for eight years - she was the first music director engaged after the death of founder Larry Hill - she is poised for a big step into the major leagues.

Tomorrow afternoon at Sanders Theatre, she leads the last of her Pro Arte programs this season. Next year, she will conduct only one concert with the orchestra, although her contract technically runs until the end of the 1999-2000 season. After that, she hints, there are things on the horizon and "lots of opportunities within driving distance" of her home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

"The commuting has become harder and harder," Ben-Dor said during lunch in Cambridge earlier this week. Constant travel has kept her away from home and family more than she would like (she and her husband have sons ages 7 and 16).

Indeed, life has been so hectic that she and her husband have little time to attend to the everyday details of life. "We bought our first bedroom set three years ago," she said with a laugh. "We've been married 19 years and for 16 of those we slept on a mattress on the floor, futon-style." Similarly, she recently took her younger son along to Santa Barbara to attend one of the children's concerts she conducts there. "I'd conducted children's concerts for thousands of kids except mine," she said.

Although she admits her career until now may have grown slowly, she points to several recent accomplishments that are bringing her more attention and a higher profile. Most recently, there was her last-minute substitution at the New York Philharmonic, the second time she has played pinch hitter for that ensemble.

Called on short notice, she filled in for Daniele Gatti after Ivan Fischer had rehearsed and conducted the first performances of the program. She went on without rehearsal to conduct the Mahler Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven "Coriolan" Overture. Music Director Kurt Masur was in the audience and was so impressed with her performance that he signed her to be his cover during the Philharmonic's month-long European tour next year.

"Beyond the stunt, it was a fine performance," Ben-Dor said and James Oestreich of the New York Times agreed. "I did some things differently from the previous conductor and the orchestra was with me 100 percent. They were terrific." Interestingly, Ben-Dor says such last-minute performances don't frighten her. "I have no fear," she said. "I can be more afraid about a rehearsed program when I'm worried I might lose something."

Substituting is an adventure for her that she takes to like a fish in water.

Another achievement has been the success of her recent recordings featuring Latin-American composers Alberto Ginastera and Silvestre Revueltas. The Uruguay-born Ben-Dor has an affinity for this music as critics have noted in her Koch International and BMG discs. "The recordings are very important to me," she said. "They are repertory that no one else is doing and I oversee every aspect, from the program notes to the editing, to the packaging."

As for Pro Arte, Ben-Dor feels she has "achieved some things and not achieved others." She has found it challenging to work with a cooperative orchestra where the musicians decide almost everything, from the choice of music director to the choice of repertory.

"The orchestra is rich in midlife now," she said. "It started very young and thinking there were infinite possibilities. As the players grew older and had families to support, they became concerned with playing as many jobs as they could. That has affected many decisions about the orchestra's life, perhaps most significantly those involving personnel."

At some concerts she conducted, there were perhaps only five or six Pro Arte regulars playing and she "had to make an orchestra out of that" miscellaneous ensemble. "I couldn't change that. These players had to take other jobs."

Another source of frustration was her limited say in what music was performed. "This is not an easy thing for a music director," she said.

"During the first three years, I didn't understand the process. Things went from committee to committee. Finally, I just let it go. There was no reason to create friction. So I just lived with it and four years passed."

Still, she said, "We got along all these years" and what's more, she feels it was "a joy and honor to be associated with those players." Apparently the feeling is mutual. When she tried to resign two years ago, the orchestra asked her to stay. She did, but as principal conductor and not music director. "I think I contributed some cohesiveness and high artistic standards when I could call the shots," she said.

Now, she is looking to the future. "Maybe this is the beginning of the beginning. I feel that I am ready for anyting."


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