GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor



Fanfare Magazine

January/February , 2011

An Interview With Gisele Ben-Dor

By Lynn Rene Bayley

See Review

LRB: What was your original instrument, and how and when did you decide to switch to conducting?

I began piano lessons when I was 4 in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was my own request, and I got the piano as a gift for my 4th birthday. Every musical child begins with some instrument or other, always quite early in childhood. I never “switched” to conducting, meaning, I never abandoned my piano playing or studies because I chose orchestra conducting as my profession. I simply began conducting when I was 12, as naturally as it can be, not even knowing that this was called “conducting”. Moreover, the only time I attended a live orchestra concert, precisely at that time, left a negative impression on me. Yet, by the time I was 14, I had been officially hired by the school as the music teacher and music director. In Uruguay children studied only in the morning in public elementary school, which I attended. I went to a second supplementary private school every afternoon as well, and that’s where I worked as a conductor until I graduated from high-school. I kept studying the classical piano literature all the while, of course. I also played- as a hobby- just about any instrument that passed through my house, and they were a lively bunch: guitar, harp, recorder, accordion……..The music around me was very eclectic- music from many nations, styles and cultures- and equally vigorous. But the official decision to study orchestra conducting as a possible career came much later. There was a precise moment, when I was about 23 that I decided I wanted to come to the United States. I took just one audition (my first encounter with an orchestra), received scholarships, and two years later I was enrolled at Yale University as a conducting student.

LRB: Who were the conductors whose work influenced you the most in your early years?

The first conductor I observed was Zubin Mehta, at work regularly with the Israel Philharmonic. I was 17 and had just arrived in Israel from Uruguay. I had not been exposed to the realities of orchestra rehearsals or performances yet. I had recordings of the great masterpieces ( in old LP’s), which were entirely scratched from repeated playing. I was fascinated by the live encounter with the orchestra. I taught myself to read full orchestra scores and attended every possible rehearsal I could. There was much to admire in Zubin Mehta’s extraordinary abilities as a conductor and his relationship to the musicians, particularly in Israel. The musicians were a vastly experienced, inquisitive and argumentative bunch, and there was genuine warmth, give-and-take, humor between conductor and orchestra, a truly collegial and almost democratic atmosphere- plus an inexplicable way in which things worked efficiently nonetheless. The next maestro who had a lasting influence on me was Leonard Bernstein. His was a larger than life musicianship and personality, inspiring to his students in an emotional way, because of his life and death commitment to his art. It was the encounter with a quasi superhuman force which left an indelible imprint, and inspired by example. Later in my early days – if one can put it this way – I learned much from Sir Colin Davis, particularly the ease with which he did things. This to me, as a woman conductor, - I am never shy in pondering gender issues-was very valuable: so much could be accomplished musically with so little physical exertion, a visual component of orchestra conducting that so often interfered with the actual purely artistic aim of inspired music making.

LRB: I know that, in addition to championing the music of Latin American composers, you’ve also conducted a fair amount of Western European repertoire. Who are the Western composers whose music appeals to you most, touches you the most?

This is almost an impossible question to answer, but I shall try. First I should say that I have transited the Western European repertoire extensively, and I am in love with about 90% of it. Let’s not forget also that there is a vast American ( USA ) orchestral repertoire as well, and having lived in the USA since 1980, I have visited large sections of it. That would be, then a very long list. Secondly, there could be at least one work by each and every one of those we, by consensus, call the masters of Western music (European and American) that I find profoundly moving. Again, a long list. But let’s assume – as I promised to try to answer your impossible question nonetheless- that I search within me for that which immediately sparks my passion, that which lifts me beyond time and circumstance. That would be music directly and unapologetically inspired by the ecstatic rhythms and deep soul of the people, music in which the spirit of the dance and the ethnicity of melody are prominent, music that is not ashamed of its folk or popular origins. I would begin with Dvorak, Bartok, Sibelius, De Falla, Gershwin, Copland, huge chunks of Stravinsky and the Russian nationalists. Perhaps, now that I have confessed, one may see the connection with the Latin American repertoire I champion, alongside the Western masters. How can I not be kindled with so much of Ginastera’s music, just as an example?

LRB: What would you say are the most important, or most difficult, things that a conductor must do in order to get a performance to sound the way he or she wants it?

First, that inner vision has to be crystal clear before one single note is rehearsed. In many ways, this vision is cast in stone. All decisions as to tempo, dynamics, any freedoms with the score, expressive points, and just about any detail are crafted in the mind a priori, with some exceptions. These exceptions have to do with the always inspiring encounter with excellent musicians, who may bring a new idea or way of doing a passage the conductor may not have thought of. There is much satisfaction in new discovery throughout a lifetime of playing each work. Any routine or exceedingly rigid approach would be deadly, as it would be in any walk of life. Experience brings an inexhaustible array of possibilities. Working with the particular hall or stage acoustics can also be paramount, and a matter of quick judgment on the spot, which is perhaps, from my viewpoint, the toughest thing, to hear the performance as the audience will hear it. Therefore, open mindedness and a fair degree of humility are part of it as well. It may sound paradoxical, but this is in the nature of the art of music itself. It is always acquiring new forms and breathing new life, evolving, even if the work is an often played one. One makes decisions and one dreams-up the performance, and then the real sound the orchestra makes in a particular space is, for the conductor, as clay in the potter’s hands. Leonard Bernstein was known to say that a conductor was actually a sculptor of sound. I can’t think of a better description. Aside from inner conviction and decisions made, there are issues of knowledge, plain and simple. For example, a knowledge of the instruments and their capabilities, and what one can ask from the musicians. Many times, as is the case with the most accomplished and attentive orchestras, the sky is the limit. Or the performance experience of the conductor with the repertoire. A very critical memory of past performances is crucial, in my view, and adds to the challenge: this one performance, the one I am doing now, is another chance to accomplish this imagined ideal rendering of a work. Lastly, there are the myriad logistic and practical items, such as rehearsal planning, choosing how many strings are needed, and even the identity of the actual principal musicians!

LRB: Let’s talk about Revueltas. His music really bowled me over when I first heard it two years ago, for the first time, but except for the great rhythmic vitality, I honestly don’t hear his music as “controversial,” as some critics have put it. Do you think this is because we’ve had so much more controversial music since, or because some of his innovations have been absorbed over the years, or simply because other critics aren’t used to the classical use of Mexican folk music?

Innovators have been controversial. This is quite natural. Even Beethoven was “controversial”, ( read “The Dictionary of Musical Invective” and smile ) and Revueltas, who can be said to be a “Mexican De Falla”, was an original as well. What can also be said is that, historically, Revueltas was involved in controversial political issues, such as his opposition to Franco, his abhorrence of Spain’s Civil War and his commitment to the ideals of the Mexican revolution. We “hear” his political leanings in works such as “Itinerarios” , the “Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca” and surely in “La Coronela”. His own personal life was controversial as well, and so tragically short. But if by controversial one simply means that a composer may have presented “shocking” element to an unprepared critic or public, one can find many reasons why Revueltas was an unsettling force: his heart ripping dissonances, jagged, dislocated rhythmic configurations, his integration and juxtaposition of mariachi sounds – a most populist gesture- with such unmistakable contemporary esthetics, the abrupt, Mahler-like, bi-polar mood changes in the music. There has been frequent ambivalence in the acceptance of populist idioms in what we call “classical” works, or extreme reactions related to national loyalties. Compare early reactions to Mahler’s inclusion of village music in his first symphony with Charles Ives’ use of American tunes. Both were considered vulgar by critics, and Revueltas’ iconoclastic pronouncements were interpreted as lack of training by his detractors. Surely, any of these “trespasses” would be condemned by purists. It is also true that now, dozens of years after Revueltas wrote his works ( he died in 1940), there is very little that can shock us!

LRB: In the liner notes to your recording of La Coronela, it’s not quite clear how the score was reconstructed for your performance. I’ve read online that some snippets from Revueltas’s film music were used to reconstruct the last scene. Is this so and, if true, how much was used?

As far as we know, the entire fourth movement was constructed by the conductor of the 1957 performance, Jose Limantour, from the film scores. I remember watching these entire films, looking for the music, and I found it. I do not believe that there is anything not written by Revueltas in La Coronela. We know, of course, that the first three movements were orchestrated twice, the first version ( Huizar) is still lost, and the second one ( Moncada) is the only one preserved. The piano score of those three first movements was composed by Revueltas in its entirety. Personally, I think that Moncada and Limantour performed their task brilliantly, and thanks to them we are able to hear this music, but at the same time it is easy to see why the last movement would have become controversial. Add to the particulars of its creation the fact that during rehearsals the conductor made some modifications to improve the performance, as so many conductors have done- including major, great musicians-, with works of Beethoven, Dvorak or Schuman, for example. They did so always with a deep respect for the score, but in the acknowledgement or the belief that had any of these composers been able to make certain improvements to the orchestration, they would have done so. As for the unfinished character of the work at the time of Revueltas’ death , it may be relevant to recall Mozart’s Requiem or Mahler’s 10th symphony, works that were later offered to the public in reconstructed versions, subsequently openly discussed and criticized.

LRB: Not being at all familiar with the ballet, I couldn’t quite figure out the plot of La Coronela. Could you synopsize it for us?

There are two major themes running parallel, a historic one and a metaphysical one. The first major theme is social injustice and the abysmal gaps between the wealthy and the poor during Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship. The second theme is no less than life, death and judgment, a quintessential Mexican idea. The first movement ( loosely translated as “ Society Ladies of Those Times” ) describes the disaffected life of the wealthy. In the second episode ( “the Disinherited”) we are with the disenfranchised, exploited by the landowners. The third movement is a party ( “Don Ferruco’s Nightmare” ), in waltz tempo as well as including a Mexican song. At the end of this movement “the Lady Colonel” appears, sounding her military, revolutionary theme. She is clearly a symbolic character. I often think of Delacroix’s painting “Liberty leading the people” when confronted with this music, though Revueltas gives his heroine a religious rather than a secular meaning. In the fourth episode ( “The Last Judgment”), a raging battle followed by a “taps” call for the fallen ends in victory for the revolutionaries, eternal damnation for the guilty, and general rejoicing.

LRB: Now let’s discuss Ginastera, who is another favorite composer of yours. He’s much better known to North Americans, particularly for his Harp Concerto and for his opera, Bomarzo. How would you characterize his style and musical language, and how, in your mind, does it compare or contrast to Revueltas?

I think that Ginastera is known worldwide first of all by his music for “Estancia”, particularly the last dance, the “Malambo”. Audiences never fail to respond ecstatically to it, such is the music’s exuberance and joyful brilliance. I don’t dispute the popularity of the harp concerto, but otherwise think that there is still a lot of room to be acquainted with Ginastera’s music. There were at least three distinct periods in Ginastera’s musical output, and in some ways, in his stylistic wealth, he is comparable to Stravinsky, Copland, Picasso, whose creativity – and, thank God, long lives- gave birth to an entire spectrum of expression. Were not for the distinctive, genuine personal stamp – you always know who the composer is - , you may be fascinated by the fact that the same composer who wrote Pulcinella also wrote The Rite of Spring. In Ginastera’s case, you listen to his early period ( he wrote Panambi, his opus 1, based on a Native Indian legend, when he was 19 years old) , including “Estancia” ( opus 8 ), and then you listen to his ferociously expressionistic last opera ( Beatrix Cenci, which I conducted in its European premiere in Geneva), and wonder, perhaps amusingly, what happened to the composer? What brought him from one esthetic perspective or musical language to another, so far removed? Altogether, it can be seen as if Shakespeare had started writing in English, but wrote his later works in Chinese.

LRB: Regarding the pieces written around the tango, I felt that they were interesting and had some wonderful passages, but overall they seemed to be operating on two different levels, trying to fit an indigenous dance music into classical forms. Was I listening to it the wrong way?

First, I appreciate your listening without prejudice, and voicing your immediate reaction! But I must add that in the case of this entire CD, “The Soul of Tango “, the levels you hear are, precisely, the variety of idioms and different reasons for their composition. That’s why we cannot make any overall, blanket assessment. A young Piazzolla wrote this unique major opus, the “ Tres Movimientos Sinfonicos , Buenos Aires” in 1953 as his presentation for a candidacy to win a prize to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He won the prize with this work. The aim of this fully orchestral composition was to created a “classical” ,”serious” , conventional work. But- and for every reason, as it has been universally demonstrated with other composers- Pizzolla being who he already was, the work could not have been conceived in any other way but including tango and at least one bandoneon . Therefore, this composition, which I received as a one and only manuscript score from the composer’s daughter in Buenos Aires, with no extant orchestral parts, just for the purpose of re-creating the performances and recording- is, indeed, a hybrid. It was conceived as a “classical” work into which the tango was injected. If the tango idioms are not yet fully integrated into the composition – and this is a very subjective “if” -, it is precisely because Piazzolla was at a crossroads at that time: a choice between what he wanted to be – a “serious classical” composer- and what Mme. Boulanger, in her wisdom, encouraged him to be: to be himself, an original, authentic musical voice in whatever genre he chose to write. On the other hand, we have the other major work in the CD, the Triple Concerto by Luis Bacalov, a mature and assured, inspired work by a living composer, where the tango sounds and idiom breath freely and unapologetically, not only “integrated” into the composition, but fueling it, constituting its very essence, becoming its lifeblood and soul, just as Gershwin’s orchestral works breath “jazz”.
Secondly, almost every major composer I can think of has fit indigenous dance music into “classical” ( sorry, I must keep using quote marks ) forms. I remember that when I put together a ten day” Tango and Malambo Festival”, I wrote at the back of the festival’s brochure “ Music is Music is Music…. Waltzes, Slavonic Dances, Tarantellas, Russian Trepaks, Jazz, old folk songs….. they are all part of what we call classical music. Why not some Tango flavor once in a while?”

LRB: What was it like for you to build the Santa Barbara Symphony into a top-drawer ensemble? Did it require wholesale replacement of players, or merely of refining and working with the existing musicians?

It takes everything, and over a long period of time. There is never a wholesale replacement of musicians. The conductor, who has guest conducted the orchestra prior to his/ her appointment, knows what the artistic status of the orchestra is. If it is to the point that such wholesale replacement is inevitable, in my view –I have made decisions based on this principle - , the conductor should not take the position. This would mean that the conductor desires very quick results, is using the orchestra as a career stepping stone, and can personally stomach much grief, and, perhaps, unfairness and arbitrariness. Occasionally, there may be dismissals, but more often there are musicians who retire, willfully, after long and successful careers. So changes of personnel occur for many reasons. The vacancies, when they become available, are to be filled with the best possible available musicians, or, sometimes, it is worth waiting for them and employing substitutes in the interim.
It remains a fact that the most important and truly decisive mean to create an excellent ensemble is to consistently choose challenging repertoire, maintain a high standard, in every rehearsal and concert, to be very demanding with the musicians, never conceding to mood ,circumstance or politics, and to preserve this artistic integrity over a long period of time. It is not always appreciated, I must candidly say, but it is the only way, and the lasting one, remaining for quite a long time after the conductor’s departure. It also depends on the kind of orchestra. Some orchestras have dozens of years of prior existence as a first-tier ensemble prior to the arrival of the conductor. They have, therefore, their own artistic, instantaneous, self regulating mechanisms to critically maintain these standards, regardless of the conductor.

LRB: What prompted you to become an American citizen?

My husband and I arrived in the USA from Israel in 1980. I had received a scholarship to study at Yale and he worked as an engineer for an Israeli company, as soon as he could. For me it had been a matter of conscious, long dreamed of choice to come to the US. I had been accepted three years prior to that as a student with scholarships at the Berlin Hochschule, after a week of audition in Berlin, but decided to wait for another opportunity to study conducting and returned to Israel, declining the offer. I felt, very intuitively, that as a woman, it would be harder for me to succeed in Germany at that time, than it could ever be in the US. I felt appreciated and given a fair opportunity from the moment I arrived here. When the chance to study at Yale came, I did not hesitate. The actual, fully fledged citizenship, which I finally requested, was quickly granted only in the year 2000, under the official sub-provision for “foreign nationals of extraordinary ability”. I had already worked as a fully contracted conductor with orchestras in the US since 1988. My entire career as music director developed in the US. I am very grateful.

LRB: What and where are some of your upcoming engagements?

This may be hard to believe, but until last year, I had never conducted in the Far East. In the past two seasons I have conducted in Seoul, and next year there will be debuts in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Other engagements will be returns to Jerusalem, where I have worked steadily since 2006, and a first trip in 2012 to an Arab country, Dubai. Recently I have been invited to judge the Eduardo Mata Conductor’s Competition in Mexico, and next I will be judging a similar competition in Tel-Aviv, which I have judged before. If I have time, I also plan to continue giving conducting master classes at the Music Academy there.

LRB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I look forward to releasing other recordings of the music of Ginastera. I have “in the can”, for example, Ginastera’s last opera. “Beatrix Cenci”, which I performed with the Grand Theatre de Geneve quite a few years ago. Fantastic, I would say, frightening work, worth been represented in the catalogue, at the very least, as a historic tribute. It has been a real pleasure working with Naxos in some four recent releases, and I hope the relationship will continue. I am also working on a book, a work of fiction, which, of course, has a strong musical component, an idea I have nursed for some thirty years now, and is only now coming to fruition. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”. Never too late, I think.



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© 2011 Gisele Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.