Gisele Ben-Dor, conductor

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

It was always self -directed. In my case, being a (woman) conductor born and raised in Uruguay, there were no models. Still, I was obsessed with music since my earliest years, but pursued it as a hobby, all the while conforming to the family’s ethos of a truly “gainful” profession, a requirement secondary only to my producing a family.

I do have a memory, at the age of12, of the very first concert I attended. This was in Montevideo, when someone gave me a ticket they couldn’t use. I was very moved, sitting there alone; I had goosebumps. But I believe it was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 which caused these effects and not the conductor, who in his wild gesticulating, seemingly with no relation to the wondrous music, was pretty much in the way.

At the same time, I had been conducting my school’s choir, entirely as a self-taught (wild) musician, for some five years. I was even paid for my work from the age of 14!

Once I seriously decided to become an orchestra conductor, though, there were many inspiring conductors, living and dead. In those days I worked with Leonard Bernstein quite a bit, who taught me mainly to love the music with all your heart and with all your soul, and served as living example.

Another very inspiring maestro was Sir Colin Davis, whom I assisted during his concerts at the New York Philharmonic. Finally, I must mention Zubin Mehta, whom I observed regularly since the age of 17 in Israel, as my technical conducting inspiration. I would play truant at the Music Academy in order to sit at his rehearsals, as well as at other maestros’  rehearsals – scores in hand – which I was only then beginning to decipher-  enjoying his immediately curative solutions, the simplicity and clarity of his technique, his sense of humour and true personal friendship with the orchestra. This was possible for him in Israel, because of his extraordinary devotion to the orchestra and to the State of Israel. I had observed him equally in New York over the years, with the New York Philharmonic, and his rehearsals there were not at all as friendly as in Israel.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To do everything – “Superwoman” comes to mind- all at once, and to do it all in the most exemplary manner. To be the best musician, artist and conductor I can be; to be a wise leader and administrator to the three orchestras I became music director of; to be a constant presence and loving, worthy mother to my sons; to be in charge of a full household and be as normal a spouse as I could manage; to be a constant gardener in my devotion to Latin American composers, and in the case of this new CD, also to highlight and support performers such as Juanjo Mosalini; to build festivals and recordings from scratch (read: closest to a nervous breakdown I’ve ever been!); and, as said above and in keeping with the lifetime requirement my beloved father imposed: to do everything in a most excellent manner.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am extremely proud of all my recordings, most of them of Latin-American music and composers.  I planned each and every one of them very carefully and, I must say, very lovingly, sometimes over many years. I had to battle many slings and arrows in those pursuits, sometimes against prejudice, and I was always the exacting editor-in-chief, guarding and perfecting every note.

As for live performances, I can think, first, of the first five Mahler Symphonies, which I performed with various orchestras, my own orchestras and as a guest. In particular, the most memorable will always be Mahler’s 4th Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, which I conducted as a last minute substitute for Daniele Gatti, without the benefit of a rehearsal. Or a score.

Next to the Mahler, I have to mention my very first public concert ever, with the Israel Philharmonic in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, two weeks before my first son was born. No score either. It was taped by the BBC in London and lovingly nicknamed “The Rite of Off-Spring”. These are the kind of moments that become engraved in one’s psyche. Performing such concerts require everything one has: the will, a sturdy psyche, the nerve to show up like that, looking like a huge tent, the memory, the boundless physical energy, the supreme faith in one’s abilities, even if they were, as of yet, untried.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best? 

Those composers whose music has been inspired by the music of their people.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage? 

I pace incessantly all over the backstage area for many long minutes. By the time I am pushed onto the stage I am too tired to allow the slightest inhibiting factor through into the performance. Then the very best comes out, from the heart and the mind. Imagine all that extra oxygen.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

These choices are always made well in advance: most orchestras ask me to do Latin American composers, at least in part of the programme, and conversely, when I am asked for repertoire ideas for a concert, I myself always offer at least one piece by a Latin American composer. At this point in time, I am not a music director of any orchestra, as I was in the past, sometimes of three orchestras at a time, which allows me much freedom as a guest. An exception may be the Boston Pro-Arte Chamber Orchestra, which I have been conducting regularly as the Conductor Emerita. They are a fully cooperative orchestra and therefore the repertoire is decided by the musicians themselves together with the conductor.

One last example of a beloved programme I have been conducting every season, for a few years now, is a concert designed for children who are hard of hearing, yet of course the programme and concert are open to all. It tells the story of Beethoven and how he overcame his incapacity. It’s Beethoven back-to-back for the audience, with a funny and heart-warming script for two comedic actors, full of scientific facts about the nature of sound. I am thinking of bringing it to international stages.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I dream of doing a recording or two at the Rudolfinum in Prague. I also remember other acoustically endowed halls in Eastern Europe, like Sofia Hall in Bulgaria, where I have performed and recorded. At the same time, I have been conducting at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre since 1991 and I adore that venue.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I wish I had a magic wand. Aside from that, I think we need to be realistic and respectful of the potential audiences. Families are key. So is an honest effort to see “classical” music as entertainment, and not just as a live sound museum. People go to historic and plastic arts museums in droves. What is their secret? Is it an interactive function? In parallel, orchestras can develop out-reach programmes where they sponsor orchestral instruments learning for children, from their earliest possible ages. We might also have to think of our musical venues being too large to grow a new audience. The smaller halls, chamber music type, are to be preferred .

We also cannot compete with the pop culture and their unnatural decibels which are felt all the way to our internal organs. “Classical” music wasn’t born for that state of affairs.

During the years when no one would dare question “classical music’s” superiority over all other kind of music, we got away with it. There were different cultural and social expectations. We must now think tabula rasa and recreate our medium.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be happy with my own performance. No amount of outside praise can compensate for an inner dissatisfaction with even the least moment of a performance or recording, with the accompanying thought that I should do it all over again until I really like it. Such is my inner tyrant. Conversely, I listen often to my oldest recording, Bartok’s For Children, which I recorded in 1984. It never had much consequence in the music world, but it remains one of my standards for perfection. For this reason, I requested the label (Centaur) to reissue those works whilst adding a world premiere orchestration of 10 outstanding Mikrokosmos pieces, which I think is unique and perfect in its own right.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Go into music as a career only if you truly believe that you will die (yes, a physical death) otherwise. This is exactly what I counselled my younger son before he finished high school. He had demonstrated a conspicuous talent and love of the theatre, acting principal roles in various plays. At that point in time, right before he started his application processes for college, he declared to us parents that he was going to be an actor. I said to him that I would support him in every endeavour he chose, but at the same time asked him to pass the “I-will-be-dead-unless-I-do-this” test. I explained that the road to his Art goal would not be for the faint of heart, and that it might be, paradoxically, deadly. I explained that unless he could not see his life any other way, should he choose a life in the Arts. The test would help define his true needs and possible choices. He didn’t pass, and then understood what his best of all worlds option was: choose a non-Art profession and keep any Art manifestations (he is also a very good amateur musician, which I see partly as my personal success) as a hobby, a word derived from the Arabic hob which means “Love”, and truly reflects what Art is for, which is, just for the love of it. My younger son went straight into Stanford Medical School, brilliant as he is, and is now a neurologist and psychiatrist with New York University ( NYU) in New York City, who plays piano, jams on base and composes for his dancer/choreographer soon-to-be wife. Win-win-win. We all won.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To live 100% in the moment. Lacking the social encounters which the pandemic has removed, I so much ache for times to be normal again, so we can stop complaining about them; this seems more difficult these days. It can be spending time with my kids, or with other kids; spending rare time, one on one, with cherished friends and family; a good read; staying abreast of what occurs in the outside world in as trite a fashion as reading the newspaper or tuning into the news, an extraordinary musical discovery (I have become a huge fan of conductor Teodor Currentzis, a genius, in whose hands I hear Beethoven and other greats as for the first time); a good film; planning future musical recording projects, such as Ginastera’s last opera, Beatriz Cenci, or orchestrated songs of Carlos Guastavino; or even – and here is an intimate confession – knitting an entire wardrobe for my niece’s doll, a doll which I also knitted. My grandma taught me to knit when I was 5. Since then, I always knitted, and have created some stunning pieces which I gifted unsolicited to mostly my family and friends.

Cien Anõs, a celebration of the music of Astor Piazzolla released on the anniversary of his birth, with Juanjo Mosalini (bandoneon), Kristina Nilsson (violin), Anne Black (viola), Steve Laven (cello), Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and Gisele Ben-Dor, is available now on the Centaur label.

A formidable and incandescent presence on the podium, conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “a star on the rise – a ferocious talent.” Amongst her list of orchestras she has led are the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Helsinki Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, New World Symphony, Israel Philharmonic , Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, as well as the Seoul and Rotterdam Philharmonics, and many orchestras in France, Italy and Latin America.

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Image credit: Henry Fair

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