An interview with mandolin artist and conductor Shmuel Elbaz, the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra's new resident conductor
On October 10th 2016 I spoke to mandolin artist and conductor Shmuel Elbaz at his home in Giv’ot Bar, a small town in the Negev Desert, close to Beer Sheva. A graduate of the Beer Sheva Conservatory, the Faculties of Performance and Conducting of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Sweelinck Academie (Amsterdam), he founded and led the Kerman Mandolin Quartet in 2000, becoming principal conductor of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod) in 2002. He has been guest conductor of several Israeli orchestras, becoming the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s resident conductor in 2016. Elbaz’ world premiere recording of J.S.Bach’s Six Sonatas and Solo Violin Partitas on mandolin has created much interest.
PH: Shmuel Elbaz, with your activity all over Israel, I see you have remained close to Beer Sheva, where you were born and grew up.
Shmuel Elbaz: Yes. I am a “desert animal” and need to be in the Negev. The desert is where I feel the best.
PH: Are you from a musical family?
SE: No. I was the first to take music lessons, but then my two brothers took up music. One brother is a bass player, playing mainstream pop and rock music. Another brother was a drummer in bands, but today is involved in the culinary profession.
PH: So how did you begin your involvement in music?
SE: At age 7, I went to the Beer Sheva Conservatory. I did not know enough to choose an instrument, but there was a most charismatic teacher there – Simcha Nathanson - who developed a school of mandolin-playing, now famous worldwide, from which some of today’s finest mandolin players have emerged. Simcha Nathanson immigrated to Israel from Russia in the 1970s. Actually, he was a violin teacher who made the switch to teaching mandolin; both instruments have the same tuning, meaning that the fingering is the same. He just needed to learn plectrum technique. He addressed the mandolin as if it were a violin. As children, we played classical violin repertoire, including the technical exercises of such great violin pedagogues as Carl Flesch, the result being that the mandolin gradually became accepted as a classical instrument rather than just a traditional or folk instrument. And it was also becoming a solo instrument.
PH: So Nathanson was an important influence on you.
SE: Yes. Knowing him has been a gift for life. It was he who opened the magical world of music to me and who inspired me to choose music as a way of life; by the age of eight, I already knew that I wanted to be a musician.
PH: Where did you go from the Beer Sheva Conservatory?
SE: To the Jerusalem Academy of music. Actually, I was the first graduate on that instrument, taught by Moti Schmitt (also a violinist, who, years later, became conductor of the Israel Plectrum Orchestra, Rosh Ha’Ayin); that was before the Academy established the mandolin department. Schmitt also advised me to study conducting and I completed a degree in conducting under the tutelage of Mendi Rodan. I then went to Holland to take a Masters in conducting, attending the Sweelinck Academie in Amsterdam, studying with Peter Eötvös, David Porcelijn, Lev Markiz and Roland Kieft. I chose to study there as they ran a course in which every week each conducting student would conduct an actual ensemble or orchestra (and not pianists playing the score). In order to graduate in conducting there, the student was required to set up his own symphony orchestra, to find and audition players, thus using all the organizational and artistic skills he had learned for his final project. This approach gave me invaluable skills in the field of orchestral management and rehearsal organization.
PH: You returned to Israel in 1997. What then?
SE: I began taking an active part in the Israeli music scene both as mandolin soloist and conductor. The first orchestra I conducted in Israel was the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Idit Zvi, its manager, offered me the opportunity, and from there, there was no looking back. Idit Zvi is one of the people who have influenced my career and I am grateful to her. I then served as visiting conductor with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, the Raanana Symphonette and other orchestras.
PH: Would you like to talk about the upcoming season of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra?
SE: Yes. There will be eight subscription programs. I will conduct two of them. One will consist of only classical music and the other will intermix classical and oriental works in the same concert: we will, for example, host oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias in a concert that will include classical Turkish, Egyptian, Andalusian and other works alongside works by western classical composers who were influenced by the east. Take, for example, Mozart’s “Il Seraglio”, Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” and Weber’s “Abu Hassan” Overture; the composers of these works were familiar with sounds of the orient from the impact of the Ottoman Empire on Europe. The concert-going audience will be able to compare the original oriental sounds and aesthetic with their influence on European music. It is also interesting for the players, who will become exposed to repertoire which is new for them, to a different kind of interpretation and aesthetic - be it playing in quarter tones, different bowing, phrasing and articulation – giving all a broader perspective on music in general. Based on the vectors of rhythm and melody (and less on the complex elements of harmony and counterpoint) oriental music exudes energy. Appearing alongside classical music in the same program, it is liberating, communicating directly with the audience and creating a special atmosphere not experienced with other orchestras and in classical music concerts.
PH: This is a drastic change in the NKO’s programming.
SE: Not that drastic: under Yaron Gottfried’s direction, this orchestra spent years moving between world music and classical music, constantly engaging in stylistic crossover programs: he brought much from the world of jazz, pop, etc. Oriental music is also world music, be it Andalusian, Egyptian or Turkish; it is not that non-European music has not been played on this concert podium, but this season will be the first season in which music from Arab countries will be performed at NKO concerts. In Israel, the influence of Mediterranean music is definitely present and felt and our audiences have been exposed to it…more than to, say, Chinese music. It has become a significant part of our cultural identity in Israel.
PH: Are your listeners not put off by it?
SE: No, they are accepting of it as long as it is presented well and on a high level, with suitable orchestration, etc. It opens doors to them, inviting them to enter the magic world of oriental music. This music is indeed user-friendly if one opens one’s heart to it. It is not music that demands previous lengthy preparation on the part of the listener. I personally find this all very interesting as, when I examine classical music I can identify “natural schemes”, musical elements shared by oriental and western music – emotion, psycho-acoustic phenomena, how to create energy and feeling.
PH: What will be focal in your work with the NKO?
SE: To address all the needs of the orchestra and accommodate to the taste of the Israeli concert-goer. For me, the subscription series we present are most important. In addition to those, I am also involved in educational projects – concerts in different places and cities, taking part in festivals, etc. I am very happy with my connection to the orchestra; it is an orchestra I have been admiring for several years and whose concerts I have attended frequently prior to my taking on the position with it.
PH: In what ways do you find it special?
SE: It is a very energetic orchestra with a group of very young and ambitious players, each a soloist or chamber musician in his own right. This year we have quite an international group of instrumentalists: joining Israelis we have players from Japan, from Switzerland, from Spain, South America and, of course, from the former Soviet Union. It is an orchestra with a good, healthy signature sound.
PH: Would you like to say a few words about the NKO’s new musical director Christian Lindberg?
SE: Yes. Christian Lindberg is a Swedish composer, conductor and trombonist. He has been referred to as the greatest trombonist of the last 100 years! It is most important for the orchestra to have a musical director with such a wide scope and who is so meticulous about music-making. He has already motivated the whole orchestra to engage in serious and intensive work. He will be with us three times this season, and in the next season, four times. The combination of Lindberg and myself could be seen as a kind of “double power”: when he is not in Israel, I continue and implement the mode of work he wants the orchestra to follow – be it punctuality at rehearsals, rehearsal procedure, work in groups, in sections, intensive enquiry into detail, etc. This is all very good for the orchestra, challenging the players, giving them a sense of vitalness; the orchestra is certainly moving full steam ahead.
PH: You are about to conduct the second concert of the NKO’s 2016-2017 season. I believe its programming has a unique side to it.
SE: True. The concert is titled “Hidden Treasures of the Orchestra”. Here the soloists will all be members of the orchestra and they themselves have chosen the works. It will give the audience an opportunity to experience the great ability of our players. For example, in Dvořák’s “Serenade for Wind Instruments” each of the players in the ensemble is a soloist with a meaningful role. Similarly, Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No.4 will feature three soloists – two flautists and one violinist (our concertmaster); the string ensemble will play standing. Then we will hear Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.1 for Two Clarinets with our clarinettists as soloists. I will perform Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C-major. To conclude the concert, the orchestra will once again join to become one organism to perform Haydn’s Symphony No.96; actually, in this work there are also some solo sections. By the end of the concert, the audience will have become familiar with the names of some of the players, their unique personalities and abilities and will enjoy this closer acquaintance with individual players right through to the end of the season.
PH: What can you disclose about Concert No.7 of the current season?
SE: It will be a crossover program titled “Maestro Elbaz’ World of Wonders”. The idea is that I will present works from my different musical worlds in the concert hall, combining east and west in a broad variety of works. Professor Taiseer Elias will be the soloist; he will play both oud and violin. In some of the works I will join him on the mandolin. We will also have someone playing the darbuka (a middle eastern goblet-shaped drum).
PH: I understand the audience is in for a season of diversity and innovation!
SE: Yes. For Program No.8, for example, “When the Public Decides” the audience will choose the program from a long list of overtures, choral works and symphonies. Another new project this season will be for young composers from the Buchmann Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) to compete in writing a three-minute piece. The three most outstanding works will be performed by the orchestra in our subscription season, quite an honour considering each concert is performed eight times and all over Israel! This way we also meet the new generation of Israeli composers, from whom we hope to commission larger works at a later stage. Talking of young talent, in Concert No.5 - “A Rising Star” - we will give the stage to the outstanding 14-year-old ‘cellist Danielle Akta, an Israeli artist already busy with an international career. Each NKO season will now feature a rising star, introducing the audience to the next generation of up-and-coming young artists. So, with all these new ideas and young promising players, we are working very hard in the hope of attracting new listeners in addition to our regular audience members.
PH: Where does the kibbutz come into all of this?
SE: The orchestra was originally formed to offer musical events to kibbutz communities and to provide opportunities to kibbutz orchestral musicians. We maintain the tradition of performing our concert series in several kibbutzim, but nowadays have only two or three kibbutz musicians in the orchestra. We do, however, make a point of performing works by composers who have come from the kibbutz movement, composers such as Michael Wolpe and Arieh Rufeisen.
PH: And where does Netanya come into the orchestra’s programs?
SE: With Netanya, a city that has immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia etc., we have made a several valuable connections with the city, its inhabitants and its cultural life. We are active in its suburbs, with its local dance group and within its community. Last Purim, for example, the orchestra played Andalusian melodies and orchestral arrangements of festival songs; we came in fancy dress costumes and it was all most jolly. We also play at the annual Netanya Guitar Festival and cooperate with “Tremolo” – the Israel Percussion Center. Whoever is active in Netanya’s culture connects with the NKO in one way or another. Not long ago, we appeared outdoors in the city centre in a happening in which the orchestra was “looking for a conductor”. Passers-by (including the mayor) took up the baton and the orchestra played under their direction. And we recently took part in the Netanya International Clown Festival. Then there is our outstanding educational project, in which all primary school children in Netanya attend a series of explained concerts, receiving visits of our players in their classrooms and engaging in pre-concert study. I am amazed to see full concert halls of school children, listening intently, involved and informed. As a result of the success of this project, the orchestra now also appears in the same educational capacity in other towns – in Kfar Saba, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva. This year, I added another dimension to our educational programs; “Integrated Sounds” hosts four Arab musicians in musical dialogue with us between east and west, in which the children learn about the similarities and differences between the two musical worlds. In the end, both groups join forces to play a joint work. The program has received much praise.
PH: The NKO, in which case, addresses many sections of the community.
SE: Yes. What once began as cultural pluralism here in Israel has ended up becoming a series of cultural ghettos, with each ethnic group focused on its own niche and not open to others. I feel that my mission is to break down those barriers. In a concert about to take place in Independence Square, Netanya, we will present two superb singers – one opera singer and one who sings piyut (Jewish liturgical poetry) – each singing her own repertoire, repertoire of east and west, then singing together.
PH: Let’s go back some years. How did your musical life turn to directing an Andalusian orchestra?
SE: In 2001, I was approached by the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod). The offer came as a shock to me; this was not a style of music with which I was familiar or had been engaged in, I was not attracted to it and was hardly aware of its existence in Israel. The Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra had been the first Andalusian orchestra in Israel; its conductor was Dr. Avi Elam-Amzalag. I became its musical director in 2002.With a good dose of curiosity and open-mindedness I began the job, gradually becoming drawn into the style and reorganizing the orchestra. I began writing music and arrangements for the orchestra, acquiring familiarity with the repertoire, with the orchestra’s subscription season, the players and the ensemble. In time, I found myself totally involved in it and my strategy of serving as guest conductor in the various classical orchestras became less of a focus temporarily but was certainly not abandoned. Looking back, I am happy about this period with the Andalusian Orchestra as am now feeling completely a part of the gamut of music-making in Israel. I can use this material, set it against other styles, use it to produce more original programs that are not purely classical and write arrangements in the style.
PH: Your musical life seems to constantly connect east and west.
SE: My musical background and early performance were exclusively in classical music – classical mandolin and conducting – but, as chance would have it, the episode with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra that began as something short term and ended up as a 13-year-long project meant a lot of involvement in oriental music. Today, having generally returned to the genre of classical music, I am left with that extra dimension – a whole world, in fact – enabling me to connect east and west and show what is so remarkable in the meeting between the two. In contrast to the trend in which each genre has been isolated into its own separate niche, on the concert platform I like to show the colours and beauty that exist generally in the varied art of music, and it is good for the different audiences to get to know each other.
PH: So have you left the field of Andalusian music?
SE: Not entirely. This year, for example, I was asked by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion to create a series of four concerts of Andalusian music. The orchestra has decided to broaden its repertoire and to reach out to new listeners. For this series, there will be 80 players on stage - not the typical Andalusian ensemble, which generally consists of a small group of authentic instruments.
PH: Maestro Elbaz, thank you for your time. I wish you much joy and satisfaction in your work with the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra.
Photo: Natan Yakobovich
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