Never missing a beat
Omer Wellber's career began at the age of five, when he started taking piano lessons in Be'er Sheva; at 29, he conducts the world's top orchestras without a score, reads seven books a week, writes, paints and recently became musical director of the Valencia Opera House.
Even when 29-year-old Omer Wellber isn't standing on the podium in a tuxedo, he is usually working. The ambitious and talented conductor sleeps barely three hours a night; he feels guilty if he hasn't read at least seven books a week, both nonfiction and prose. Plus, a good part of his time is spent in the sky. And that's no metaphor.
"Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm flying to or from Valencia," he says. "And I have to check whether Paris is to the right or left in order to know. Suddenly it seems I'm losing all touch with reality and not really keeping up with the pace."
This is Wellber's seventh year as musical director of the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra, and his recent appointment as musical director of the Valencia Opera House in Spain surprised many. The opera house is situated in the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, a local landmark, and Omer Meir Wellber (Meir was his paternal grandfather's name ) inherited the position from renowned 81-year-old conductor and composer Lorin Maazel.
"Omer is making an unprecedented career," Israeli conductor Asher Fisch - who gave Wellber his first opportunity to conduct - said about him a few weeks ago. "I don't know anyone in history who ever made such a huge leap like the appointment he received in Valencia. Now he has the chance to advance both as a conductor and as musical director."
Jerusalem-born Fisch, formerly the musical director of the New Israeli Opera, was the one who brought Wellber to opera when the co-production of "Wozzeck" by the Israeli Opera and the prestigious Wiesbaden Festival in Germany was staged in Tel Aviv in 2005. "He was my assistant, and then I sent him to Daniel Barenboim in Berlin," Fisch relates proudly.
Wellber, who besides playing the piano and violin and conducting, also plays accordion, came to Israel for just two days earlier this month to conduct Verdi's "Requiem" at the Tel Aviv Opera House (it was performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra with the Israeli Opera Chorus and soloists ). We met a few hours before the concert.
"I feel so-so, I'm not 100 percent yet," he said. Last month, at the last minute he was forced to cancel a visit to Israel to conduct "La Traviata" at the Israeli Opera. "I cancelled other concerts, too. I was sick and felt wiped out. When the season ended, everything collapsed all at once. I was overcome with this crazy fatigue. I've had a nerve-related problem in my shoulder for the past year, and when I work too much my body falls apart. I had to rest so I went to my home in Lucca, in Tuscany, got treatment and rested."
He bought his apartment in Lucca, inside the walled, Renaissance-era part of town, about a year ago. "It's a beautiful place, and unfortunately I'm not there very much," he says. He also doesn't get to see his Italian girlfriend, a psychoanalyst, as much as he'd like. "It's a little hard to develop a relationship when you're not there," he adds quietly.
Wellber usually conducts without a score, but begins his work process by getting closely acquainted with it, however.
"I worked on the 'Requiem' for a year and a half - I lived with the score. It was in my briefcase all the time. Every so often I would open it for 15 minutes and then put it away. A week goes by and again I look at it for 20 minutes each time, make notes to myself and put it away. Then I read books that are related to the work, and in time I get a broader perspective and the piece becomes a part of me. After a year and a half, I'm inside it and it's a real connection - not some quickie thing," he explains.
How do you extract from the musicians and chorus the pure emotional sounds that are so vital in a work like this?
"A lot of issues are musical or technical. Barenboim stresses something to make everyone [i.e., the musicians] think in the same direction. He doesn't ask you to agree with him or demand that you imitate him: He asks that you understand his thinking. As soon as the orchestra and the members of the chorus and the soloists understand how I'm thinking and are thinking in the same way - that's where it all begins.
"In a work like the 'Requiem,' where you have 180 people taking part, when I raise my arm - a small gesture - everyone breathes together. There's nothing like it in any other art form. And if they like what you're doing and the music is good and the technical aspects are working, one propels the other. So a conductor can't be just a philosopher or a musician, or just be charismatic. You have to balance all of those things."
Which qualities characterize you as a conductor?
"I guess my presence works. I think I manage to create a certain complexity. On the one hand, it's [due to] the way I explain things and the way that I work, and on the other it's the fact that they see the complexity, but at the same time it doesn't frighten them."
Wellber's conducting of the Verdi work earned a stinging review from Haaretz music critic Noam Ben-Zeev: "This 'Requiem' zigzagged between exquisite moments of quiet that raised hopes that its spirituality was about to emerge, and a painful disillusionment ... The person responsible for this great missed opportunity is Wellber himself, who did not have the sense to pause, to show restraint, to go beyond directing traffic, which he does with virtuosity, to reach the emotional artistic experience."
Were you offended?
"I've never been a favorite of Israeli critics."
Why is that? Abroad you are much acclaimed.
"It's possible that in Israel they don't like what I do, and that's okay. It annoys my mother mostly. Criticism is important as a reflection of the mood of a place, as a snapshot of what is happening in a country. On the other hand, there's also a lot of politics in criticism; it's just part of the game. I read the reviews usually, but that's very far from saying that it's going to change my artistic method. You have to remember that the hall is filled with an audience, not with critics."
"You can't judge a conductor before he reaches age 50," says conductor Fisch, in a phone conversation from Rome, where he is currently rehearsing a production of "Tosca." "There's a first stage of talent and enthusiasm and technical ability. I'm 53 and now I feel that I'm just really starting to understand the profession. It takes a lot of time and we have to support those who are talented. Omer has fantastic opportunities and he's already conducting the world's best orchestras. He has the personality of a conductor par excellence: He doesn't care what others think of him, he says what he feels, he can be very nice and very tough, and he's an excellent and meticulous listener. The only [bad] thing I can say about him is that he's not a pianist."
Daniel Barenboim also took note of Wellber's unique talent (see box ). In March 2008, Wellber met him for the first time at the Berlin Opera House.
"The man sees everything and can tell immediately if you're right for him or not," explains Wellber. "For three days he wanted to know everything. Who my parents are and what it's like in Be'er Sheva, and we talked about music and politics. He asked about my views and I said that I wasn't in favor of the occupation, but that I also wasn't a fanatic leftist. I come from a socialist household but I also admire Menachem Begin in many areas, and I also think that Aryeh Deri is fantastic in a lot of ways. There are contradictions in me. We argued a little.
"We talked about music and he could tell very quickly that I'm a fantasist. We talked about books. At the time he was interested in the life histories of the Brit Shalom people [a peace group from the 1920s], and I brought him books about the subject ... and read them on the flight, and we talked about that too. And then he said he would let me conduct."
Wellber received a monthly stipend from the Berlin Opera House for nearly a year, and was a guest artist. (Every cultural institution in Germany is obligated to support young artists and to offer paid internships. ) "I left everything else behind and lived on 1,000 euros a month, and I studied with Barenboim seven days a week. He comes from a non-spiritual place and in his view what matters most with an artist is the method and the ability to learn. He leaves little room for emotional inspiration.
"Working with him changed my life and made me an artist. Barenboim is without peer because of his personality and the intensity that he conveys. He has a tremendous capacity to give, and I was constantly asking him questions. That's the way I am; I come from a family of teachers."Crossing fingers
Wellber's parents, Ora and Yitzhak, grew up in Jerusalem's Sha'arei Hesed neighborhood and came from families of ultra-Orthodox background, although they were not Haredim; like her eight siblings, his mother served in the army. After they married, the couple chose to help fulfill Ben-Gurion's imperative to settle the Negev, and they moved to Be'er Sheva. Both were teachers. Omer has two older sisters, 44 and 41, also teachers.
Omer's musical talent was already apparent at age three or four. "My parents said that, at every family event, I would play on whatever musical instrument I happened to find. When my sisters were learning to play, I would come up with harmony. They never took me for an evaluation because my parents understood where my talents lay, and at age five I started piano lessons with a private teacher. At nine, I started studying with Tania Teler."
Teler, 65, taught at the Be'er Sheva Conservatory for many years. She speaks about Wellber with much emotion, and says they have a telepathic connection, even 20 years after the first time he showed up at her house. In February, Wellber invited her to watch him conduct "Tosca" at La Scala in Milan, and sent her a plane ticket.
This is how she describes their very first meeting: "When his father brought him to me, he sat right down and placed five or six pages of sheet music that were taped together on the piano, music that he had written, and he said: 'I was thinking of playing this and of this idea.' I said to him, 'What is all this mess?' But he wasn't frightened and he could tell that I was kidding. He was full of joy and had a keen understanding of everything."
Despite the physical distance between them today, their relationship has endured. "When he went to meet Barenboim for the first time, he asked me to keep my fingers crossed for him, he knew that was my custom. He left me with my fingers crossed as I waited for him to call, I even kept them crossed when I got up in the middle of the night. Nobody else would understand it."
Omer learned to play piano and violin, and developed a special love for the accordion. Even now he sometimes puts down the baton and gets the audience dancing with his accordion playing, as he did not long ago at a concert with his orchestra in Spain. In high school he had an arrangement with some of the teachers, who exempted him from coming to class as long as he earned a grade of at least 90 on the tests.
In November 1992, when Wellber was 11, Yedioth Ahronoth published a series of articles about his late father, Yitzhak, who was secretary general of the Teachers' Union and was seeking reelection. There were complaints about his salary and allegations of corruption concerning the fact that he had ordered that electronic dictionaries be purchased as a gift for the teachers. Wellber's claims that this had been approved by the Teachers' Union administration and the comptroller were of no avail, and under pressure from members of his party, Labor, he resigned. His father waged a long legal battle to prove his innocence. His son says the pressure was felt at home.
"He won the libel suit against Yedioth Ahronoth, which printed an apology," recalls Wellber. "Happily for the family, he left the Education Ministry and opened an organizational and educational consulting company, and managed major projects in the Negev region. In 2000, he died of a heart attack that was probably due to his unhealthy lifestyle: He was a heavy smoker and didn't exercise."
A few months after the affair with his father blew up, Wellber began studying composition with Michael Wolpe, a composer and teacher who lives in Sde Boker. "He was a curious child. Each thing I told him led to 10 more things that he discovered on his own," says Wolpe. "He looked me in the eyes, which is rare among children. I told him to listen to Beethoven's symphonies and a week later he had listened to all of them and we could talk about them. He has rare intelligence.
"His father was a great man and the scandal was a tragedy, not just a personal one but also for education in the south. Wellber organized the peace movement in the south, and he had a wonderful connection with the Bedouin sector as well, and many of them came to his funeral. Now there is a street in Be'er Sheva named after him, but unfortunately he never got to see it. It shatters the family and while it was all going on, Omer kind of adopted me and used to come to me often."
Wolpe and Wellber have remained in touch and also composed music together. "He wrote a few works for me, including a viola concerto and a piano concerto. He is a talented and prolific composer. He picks up languages quickly, and learned German, French and Italian, and now Spanish very easily. His command of languages is the key to his success as a conductor."
Wellber began his military service as a psychotechnic recruitment officer, but after a year he saw he was not spending enough time on his music.
"I had a meeting with the mental health officer and explained the situation to him," he relates. "I brought with me piles of works that I'd composed, and he was in shock. As a kid in Russia he had played music and dreamed of being a composer, and when he saw he couldn't make it he went to medical school instead. I met with him on a Thursday and the next Sunday I was released from the army, under the incompatibility clause, apparently. I don't know what he did but I really want to stress that no one lied or pretended anything, not me or my parents. I didn't leave because I had offers. When you finish a day of work in the army at 5 P.M., there's no way to fulfill your musical ambitions. I was discharged and went to study at the Jerusalem Music Academy, and I graduated with a master's degree in 2006.'A star on our hands'
Seven years ago, Orit Fogel-Shafran, director of the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra, was looking for a young conductor and heard about Wellber. She invited him to conduct a concert with soloist David D'or at Jerusalem's International Convention Center.
"He had an immediate chemistry with the musicians, and we've been growing together ever since," she says. "He started working as a conductor and wrote a very modern work: a concerto for four dancers and orchestra. We quickly saw that we had a star on our hands and he has led our orchestra to great achievements."
Wellber now travels the world conducting major orchestras, but three times a year, he comes to Israel to conduct the Ra'anana Symphonette.
"I have to come back here," he says. "I'm attached to the musicians I used to travel with at six in the morning to Kiryat Shmona, or to some sort of concert on Lake Kinneret. They're family. In Spain I have an excellent relationship with the orchestra, but it's purely professional, there are no personal feelings. I grew up together with the Ra'anana Symphonette. I don't need them per se, but I want to keep working with them. It makes me a little less focused on myself. The danger in this profession is that pretty soon you're only thinking about yourself and it can be very wearying. So I work all year round, I learn and I hone my abilities, so I can come here."
What do you have planned for Valencia?
"Officially, I'm the musical director as of September. In the coming season I will conduct three operas and there will be guest performers from all over the world. We will do 'Boris Godunov,' 'Tosca' and an evening of works by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, that will include the operas 'El Amor Brujo' and 'La Vida Breve.' Valery Gregiev will conduct the opera 'Romeo and Juliet,' and Riccardo Chailly will conduct 'Ariadne auf Naxos.' At the end of the season, there will be the Mediterranean Festival, which is directed and conducted by Zubin Mehta."
You're so young and yet so elderly at the same time.
"I love old people and I have a lot of friends who are older."
There are many things in art, he says, "that I used to do that I don't do anymore. I haven't composed in three or four years. I don't have the time. When focusing on the performance of these works at the highest level, it's so interesting that I have no need to give of myself in composing. But I am writing a play that will be part of a book, which will be constructed from a number of texts written in various literary genres - all of which focus on the same plot and the same characters. It's the story of two generations of a family, one on the eve of World War II and one in modern times."
Why don't you sleep?
"Sleep bores me and I don't have the patience for it. I'm reading seven books at once: Shlomo Sand's 'The Invention of the Jewish People,' Ariel Hirschfeld's book on Bialik, Donald Winnicott's 'Playing and Reality,' an Italian novel my girlfriend bought for me, a book that's a collection of everything ever written about Gustav Mahler, and more. I can't sleep because I have pangs of conscience over not having read enough, so I get into bed with the books and I read a few pages in one and then move to the second and third and fourth, and so on."
Who are you competing with?
"I don't sleep because I can't find room for it. I'm hyper and I was a hyper kid. There are days when my mother is talking to me on the phone and ... says she thanks God she doesn't have to send me to school. I wasn't given any medication because there was no need, and it was not the accepted thing as it is today. They let me do what I wanted. I didn't disturb the teachers because I was busy with my own things. I went to an after-school group for kids who were into science. I was always busy with something."
Were you a popular kid?
"Yes, though I didn't have dozens of friends. Now, too, I have just three or four good friends. I played soccer and I was a decent goalkeeper. My mother was worried I might want to be a professional soccer player. At home I got a lot of support and they encouraged my intellectual curiosity. My parents were very interested in ideology."
Did you listen to a lot of music at home?
"Not at all. We listened to the comedy routines of Hagashash Hahiver [comedy trio] and I still remember most of them by heart. We listened to French chansons and to American music by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. that my mother loved. My sisters like Israeli music."
And what do you listen to?
"Jazz by Bill Evans, the music of bassist Avishai Cohen. Yehudit Ravitz, Matti Caspi, Arik Einstein, Shalom Hanoch, Hahaverim Shel Natasha. I also love Amir Benayoun, the only Mizrahi singer who sings truly beautifully."
What about classical music or opera?
"I don't listen anymore for pleasure. It's something intellectual; I listen to it differently. For pleasure, I just listen to Israeli music and sometimes to gypsy music - which I also love to play on the accordion - and tangos."The blessing of music
You were named "conductor of the year" by the Italian magazine Classic Voice. How did that come about?
"On my birthday last year, October 23, there was a premier of 'Aida' in Padua, which is a small city, but there was a huge response and there was talk all over the world about the performance of this 'young Israeli.' I hadn't read the score even once because the conductor canceled and I was called to fill in at the last moment. I was asked if I'd ever conducted 'Aida' before and I said yes and that I knew it well. Basically, I lied. Even Barenboim told me to watch out - that they'd stone me. In short, it was a small orchestra from Padua that played superbly."
What other kinds of responses have you gotten for being so young and Israeli?
"After I conducted 'Tosca' at La Scala in February and I got the kind of reviews I'd never had before, it seems there were some people who couldn't abide that and they started a rumor that I was conducting at La Scala because my family donates millions to the Opera House. They said I was Barenboim's illegitimate son from a lover in Israel and only now when he learned that I was talented did he take me in ..."
Let's talk about ego and about the concept of success.
"Everybody has an ego, but I was never a snob or arrogant. I work very hard. This whole business that's called success is not simple. The personal price is quite high and you don't understand it until you're there. I never Imagined that I'd watch my three-year-old nephew on Skype, see how fast he's growing up - and not know him. This is the loneliness of it. On a Friday night, you're finished conducting and leave the concert hall, and you think: They're all going to a family dinner and I'm going to a hotel.
"On the other hand, success is wonderful. I meet amazing people and I have the privilege of conducting in the best places and under the best conditions. These opportunities are tremendously exciting. You're living a dream. Music is something very deep for me. Lord Byron wrote that a musical work is like a mountain: Wherever you stand there will be a whole part you don't see. The Talmud says that blessing lies in the work of your hands. I would amend that to say that blessing lies in music."
Are the Jewish sources a part of your daily life?
"I keep kosher because I like the situation in which there are things that are prohibited. I don't touch pork or seafood and I don't mix milk and meat. I read the weekly Torah portion and I fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av. These are things that remained from my parents' homes even though they weren't religious. I try to avoid performing on Shabbat."
My mother would ask: So what's with the shiksa girlfriend?
"That's a complicated question. I never expected that I could ever be with someone who's not Israeli, and now it's not even an issue. I also read a lot of the writings of Justice Haim Cohen, whose approach to Judaism interests me, and I'm not looking for an easy way out."
And you're constantly studying.
"I love the plastic arts and I paint. The paintings are hanging in my house. I always have a sketchbook with me in case I get the urge to draw. Not long ago, for the first time, I bought a work by a photographer, Joel Witkin, an American - 5,000 euros. A photograph in a peculiar color."
So you're wealthy?
"I'm not in bad shape. It's all happened very fast. The physical crisis I had this month showed me that I can't keep up this pace. I'm young and new in the field; it's something I have to learn to deal with. It's not easy being somewhere else every month and having to buy shampoo all the time and running out of clothes. You start sending clothes home and they sit there in a box. I don't even know where my winter coat is. Not long ago I bought my 15th iPod charger. These are little things, but they're significant because they attest to my lack of rootedness."
You carry a good amount of loneliness with you everywhere you go.
"I'm alone all the time, but I'm not lonely because I have people in my life whom I love and who love me. I live on the road. The option is to do this for 10 years and then stop and go more into teaching. I miss that a bit: I taught for six years at the conservatory in Kfar Hanagid and it was a fantastic time. I miss the contact and the interaction with students. Eventually I might be able to do 30 concerts a year for good pay, and then I'll have four months left to do other things. But not now because I'm really enjoying what I'm doing."Praise from the maestro
On the phone from Berlin, Daniel Barenboim is effusive with praise for Omer Wellber. "He's a great talent and also plays the accordion well, and he understands modern composition as a conductor, too," he says. "I tried to help him develop the connection between sensitivity - which is intensive for him - and knowledge about structure and balance, and all those elements that are important for a conductor. He has the emotion and feeling, and brings these out of himself, but a conductor can only communicate with the musicians on the basis of knowledge and understanding. That's what produces the sounds. The conductor can give [the musicians] training and that's why knowledge of the musical foundations is so important. That's what he was missing and what I tried to help him with."
Barenboim says Wellber was his assistant in two opera productions. "Omer came to study with me and I agreed to take him on, at Fisch's request. I talked with him and found that he is very intelligent and curious, which is an important quality to have, and then he conducted a rehearsal of the Berlin opera orchestra for about 15 minutes. I told him that before I told him my opinion of his conducting, I wanted to hear what he wanted to do.
"Omer said he wanted to be my assistant. I said that I didn't have a spot for an assistant right now and even if I did, I wouldn't take him. I was quite hard on him. I told him that he didn't yet have all the necessary qualities, and that he had to work on all kinds of things - and I told him what they were. It impressed me that he took his fate in his hands and stopped everything else he was doing and came to study. I saw that he not only had musical talent, but also a great desire and determination to learn and to build his life."
Do you think that running the Opera House in Valencia is the right move for him at this point in his life?
"You're talking about it as a profession and I'm talking about making music. These are two different things, and only he can prove if the two can be combined. Only he can prove if the decision to become the director was the right one and if he has the ability to keep improving as a conductor and to run an opera house at the same time. It will take time to see whether this is the case."