Baton Rouge: What Do You Call a Woman Conductor?

Meet Talia Ilan, who likes to be called neither 'maestro' nor 'maestra.'

If a male conductor is called “maestro,” are you called “maestra”?

Talia Ilan: “Some people do call me that, but I don’t like the title, and my husband doesn’t like being called ‘maestro.’ All it means is ‘teacher,’ but conductors use it in order to create distance and a sense of superiority relative to the orchestra and the audience. I don’t feel superior to the musicians or the audience. The way I see my work, I feel that first of all I’ve come to serve the music and not ourselves, and therefore we aren’t more important than the musicians. Our job is to mediate between the music and the audience, via the orchestra. My husband and I don’t place ourselves above anything.”

So what do you prefer to be called? “Sweetheart”? After all, you’re also a blonde.

“Certainly not ‘sweetheart,’ maybe Talia, or at most Ms. Ilan.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Talia Ilan is currently one of only two female Israeli orchestra conductors, if you don’t include Prof. Dalia Atlas, the oldest and most respected, who is far older and therefore can justifiably be considered the first Israeli female conductor. Atlas paved the way already in the 1960s. Older readers may remember her conducting the Haifa Symphony Orchestra ‏(whose director was Maestro Sergiu Comissiona‏) while dressed in a tailored men’s suit.

In the dozens of articles written about Atlas, who also attained international success, there was always a discussion of the great wonder − how was it possible that she was both a woman and an orchestra conductor? Because yes, in the context of men’s small contribution to the history of humanity and the development of civilization, along with their achievements in battle, their design of enormous buildings and their trivial inventions such as electricity and telephones, their decisive and almost exclusive contribution to the world of classical music is evident, both in composition and even more so in conducting. Atlas paved the way, but not many women followed in her footsteps for years, until the advent of conductor Gisele Ben-Dor ‏(who spends most of her time abroad‏) and Ilan.

Regular subscribers to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and other symphony orchestras have never seen Ilan conducting and that’s a shame, not only because Ilan, with her blonde hair and youthful appearance, is a sight for sore eyes, but mainly because the glass ceiling is stronger than ever when it comes to including female conductors. Other places in the world have seen a significant increase in the number of female conductors, and still, the percentage of women among famous conductors is infinitesimal. No major orchestra in the world has a female artistic director or a regular conductor who is a woman.

Is conducting hard physical work that is more suited to men?

“Of course not. When you learn how to do the motions properly, as Mendi Rodan taught me, there’s no physical effort. A conductor who works hard physically is a conductor who doesn’t know how to work with his body properly. I think that the technique taught by Mendi Rodan is the best technique in the world. The entire secret of proper conducting is that you have to do whatever you want, but without getting tired. There are many conductors who complain of pains, but that’s because of their technique.

“Conducting is, first of all, the intellectual work of interpretation. It also requires an ability to communicate with the musicians, sometimes only by means of facial expressions or a glance, and in that sense it is actually very suitable for women who, as we know, are considered better communicators. A further requirement − the ability to appear before an audience − is also suitable for women.”

So why are there so few women conductors?

“It’s a matter of a social convention that must be changed, and this convention doesn’t exist only in the field of conducting, although here the glass ceiling is especially impenetrable.”

As part of Ilan’s battle to change the convention, on International Women’s Day she conducted an all-women orchestra and played a work by Israeli composer Larissa Kofman at the concert. During the 364 days that are not International Women’s Day, she is the conductor and artistic director of the Israel Stage Orchestra, in other words, a full-time conductor.

Life under Rodan

I first encountered her in the guest room of a television program about Israel’s Czech community, to which Ilan has even less of a connection than to me. Her connection with the Czech Republic is that she twice won conducting competitions there and in the past conducted two philharmonic orchestras there. She is 41 years old and was born on Daniel Frisch Street in Tel Aviv, “and my mother used to take me to play in Gan Yaakov, a garden next to the Mann Auditorium.”

And is that the closest you ever got to the Mann Auditorium?

“No. Although I never conducted the Israel Philharmonic, I was there at an audition.”

She spent most of her childhood in Ramat Aviv, where she still lives with her husband, Yi-An Xu, an orchestra conductor and teacher of conducting at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University, and with their 2-year-old daughter Noya.

“I studied at Thelma Yellin [High School for the Arts in Tel Aviv]. I was accepted as a pianist but very soon I discovered that my real love is for orchestral works. My home was a musical one and my mother had me listen to a lot of classical music. I began playing at the age of 10, which is a late age to start in terms both of technique and of the brain’s development. I played well and I liked it, but I didn’t really like practicing piano endlessly, as is required for anyone who wants a solo career. Much later I enjoyed getting into the music, analyzing the harmonies, finding the structure of the work and imagining the way I wanted to hear it and how each group of instruments should play.

“By the age of 14, I’d already realized I wanted to be a conductor, and in order to do this, I thought I should learn to play an instrument that is a regular part of the orchestra, rather than a piano, which is an instrument for recitals or chamber ensembles, or for soloists. I chose the clarinet and started to study.”

Were you in the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra?

“Since I was preparing for a conducting career, I thought I should acquire leadership skills and went to be a youth counselor.”

Because she grew up in a “strict Polish home,” after the army Ilan went to study “a profession from which you can earn a livelihood. My parents had mixed feelings about conducting. On the one hand, they wanted me to do what I wished, and on the other, they wanted me to be a secretary with a salary and a pension and good social welfare conditions.”

At Tel Aviv University she studied economics, in order to reassure her parents, and at the same time she also studied at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem. She went to study conducting with Mendi Rodan, noting, “I was the only woman in his conducting class, and I was scared to death of him.”

The late Rodan was quite a tyrant ‏(“rodan” means “tyrant” in Hebrew‏), in the best tradition of great conductors. Ilan recalls that he had a tendency toward angry outbursts and hurtful remarks. “He was very frightening. Half the time I was studying with him I wanted to kill myself. In my class some of the people left and the rest fell ill. He was tough to the point of emotional abuse and the experience of studying with him was very difficult. On the other hand, I knew all the time that after I managed to get through studies with him, nothing would scare me any more. To study with him was to become strong and tough.”

In other words, if he didn’t kill you, he toughened you up?

“That’s exactly how I felt. But I also loved him and two weeks before he died I even organized a concert in his honor. That was for his 80th birthday. He was already very ill and was hospitalized. I decided to choose seven of his students, each of whom would conduct one work. That was with the Israel Stage Orchestra, the one that I now conduct. We recorded and filmed the entire concert and showed him the film in the hospital. He was very moved, and two days later he died. But I’m very happy that I managed to organize that concert for him. Even at his funeral, two weeks later, one of his granddaughters said that until that concert she hadn’t realized how much he was loved.”

While still studying, on Rodan’s recommendation she began to conduct. Her first concert was in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. She conducted an ensemble that played new music. Rodan, who came to the concert, was very pleased. That had to be a wonderful sense of power, I say to her, after all, instead of playing one instrument, you play with an entire orchestra, you use the talent and skill of several musicians in order to hear the music as you want to. But Ilan, sober as usual, refuses to adopt my romantic trend of thought.

The first time she conducted an orchestra, she was surprised “mainly that I was hardly surprised and excited. I felt as though it was my natural condition. As though everything that had been until then only theory became real, but I didn’t feel as though it was a step forward or any special excitement. Of course I was happy and I’m happy today too when things turn out as I want and I’m frustrated when it doesn’t sound exactly as I planned, and I’m grateful that I have such a wonderful job, but in the final analysis, it’s only work that I try to do as well as possible.”

What was your first important concert?

“I was in the Czech Republic at a competition, and I won. The winner was chosen by the orchestra based on all sorts of criteria: musical understanding, ability to communicate with the orchestra, leadership and such. The prize was to do a concert with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra of Ostrava [aka the Czech Symphony Orchestra]. At the concert I conducted Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, there was a work by [Henryk] Wieniawski for solo violin, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and I chose to conduct a work by Keren Rosenbaum.”

She received her first regular conducting job immediately after completing her master’s degree, when she was appointed principal conductor of the Ramat Hasharon Campus Orchestra, and at the same time also started working with the Israel Stage Orchestra, whose director at the time was Roni Porat. When he left in 2006, she became the principal conductor and still holds the position today.

“We’re a chamber orchestra, and we specialize mainly in creating concerts for the entire family. Our goal is to get everyone to like both classical and new music, both adults and children. What Roni Porat invented is a type of genre that he is now exporting all over the world, namely concert-theater. We do try to get children to listen to music and to concentrate on it, but for that purpose we also use stories and various stage arts. But the music always comes first.”

I recall from my childhood concerts for children and young people at the Haifa Theater, when Sergiu Comissiona and Dalia Atlas conducted the Haifa Symphony. There was a music supervisor [from the school system] who would explain the concert, and the children were terribly noisy because they forced all of us to attend the concert.

“Yes, but when it comes to our concerts, children want to come. It’s fun and they don’t feel that they’re learning something along the way. Parents or grandparents attend these concerts, and they’re also starting to get closer to classical music. They don’t sense our educational work. These aren’t didactic concerts, although people learn quite a lot when they come. With funding from the ‘culture basket’ [an Education Ministry fund for extracurricular activities] we also perform for children only, but then we do preliminary preparation. I taught an in-service course in music for teachers, and prior to every concert, soloists from the orchestra come to the school to talk about what they’ll be playing. We also have concerts for adults only. But too few, because the orchestra, which is partially funded by the Education Ministry, is not in good financial shape.”

The China syndrome

One of the projects on which Ilan is working is the musical “Betach Yesh Yeled” ‏(in English, “Like You, Like Me”‏) with music written by her husband. The plot centers on an Israeli boy who imagines that he has a Chinese friend and they do the same things, and in the end they meet. Elad Weinberg wrote the story and adapted it into a play, at Ilan’s request. The play is related to the story of how Ilan fell in love with her husband. “The truth is that I never thought I would marry; my friends always dreamed about their wedding and I never even imagined it. Nor did I plan to have children. But everything changed when I met Yi-An.”

Their initial meeting was eight years ago when she invited him to conduct the Campus Orchestra. He is eight years her junior, and they didn’t fall in love immediately. “I heard that a brilliant conductor had come to the music academy in Tel Aviv, on a full scholarship, and was immediately appointed the conductor of the academy orchestra. I invited him to conduct the Campus Orchestra and we spoke a little. There was no follow-up.

“But a few months later he came close to drowning in the sea. He was with fellow students at the Tel Baruch beach [in north Tel Aviv] and was swept out to sea. He sustained a blow from the breakwater and arrived at the hospital in critical condition. That was on Shabbat of Rosh Hashanah and I was at the computer, and suddenly I saw on the Internet that a Chinese student from the academy in Tel Aviv had almost drowned in the sea and was hospitalized in critical condition. I contacted him immediately and choir conductor Michael Shani answered me and told me that he was at Ichilov. I immediately ran to visit him in the hospital, but he was unconscious, and only four days later − miraculously, according to the doctors, who had almost given up − he woke up. He was anesthetized and on a respirator.

“When I came to visit him, teachers of conducting were there, including Mendi Rodan, and all kinds of students. He woke up and was fine. They checked his memory to see whether it had been damaged, because aside from being a conductor he’s also a talented pianist and can play anything at first reading, and then remember the entire work by heart. He has a computer head. They discovered that his memory was intact. I continued to visit him, and later we continued to meet and became a couple. Five years ago we got married, and then I discovered that he is not only a musical genius but a genius at cooking as well. Our daughter Noya, who’s only two-and-a-half and already knows she’s going to be a conductor when she grows up; she has no other options and has apparently inherited his genius.”

“Everyone here in Israel calls everyone a ‘genius,’” sighs Xu, who looks even younger than his 33 years. He was born in Shanghai but moved to Australia with his extended family, which was wealthy and well-connected before the rise of Communism, and received a Western education. At an early age he displayed musical talent, and when he returned with his parents to Shanghai as a teenager, he went to study conducting and was soon recognized as gifted. He became the young conductor of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and also traveled to conduct various orchestras in Europe. On his travels he met various conductors and was offered student scholarships and conducting work in New York and Germany, but then he met Ami Maayani, a conductor and teacher of conducting at the Tel Aviv music academy, and there was an immediate click between them. Maayani offered him to come to Israel and to receive a full scholarship to study conducting.

Did you know anything about Israel?

Yi-An Xu: “Well, of course, I read newspapers and also studied a bit before coming here. But in our work, orchestra conducting, it doesn’t make much difference where you live.”

Xu has traveled with Ilan several times to visit his parents in Shanghai and his parents came to Israel for their son’s wedding and again to meet their granddaughter. And still, he says that he doesn’t especially miss the homeland and refuses to speak Chinese to his daughter. He says that his home is wherever his wife and daughter are. Which doesn’t prevent the Israeli Interior Ministry from delaying his citizenship, even though five years have passed since they married in Cyprus and they have a daughter together and he is working as a teacher and conductor at the academy of music.

Didn’t you feel a difference in mentality between Shanghai and here?

“In the places where I spend my time, in the academy and the orchestras, all the people all over the world are very similar. There’s no difference. Incidentally, had I remained in China I would probably be able to rest because I would already be the conductor of one of the most important orchestras there.”

You really hit the jackpot, I said to Ilan, he’s musically gifted, eight years younger than you, a wonderful father and an excellent cook. “And he’s also very handsome,” adds Ilan, rightfully. She hasn’t felt any particular differences in mentality either. “Although Yi-An grew up in a ‘pure’ Chinese family, they had European culture at home, mainly through music.”

Does he travel around a lot?

“No. With a Chinese passport you can’t travel around, and here they’ve been investigating him for the past five years before granting him citizenship, even though he already has a child of two-and-a-half. I decided to have a child because my mother fell ill. She died 11 months ago. I’m trying not to cry even now as I’m talking to you, because I loved her dearly. When I traveled to Shanghai for the first time, my mother, who was born in Argentina, told me that her mother had first considered fleeing from Poland to China before she chose Argentina, so that I was almost born in China too.”

They live on one of the green and quiet streets of Ramat Aviv. When I stand in front of the door that opens only with a code, one of their neighbors comes to my aid. “Ah, so you’re looking for the pretty blonde who’s married to a Chinese man?” she asks. Noya, a perfect combination of Chinese and Polish beauty, turns out to be an adorable toddler. At the age of 2, she can already read and write Hebrew.

“Mozart?” I ask, but Yi-An claims that there’s no chance. She doesn’t even read notes and it’s too early to teach her. But in a house where you can find musical scores in the bathroom, on the living room table and on the kitchen table, she can teach herself if she wants.

And if she decides that she wants to be a part-time accountant and not a conductor, I ask her parents. “There’s no such thing,” says her mother.

Not a slimming profession

Do you want to conduct the Israel Philharmonic?

“I never want to conduct in a place where I’m not invited. I conducted the Israel Philharmonic at the audition, the entire Beethoven Fourth Symphony.”

Is there a difference between conducting the Stage Orchestra and the Philharmonic?

“I hate to say it, but no. What creates a good orchestra is the cohesion among the musicians. This cohesion also depends on the conductor who works with them. But the Israel Philharmonic was my school. From the age of 16 I would go to rehearsals instead of to school. I would come with a music score and learn from the conductor, and at the time many conductors came from abroad. The members of the orchestra would laugh and say that I had come to visit them at work. But I learned not only from the Philharmonic. After the army I did the same in London too. I would travel for several months a year. There my teacher was Michael Tilson Thomas, who’s known as MTT.”

Is he nice?

“No, not at all. Niceness hasn’t been the most salient characteristic of famous conductors. This year, after over 20 years, I decided to sever my connection with him. He taught me, recommended me everywhere, he chose me to represent him as his student on a television program. Today he’s a conductor in San Francisco. I studied all of Mahler’s symphonies with him.”

Wagner?

“No. But I went to Bayreuth, not with him but with Daniel Barenboim. When he started the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra he invited me to conduct. He invited me and the ensemble to Bayreuth. Because you usually have to order tickets seven years in advance, we were very pleased about the opportunity and came to hear ‘Die Meistersinger.’”

What do you enjoy most about your work?

“I’m not saying that it’s not a pleasure, but it’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of preparation. The fun is when you manage to produce from the orchestra what you imagine in your mind.”

Do you read scores before going to sleep?

“I read scores all day long. This week, for example, I have three different concerts. Of course my husband and I consult with one another all the time, and my husband also studies scores all the time. When I study I play the piano and that disturbs him, and vice versa. We also pinch hit for one another. If one of us can’t get to a concert, the other replaces him. Before we got married, he sent me to a concert in China. It was in Macau. I conducted ‘A Soldier’s Story.’ The concert took place in Macau’s main church in the main square, and outside there was a screen and masses of people stood and watched.”

Who are your favorite conductors?

“Mendi Rodan, Claudio Abado, Riccardo Muti, Michael Tilson Thomas, Barenboim.”

And what do you wear to concerts? Do you have a conductors’ blazer?

“Look, I don’t emphasize my femininity, and I don’t hide it. I see myself first of all as a human being and afterward as a woman. I wear dark, flowing clothes. Once when I conducted the Ra’anana Symphonette at the opening of Beit Lessin, [musical director and conductor] Tzadi Tzarfati asked to have a tuxedo sewn for me, and then I realized that he was trying to hide the fact that I’m a woman, and that even progressive people like him are still put off by a woman conductor.

“But that’s changing. Now in the academy in Tel Aviv, there’s a majority of women. I know that because my husband teaches there. Of course it begins with education at home and with the fact that you believe in yourself. When I was young, people would say to me ‘What are you thinking of?’ And I remember each time I asked for advice and asked if it was all right. When people met me, they would look at me strangely. In the United States, where I gave a lot of master classes, the situation is better, although there too they talk about a glass ceiling for women. And the women who are considered the best don’t conduct the world’s biggest orchestras.”

So what is conducting for you?

“In the final analysis, conducting is an intuitive language, when what the conductor feels is transmitted to the orchestra.”

Do you work with your entire body?

“The truth is the basics of conducting is only your hands, but you express yourself during the concert in all kinds of ways. But conductors learn all their lives. You have to keep on getting to know more and more works and new things. I, for example, don’t like to repeat works that I’ve already done, even though I’ve been conducting for 17 years.”

And do all those motions on the stage and the tension keep you thin? I once read that rockers can lose up to two kilograms at a concert. How much do you lose at each concert?

“Not a single gram.”

Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum