The Money-making Music Man

Daphna Berman
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Daphna Berman

Leon Botstein insists he's not a savior, despite reports that would suggest otherwise. As the musical director of the fledgling Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, he prefers instead to see himself as an institution builder with a great deal of work in front of him. And nearly half-way into his term, he seems quite satisfied.

For Botstein, who is also the president of Bard College in New York and the musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra, the trans-Atlantic appointment he accepted last year with the hope of reviving the JSO has been fruitful. Attendance is up, as are concert subscriptions and morale among the orchestra and its audiences, and the JSO seems to be climbing out of the dire financial straits that threatened to shut its doors some 20 months ago.

Botstein remains confident that the orchestra would have survived without him, but still, he'll admit that his well-polished fund-raising skills and public relations savvy haven't exactly hurt.

"In the U.S., I have a reputation for being an institution builder, and I think they realized that I would be interested in more than just flying in to conduct a few concerts and then leaving," Botstein told Anglo File last month, reflecting on his first year on the job.

Botstein is not, by his own accounts, a "typical" American Jew. Born in Zurich and raised in New York City in a trilingual home, he has never affiliated himself or made inroads with the American Jewish establishment, despite his academic and musical prominence. He speaks proudly of his Zionist lineage - an uncle who was the head of Beitar in Poland and a friend of Jabotinsky, and his father who was a graduate of the Zionist gymnasium in Lodz. He had previously visited Israel only a handful of times, and so the offer to conduct in Jerusalem presented a "once in a lifetime opportunity" he hasn't, he says, regretted since signing his three-year contract in the summer of 2003.

The world of fund-raising and administrative maneuvering is hardly foreign to Botstein, who as head of a private liberal arts college for the past 30 years has raised "well over" half a billion dollars in donations. He says that the donor base for the JSO is entirely different than what he'd worked with in the past, but he's already founded The American Friends of the Jerusalem Symphony, and has raised some half a million dollars in the process. He's "playing catch up" with the more recognized and financially sound Israel Philharmonic, and has forgone his salary in the meantime as well. Botstein takes little credit for the financial help he's enlisted so far, and says only that "there is no such thing as a good fund-raiser - only good causes."

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra was shut down temporarily in early 2003 after its funders - the city of Jerusalem, Israel Broadcast Authority and the Education and Culture Ministry - withheld a loan because of allegations of financial wrongdoing. The JSO board resigned, the orchestra was put into the hands of a court-appointed receiver, where it still remains, and its musicians circulated a petition in support of Botstein's candidacy. He accepted almost immediately, and in a short time was able to arrange a two-year contract with public radio in the U.S., so that a total of 16 JSO concerts would be broadcast across 200 stations - "PR for the state of Israel that's enormous."

Botstein only conducts 12 concerts a year out of the JSO's 70, but Yossi Tal-Gan, the symphony's general director, says that Botstein has been able to infuse a spirit of rejuvenation and musical richness that didn't exist before. And the fact that he's established the American Friends of JSO, Tal-Gan adds, will hopefully ensure a long-term commitment among Diaspora Jews.

The challenge facing Botstein and the JSO remains rather formidable. The Symphony is still burdened with a debt estimated at some NIS 14 million and the court could, theoretically, shut its doors at any sign of weakness, financial or otherwise. But Botstein seems determined to see the project through and ensure that the music tradition remain a stable part of life in Israel's capital. "Music is a reminder of the sanctity of human life, and it's not appropriable by any political force," he said. "Indirectly, we are doing something that cannot help but be constructive."

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