No Strings Attached: One Conductor's Plan to Save the Israel Chamber Orchestra

Yoav Talmi is back for his third stint at the helm of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, with grandiose plans to restore the beleaguered musical ensemble.

The Israel Chamber Orchestra has not seen much success in recent times. Over the past two decades, the frenzied turnover of general and musical directors has caused major unrest. Its constantly changing roster of directors exploited the orchestra in order to carry out weird experiments, before leaving or being asked to leave their posts. An ill social wind blew through its ranks as well, with starvation salaries and a struggle for economic survival being the norm for its musicians.

However, whenever a successful guest conductor or brilliant soloist appeared on the scene, this orchestra blossomed and demonstrated how excellent it really is. Its latest adventure was the two-year period under the baton of international musical director Roberto Paternostro. He advanced the orchestra musically, putting it on the international stage - although not always favorably. The orchestra’s concerts at the Richard Wagner Festival in the German city of Bayreuth raised the ire of many in Israel, eliciting numerous nationalistic epithets against it.

The experiment with Paternostro ultimately failed as well, with the orchestra not extending his contract. Two administrative directors and many staff members have left, and rumor has it that the current general director, Yuval Shamir, will be leaving within a month. A search committee for a new musical director was set up, settling on a surprising selection whom no one had thought would return to the fold: Yoav Talmi.

Talmi was born in 1943, in the kibbutz of Merhavia. “I’m 70 years old but have the same energy I had 40 years ago,” he tells Haaretz in an interview. He studied conducting and composition at the Samuel Rubin Academy of Music, under its director Eden Partosh, the Hungarian-Israeli violinist.

At the age of 21, Talmi traveled to New York along with his wife, the flautist Erela Talmi. He had a scholarship for studying at the Juilliard School, while she studied with the legendary flautist Marcel Moyse. After finishing their studies they both played in several orchestras, Yoav as a pianist. He continued composing, and was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Composers this year (he receives the award in Jerusalem tomorrow evening).

As Talmi was learning his craft, the conductor Gary Bertini set up the Israel Chamber Ensemble in Tel Aviv (it became the Israel Chamber Orchestra in 1965). “I joined the orchestra when I returned to Israel in 1970, conducting dozens of concerts as part of a concert series,” Talmi recalls. “Eventually, I left Israel again, going to London.”

In London he received the runner-up prize at a prestigious conducting competition and, right afterward, received an urgent phone call from his agent, informing him of a concert scheduled for the next day in Arnhem, The Netherlands.

The Arnhem Philharmonic’s conductor had fallen ill and a replacement was desperately required. After English Channel hopping, the philharmonic asked that he stay as its musical director, which he did for 10 years.

This was the first of many cases in which Talmi would play the role of Cinderella. Another instance was when he joined the Munich Philharmonic, one of Germany’s leading orchestras.

“During all the years we lived in Holland I refused to appear in Germany,” Talmi says. “Besides my parents, all my family had perished in the Holocaust. After three years in Arnhem, my agent - who had informed me that no musical career can ignore Germany - told me that the famed conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, Rudolf Kempe, had died [in 1976] and that they were requesting that I replace him immediately. Luckily, that concert was held in Holland.

“After the concert, a delegation from the orchestra came to see me. They told me that they were feeling like fatherless orphans, and asked if I would consider accepting the post of principal guest conductor. To their surprise, I asked them to return the following morning. I phoned my parents. My mother was not happy with the idea, but my father - who was my first music teacher - told me to take the job and learn how to differentiate between forgetting and forgiving. The next morning, I told the delegation I would happily accept their offer.”

Hurt and angry

The Munich Philharmonic was a major player on the global musical scene, with Talmi succeeding such legendary conductors as Karl Boehm and Gunter Wand. The love affair lasted until the orchestra turned to Sergiu Celibidache, arguably one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, offering him the post of musical director. The Romanian refused to let Talmi have his allotted number of concerts, “so that things are ruined for me,” as Talmi puts it.

Talmi relates that the orchestra gave in, leaving him hurt and angry. “It was a real trauma,” he says, some 35 years after the events took place. “They offered me one concert a year, but the relationship had already soured. The orchestra was changing in front of my eyes. Some of the players managed to maintain their independence, but most started viewing Celibidache as a guru. He managed to infuse their consciousness with the feeling that they were ignorant and that he was the one to enlighten them.”

Talmi’s second round with the Israel Chamber Orchestra occurred in the 1980s, at a time when he also directed the New Israeli Opera (which he helped set up). He was invited to replace the world-renowned conductor Rudolf Barshai, who was to be the first in a string of ill-advised musical directors. During Barshai’s term the orchestra lost nearly all its subscribers. “Barshai had symphonic aspirations, but we returned the orchestra to its natural repertoire,” Talmi says. “After four years we managed to fill the auditorium, in addition to serving as the opera’s orchestra,” stresses Talmi.

Talmi subsequently left Israel again, conducting orchestras in San Diego, Hamburg and Quebec over three decades. During that period he was guest conductor at the Israel Chamber Orchestra, but now he is returning for good.

Why did you apply for the position?

“I didn’t. After I left in 1989 I was approached two or three times during crises, but I had a wonderful decade in San Diego, and was received with great affection for 13 years in Quebec. I didn’t want to return to a hornet’s nest. The same thing happened this time as well. The players were asked to submit names and the search committee approached me. I said yes, since I had conducted the orchestra in South America and discovered a wonderful, youthful ensemble - energetic, enthusiastic and with much potential. This will be the tone next year. When players are excited, it affects the audience as well.”

Talmi’s selection was accompanied by gossip and rumors suggesting that the search committee was a sham, with the choice of conductor made even before the committee had convened. The gossip revolved around the fact that Talmi’s wife is on the orchestra’s advisory board, and the hasty jettisoning of previous musical director Paternostro, who was treated rudely and ungratefully according to those in the know.

“There is no conductor who is not hurt when his contract is not extended,” says Talmi. “The executive committee terminated [his contract] not due to lack of appreciation of him as a conductor or director, but due to the fact that he lives in Vienna and works overseas a lot. He comes to Israel for a week only a few times a year, whereas the orchestra needs a musical director who is present on a daily basis. The orchestra was dying. That’s the background for terminating his contract and this saddens me, even though I was not involved. Ultimately, I was invited to a comprehensive interview and was selected. My wife, who had appointed Paternostro while serving as executive director, left even before the search committee was set up. It was [chairman of the board] Zvi Firon who nominated the committee.”

How did you find the orchestra?

“The state of subscriptions was poor. It will require a miracle to refill the auditorium and hold a series of concerts. I want to bring back our fans this season, and that’s difficult. There is now much more competition in chamber music than there was in 1984. There are excellent ensembles out there, such as the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Israel Camerata. The repertoire is important. For example, we are planning an Amadeus festival, in which 10 pianists will play all of Mozart’s piano concertos. In the spirit of Gary Bertini, I will try and bring as many Israeli players and compositions as I can, as well as conducting chamber operas.

“In addition,” Talmi continues, “there will be special programs for the orchestra. One surprise for the coming season is that I signed a deal with the Nexus record label. I also have an agreement with Samsung Berlin for setting up a digital concert hall, based on the model of Sony and the Berlin Philharmonic.

“The orchestra is about to leave for Linz, Austria, to take part in a ‘Degenerate Music’ festival, which is intended to remind the world of the boycott the Nazis imposed on music by Jews and modernists. There will be more trips and new subscriptions. Yes, we’re planning a revolution. We’re sowing the seeds so we can reap the fruit in two years, I hope. One needs patience in order to get back to the mainstream.”

David Bachar
David Bachar