Tight Squeeze

There are barely enough hours in the day for virtuoso accordion player and one-woman 'bulldozer' Ettie Tevel, who's also a successful conductor and teacher and she's still only 26.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

The piece that was the highlight of the Ashkelon Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra's season-opening concert was called "Tevel" (meaning "universe")  partly because it weaves together a slew of styles from different cultures around the world, but mostly because it was written (by kanun player Eliahu Avikzer) for and dedicated to orchestra member Ettie Tevel, the accordion soloist, member of the orchestra's guiding artistic team and its in-house conductor.

It was the gift that awaited her when she returned recently from a tour in South America, where she was a guest musician of the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi. "Tom Cohen, the musical director, scheduled the piece in the opening concert, and I asked him, Like that, within a week? Will we manage? 'You'll learn it easily,' he said. They told me afterward that people came to hear [guest singer] Shlomi Saranga, but my piece stole the show. I was so excited!" says Tevel.

With a piece written especially for her as a soloist, and as the orchestra's conductor, Tevel who is just 26 is in the midst of a breathtaking musical surge, on a journey that started when she was growing up in Be'er Sheva. "In schools of accordion music, I had a classic Russian education  the way you learn violin, with the notes and the discipline. And for classical musicians it's hard to break free from that, to break off from the notes and that's how it was for me too, it took me time to let go," says Tevel. "And I was able to thanks to the Andalusian orchestra, where I was right on the border between musicians who play traditional instruments and classical musicians. It's unusual to be in both worlds that of classical music and ethnic music. But for me it's natural: one day, Yoav Talmi, the next day, Shlomi Saranga. To be able to combine them is a dream and that's also what balances me."

Tevel will soon be performing in two unusual concerts. The first, a successful show that she has already conducted twice, is a collaboration between the Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra and the rock band Knesiyat Hasekhel (on Wednesday, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art). The second is from a totally different world: a concert from the orchestra's traditional repertoire at a gathering of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry (on December 4, in Tel Aviv University's Smolarz Auditorium) featuring the orchestra's singers of liturgical songs, Emil Zrihan and Lior Elmaliah.

A musician, arranger, conductor and also a Ph.D. student in business administration, Tevel's intensity is dizzying. "I work a lot, and sleep very little, and use the night to work because I'm a night owl," she says. "That's why what I produce is not normal for someone my age. I can go without sleep for a few days. If there is some project, such as writing arrangements, or a rehearsal, or a presentation of my thesis and I haven't finished it, I won't go to sleep.

"This ability is a gift," she adds, "and I like working under pressure: If there's no pressure, you put things off. Sometimes I have a concert in the morning for the Kfar Sava cultural program, and lectures at Ben-Gurion University during the day, and an evening concert in Tel Aviv. And just today I was thinking about people who work at one place in the morning and go home at night: I don't think I'm cut out for that. For me, every day is different, full of different people, with diverse orchestras in a range of musical worlds. It's hard for me to imagine myself any other way."

The toughest teacher of all

The accordion has been with Tevel since the age of 6, stayed with her as she was growing up and during her studies with the Accordion Orchestra led by Victor Derenboim  "an outstanding teacher and educator," in her view until she came to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

"In the entrance exam, I played Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor," Tevel says. "The academy didn't even have an accordion department just like the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, when I applied for a scholarship from them, did not give out scholarships to accordionists. Everyone saw the accordion as an instrument for accompanying group sing-along events and not as an instrument for classical, artistic music. After I finished the test at the foundation, the examiners rose to their feet and I got a grant for an outstanding musician and also help to buy a new instrument."

At the Jerusalem academy, where she studied while also carrying out her military service as an outstanding musician, the accordion was an unfamiliar instrument. "They didn't know where to send me to the classical music department or to interdisciplinary music?" Tevel says. "I was their experiment: I always played from different styles and schools for the examiners every time. In the end, I was the first to study and graduate with a major in accordion."

But Tevel didn't settle for studying just one instrument at the academy. "I wanted to enrich my knowledge in education so I studied for a degree in music education, and today I have a teaching certificate and instructor's license," she says. Tevel now heads the accordion department at the Be'er Sheva municipal conservatory and, after Derenboim retired, she took over the orchestra, also based in the city she grew up in, and conducts the 30 musicians in it.

Her conducting career happened almost by chance. "At the academy, I took the required course in conducting with Aharon Harlap and Stanley Sperber, just like everyone else and I liked it."

During her degree, Tevel decided to apply to study, against all the odds, with the senior teacher of conducting in Israel, Mendi Rodan (1929-2009), who was known as the toughest teacher of all. "He agreed to accept me even though he usually didn't accept undergraduate students, and I came to him brimming with confidence ... and he showed me that I don't know a thing and have to start from zero. During the first lesson, I cried. He was extremely demanding: With him, you had to know the scores by heart, because he would surprise you and demand the parts for all the instruments for certain notes.

Once, I said to him tearfully that if you don't want me to continue, tell me and I'll leave. But that was what I needed. And little by little, he began to offer praise, encouragement and at the end of the year he was tender to me, like a father, and even recommended me, and we would gossip with each other about his concerts. I was very lucky, I studied with him for three years and it turned out that the year I earned my degree was the last year of Mendi's life."

Publicity and praise

Tevel started working for the Israel Andalusian Orchestra (a precursor of the Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra) in 2004, when she was 18, organizing a concert for the Young Andalusian project. "I'm methodical about order and organization and I'm good at it, and that's why they gave me the job," she says. "I hired musicians, organized everything and that's how I also realized I'm able to handle administrative tasks. They even called me 'the bulldozer' at the time. After that concert, they invited me to join the main orchestra as a musician."

Tevel played in the orchestra together with Tom Cohen, a young mandolin player from Be'er Sheva, and a fellow student at the Jerusalem academy. "Tom and I were in the orchestra together, and together we learned about the new world we discovered the maqams Arabic scales, and the improvisation."

In 2009, the Ashdod-based Israel Andalusian Orchestra was dismantled. Its musicians were dismissed and most went to the Ashkelon orchestra. Tevel joined the musicians who remained in Ashdod, in the Andalusian orchestra established there under the musical direction of Shmuel Elbaz. At the Ashdod Andalusian orchestra she thrived and developed musically, eventually becoming the conductor of a series of concerts featuring French singer Francoise Atlan, which gained a lot of publicity and praise.

"After that peak, I felt I needed to head in a new direction," says Tevel, and six months ago she notified the heads of the Ashdod Andalusian orchestra of her resignation. "It wasn't long before my phone rang: It was Tom Cohen, now the musical director of the Ashkelon Andalusian orchestra, who heard I had left and snatched me in to the Ashkelon orchestra without a second thought. And in Ashkelon it's a dream. The atmosphere, the attitude, the esteem I'm getting from everyone.

"The artistic openness there is absolute, there is absolute freedom and the orchestra is soaring, we are thriving," she adds. The Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra, also chose a new musical approach, and concerts later in the season, in addition to those featuring liturgical songs, will have the orchestra performing with the Orly Portal Dance Company and singers such as Dudu Tasa and Rachela.

Back to Be'er Sheva

Tevel is the fourth of five children the oldest sibling is 36 and the youngest is 14; the older three are all engineers and her younger brother is studying piano and violin and is a liturgical singer. "My mother insisted that all of her children study music, and so we did  each of the siblings plays an instrument and most play two," says Tevel. "My mother immigrated from Morocco and she came from a family of musicians, who also played in the royal court, and in Israel her siblings formed the legendary Be'er Sheva band Hahedim.

She herself is not a professional musician, but she instilled the music in all of us ... There was always an orchestra at home, before the older siblings left home. On the holidays, at weddings  we all played and everyone knew us as a musical family. "My father is an account manager, with no musical background at all, but on Shabbat he likes to sing, sometimes with me accompanying him on the piano," says Tevel. "He sings liturgical songs from his heritage, which is Algerian, and so the traditional songs don't stop with the Andalusian orchestra but continue in our home."

While a student, Tevel was chosen for a student-exchange program in France she was one of four chosen out of hundreds of applicants and she completed courses there in negotiations and intercultural communications. When she returned she was selected along with a few other students to manage the university's investment portfolio. "We produced an annual yield of 14 percent," she laughs.

"Since first grade, I've been learning nonstop, and after I earned my degree in 2009, suddenly there was a year without studying and I missed it," says Tevel. Because of this longing, she is doing her Ph.D. at Ben-Gurion University's business administration school, majoring in strategy and nonprofit organizations.

"They told me that if you don't plan on an academic career, what do you need a doctorate for?" says Tevel, "and I thought, I have an advantage because I understand the musical side and the financial side, I'm on the ground in both areas, so I decided to start doing research anyway  to study cultural institutions from the inside. I said to myself, I want to build a model for proper financial management of cultural institutions in Israel, in music and theater. Because failed management is what brings organizations down and not the size of the budget or the amount of personnel. So for my doctorate, I'm looking at the budgeting for cultural institutions provided by the state and the whole subject really consumes me. I see how many misguided considerations exist in the system, how many mistakes in management are made."

For now, Tevel still lives in her parents' home. Leaving Be'er Sheva is not easy for her. "I'm very involved in my city. Studying at the university, and working with the Be'er Sheva sinfonietta, and the theater and at the conservatory and I've never left the city. I'm always on the road traveling from the city and back to it, home."

Being an unusual figure in the music world in Israel, and in general because of her combination of classical and ethnic music, and because of her young age is a challenge for Tevel. "In the conductor's jacket they think I'm over 30; on hikes in shorts and All-Star sneakers people think I'm 16," she says. A female conductor is a rare species of musician, and today they still have to get over almost impossible hurdles of all kinds. "For me," says Tevel, "these difficulties are the university of life, and I'm constantly learning and evolving and still trying to hold my own and not capitulate to anyone who tells me, 'Calm down, you're not going to change the world.'"

Ettie TevelCredit: David Bachar