Feeling at home in Herzliya

Canadian-born conductor Peter Bergamin has strengthened his connection to Israel in the last six years.

January 19, 2006 09:13
4 minute read.

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It's no secret that many international artists no longer visit Israel. Most have simply been frightened by news coverage of political unrest and violence, and as a result miss out on opportunities for cultural exchange. Conductor Peter Bergamin, currently guest conducting at the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra, is one notable exception. On Saturday, he'll conduct the orchestra's presentation of "Orchestral Showpieces," which will feature selections by Bernstein, Mozart, Gershwin and Paul Ben Haim. "I don't believe in living life in fear. I love coming to Israel and I'm not going to stop. When your friends are in trouble, you don't leave them," says Bergamin. Bergamin's fearlessness is a significant aspect of his unique talent. A former punk rocker from Toronto, he believes that "chaos is the only form of organization" and says he was attracted to classical music because he found it had the same energy as punk rock. Indeed, while immersed in the supposedly staid world of classical music, Bergamin brings a certain spirit of spontaneity to his work. He is interested in injecting a sense of the present moment into the music, and does not subscribe to the belief that music must be performed in the exact way it was written. "I don't go to a concert as a museum. Trying to recreate the past, you end up destroying the collective unconscious," he explains. Bergamin's past is rich with musical experiences from all over the world. After studying with Michel Tabachnik both at the University of Arts in Toronto and later in France, where he traveled with his teacher, he returned to his native Canada to conduct concerts and a become a professor at the University of Toronto's Opera School. Inspired by his love for the music of Gustav Mahler, he moved to Vienna, where the composer lived and composed. Bergamin served as music director at the city's Wiener Taschenoper performance hall for four seasons. During that period, he mounted the first Vienna staging of Gerd Kuhr's Stallerhof, the Austrian premiere of the Schonberg/Rhien arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and stagings of works by Peter Maxwell Davies, a composer who shares Bergamin's experimental spirit. For the last 15 years he has been based in London. He spends much of his time on the road conducting international orchestras including the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Northern Hungarian Symphony Orchestra and the Istanbul State Symphony. In the early Nineties, he toured with the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, whose members came from different religious backgrounds and played music throughout the region, visiting Egypt and Turkey and performing for the Pope. It was in that context that he first came to Israel, finding that the "open, relaxed" culture matched his own temperament. "Maybe it's my Italian Catholic heritage, but I have always loved the Mediterranean cultural style. People are going through so much here, but they are still pretty relaxed, he says. After that first visit, he returned often, conducting first in Tel Aviv and then in Eilat. In 1998, at the request of the composer, he conducted the Israel Chamber Orchestra at the Israeli premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies' oratorio, Job. When the intifada began, Bergamin was unfazed. He returned to Israel to continue conducting, earning the gratitude of many of his Israeli colleagues including Harvey Bordowitz, the musical director and conductor of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra, who calls Bergamin "a great Zionist." "I love going out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I have friends here and it's exciting. I'm never stuck in my hotel room watching MTV," Bergamin says. A renowned classical conductor who watches MTV may not be that common, but Bergamin seems to break the rules in a way that fits with his artistic style. He is hoping to take risks as the musical director of a new production company called The December Group, which he runs with Elijah Moshinsky, a London-based Russian Jewish stage director who has directed operas at the Metropolitan in New York and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, among other venues. The company will bring a new style to the staging of operas and other kinds of theater, making location an integral aspect in the production and working to bring high art back to the masses. A forthcoming staging of Three Penny Opera, for example, will be performed not in a huge concert hall but at a dive in London's Soho neighborhood in a nod to the show's setting. Other locations under consideration for performances include everything from Windsor Castle to a parking lot. Whatever the setting, Bergamin will work to find the right note to match. "He brings a freshness to the music, a kind of enthusiasm through which a concert isn't just a concert but always an event," says Bordowitz. Saturday's concert will take place at the Herzliyah Performing Arts Center and will be preceded by a lecture by Bordowitz at 8 p.m.

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