A cut above the rest

The sky’s the limit for Maestro George Pehlivanian, who’s here to conduct the Israeli Opera in ‘The Barber of Seville.’

George Pehlivanian 311 (photo credit: .)
George Pehlivanian 311
(photo credit: .)
‘Since 2000, I’ve been coming to conduct the Israel Philharmonic almost every year,” says American maestro George Pehlivanian as he enjoys a Friday afternoon meal in an open air restaurant at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center piazza, surrounded by family and friends. Pehlivanian, 45, who conducts operas throughout Europe (mostly in Italy), in Russia and Los Angeles, is here for his debut with the Israeli Opera, where he leads Rossini’s The Barber of Seville starting March 12.
“While with the IPO you have only a few days to rehearse several programs, I’m not in a hurry now. I have enough time for rehearsals with the singers on their own, then with the orchestra, and finally for putting the whole production together. It permits me to spend five weeks in Israel and in Tel Aviv, which I love – it’s probably the major reason why I’m doing opera here,” adds Pehlivanian, who has nothing but compliments for the Israeli Opera’s professionalism.
What is his approach to Barber, the most popular opera-buffa in the entire repertoire?
“Musically speaking,” he says, “Rossini has to be light, the tempi have to be brisk. For this you need to have very good singers, and I am happy with my casts, which are both able to follow my ideas. The choir also does a good job. The arias have to flow, as well as the duets, terzetti, quintetti – it’s a virtuoso job, and difficult to do.”
The long stay in Israel also allowed Pehlivanian to skip down South for a few days as a guest of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival, where he did wonders, turning a group of students who came for master classes into an orchestra within three rehearsals. What is his secret?
“I know that I can work with the orchestra, and I’ve been working with young musicians for more than 20 years,” he says. “With discipline and passion you can do anything – if you have clear ideas and good communication with people. Of course, the major orchestras in the world, such as Gewandhaus or the Berlin Philharmonic, do not need to be taught discipline. But the passion, the originality, the new spirit that you bring – these are still very important.
“I always do everything to inspire musicians to play their best. I always say to my conducting students, ‘you have to know the music and then the orchestra will respect you.’”
DOES PEHLIVANIAN’S experience as a violinist help him deal with orchestras?
“Positively yes, and don’t forget that I was a concertmaster for 15 years, from the age of 11,” says the charismatic musician, whose life story is far from ordinary in other respects as well. Born in Beirut into a family of Armenian refugees, Pehlivanian moved to the US with his family at the start of the civil war in Lebanon in 1975. 
“The war, which is a bad thing, gave a new start to my life in Los Angeles,” muses Pehlivalian, who has played violin from early childhood.
He was 25 when he decided to change profession. “Lorin Maazel [who also exchanged the bow for the baton] saw me conducting in Pittsburg and told me, ‘you should not play violin, you should conduct, and for you the sky will be the limit, because you are a born conductor.’ ...And he was right – two years later I won the world competition in Besancon.”
Is it true that there is a certain similarity between Tel Aviv andBeirut? “I haven’t been to Lebanon since we left the country, so it’shard for me to tell,” he says, “but Mediterranean is Mediterranean: thesame air and sea, the same food and the same warm family people. Forme, Tel Aviv is reminiscent of Napoli, with its noise and totaldisrespect to traffic rules. Every morning I cycle from Jaffa, where Istay, to the Opera House, because it gives me a good workout. And forthe first time in my life I ride on the sidewalk, because cycling hereis very dangerous!” he laughs loudly.
‘The Barber of Seville’runs March 12-27 at the Israeli Opera, Sderot Shaul Hameleh 19, TelAviv. Some of the performances will be led by David Sebba. For moredetails visit www.israel-opera.co.il or call (03)-6927777.