A woman's work

Gisele Ben-Dor, trained both in Israel and the US, has proved that conducting needn't be the role of men.

gisele ben dor 88 224 (photo credit: )
gisele ben dor 88 224
(photo credit: )
'My father used to say that conducting is all right, but if I were to become an accountant in Montevideo, he'd be really proud of me," laughs American conductor Gisele Ben-Dor. "The son of poor Polish Jews who escaped to Uruguay on the eve of WWII, my father became an accountant, the equivalent of a financial adviser, and for him it was very important." Ben-Dor's preferences were clearly very different. She's conducted major orchestras throughout the world and served as music director for the Annapolis and Santa Barbara symphonies and Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. Tonight and tomorrow she will lead the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in an anything-but-traditional program. Spending some time in Israel prior to her concerts, Ben-Dor took a break in a crowded Tel Aviv cafe to reflect on her life, and above all, her music. Her Hebrew, which she was taught in her early childhood, even before she arrived in Israel on her own at the age of 17, is fluent and without an accent. Born in Uruguay, she began playing piano at the age of four and started conducting choirs at 12, "just because I felt like it." But once she arrived in Israel, she felt she really had to make a decision about her future: "What kind of life will it be if I become a conductor, I thought." After graduating from the Rubin Music Academy in Tel Aviv, Ben-Dor received a scholarship to attend the Yale School of Music. "Before that, I was offered a similar scholarship in the Hochschule in Berlin, but decided against it. As much as I wanted to advance in conducting, I thought it was not why I'd come to Israel all the way from Uruguay." For three years she waited for another scholarship and ended up attending Yale with her new husband in tow. "My father said, 'You may go, but you have to marry first!' There were so many opportunities in America, so I stayed there." It's been some time since Ben-Dor took that leap of faith, but she recognizes the continued dearth of female conductors on the music scene. "It's not a question of a special talent characteristic of men; this has just been the tradition and perception. In the past, women simply did not have the opportunity to become composers or conductors. But my little son, who has witnessed my concert life, believes that conducting is 'a girl's job'." Ben-Dor's career seems to prove that conducting is not about gender. "It's equally difficult for anybody to become successful at it," she says. "I believe that at the end of the day, good musicians always appreciate good musicians. It's about being always prepared, always available. Otherwise you are out of the game." That said, Ben-Dor always made it a point to be an involved mother and wife. "Many female conductors are not married or have one child. I have two sons and declined quite a few offers when it required tearing my dear ones off to a less ideal place." Now that she has stepped down from the position of music director of Santa Monica Symphony, Ben-Dor has more time to spare for her family. The week before rehearsals started here she spent time traveling as a member of a Jewish National Fund group. "I thought I knew Israel," she remarks, "but it turns out that I don't know it as well as I thought." She also has nothing but praise for Israeli pop music. "Surprisingly enough, it is not dominated by the American culture - it is melodic and the youth knows the lyrics by heart." Ben-Dor's program at the Henry Crown Auditorium in Jerusalem will feature the Israeli premiere of Kammermusik for viola d'amore and chamber orchestra by Paul Hindemith, with Dani Fradkin as a soloist, the rarely performed Sibelius's First Symphony by Sibelius and An American in Paris, by Gershwin. "Hindemith is mostly regarded an academic composer who is more concerned about form than musical expression. I think that his lyricism is underestimated. This piece is so beautiful, so dreamy, like an elegy. The more you listen to it, the more you enjoy it." Ben-Dor will conduct tonight, October 31, and November 1 at Henry Crown Auditorium in Jerusalem at 8:30 p.m.