I am not permitted to smoke at home, so this place has turned into a meeting point with my friends and colleagues," the imposing Russian-Israeli violist Yuri Gandelsman smiles as he puffs his cigar in a street cafe, enjoying the mild winter sun of a peaceful Friday morning in Tel Aviv. Gandelsman, today a professor of viola at the Michigan State University College of Music, has come to Israel for three weeks to conduct master classes in viola and chamber music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The course will end with a chamber concert this Wednesday at the academy. "Last summer, while performing at the Kfar Blum Chamber Music Festival, I met several young and gifted Israeli musicians and really enjoyed collaborating with them. Ilan Schul, the president of the academy, as well as Dean Michael Klinghoffer, were impressed by the excellent communication I had with the young people and invited me to Jerusalem," Gandelsman says. "Nowadays, I eagerly accept every offer coming from Israel - my daughter and my elderly mother live here, I love this country and I am not 100 percent sure we did the right thing in leaving it." For Gandelsman, working with students in Jerusalem is a pleasure. "They are gifted kids and if they feel they can rely on their teacher, they will try and learn from him. In many ways, chamber music is about listening to your partner. I believe that if they learn to listen maybe one day they will have something of their own to say as well," he smiles. "But money is the major problem here. Teaching music is expensive and private donations and subsidies can change it all - they allow [the schools] to purchase better instruments and to invite prominent musicians for courses and master classes. GANDELSMAN IMMIGRATED to Israel in 1990 from Moscow, where he was one of the most sought-after classical performers. Coming to Tel Aviv as a tourist a few months before that, he auditioned for the Israel Philharmonic and was accepted by Artistic Director Zubin Mehta as the concertmaster of violas. In between, touring the US as the principle violist of the renowned Virtuosi of Moscow chamber orchestra, he met Isaac Stern in New York. "I was told that Stern was busy and can spend only 15 minutes with me, but after two and a half hours of playing and talking he said that the New York Philharmonic needs a concertmaster and that if I wanted I was welcome to come to auditions. To Isaac's great surprise, I replied that the Israel Philharmonic needs a concertmaster, too, and this is where I want to live," Gandelsman says. And then, after 10 years with the Philharmonic, Gandelsman told the administration that he was opting out of his contract. "No one could believe that I was really quitting, people thought I was just trying to squeeze more from the orchestra," he says. "But I did not want more money, I wanted time for my solo and chamber music performances, and I also conducted master classes throughout the world. At the same time the orchestra wanted me to be constantly with them, which after all was quite natural. But we separated as good friends and I am grateful to the orchestra for everything it has done." The violist, who kept teaching at the Tel Aviv Music Academy, occasionally received offers from the Milwaukee-based Fine Arts Quartet. "It sounded attractive. I've never been a quartet member, and playing in a quartet is the most interesting and demanding chamber music activity. Since the Fine Arts was a quartet in residence, we moved to America." Gandelsman describes the years with the quartet as "incredibly intensive and fruitful. You have to realize that after playing so many years together, they are not going to waste their time on rehearsals with a new member. As a result, I performed many important and complicated pieces after one or two rehearsals, while playing in a quartet demands the ultimate knowledge and understanding of music." A year ago Gandelsman quit the quartet to accept the position of a viola professor at Michigan State University. "I thought, 'I love teaching and I love my students, so maybe after 35 years of constant touring as a soloist and ensemble-member it's about time to settle down in a quiet place.'" Now, in his second year, Gandelsman has 13 students, "most of them are very good, and I am on the way of creating a chamber orchestra there. I gave it the name Ad Libitum, meaning, 'you may play if you will.' And, probably because of this free and pleasant approach, new students are coming all the time to ask if they can play with us," smiles Yuri, who himself performs in many college concerts. BOTH GANDELSMAN'S children are accomplished violinists. Jonathan, who graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute and is also a winner of the Kreisler competition in Vienna, is a member of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, the first violin for Brooklyn Riders Quartet, "and does many other interesting and untraditional things." Gandelsman's daughter Natasha stayed in Israel, where she is the concertmaster of second violins with the Israeli Camerata and a member of a trio as well as the mother of three little kids. During his years with the Fine Arts Quartet, Gandelsman drastically reduced the number of his solo appearances because the quartet saw it as a conflict of interests. As a result, nowadays he receives far fewer invitations from festivals than in the past. "You can ask even outstanding artists - if you don't come for a while, you are forgotten. Also, a lot of young and brilliant artists have come on to the music stage." Does he have any bitter feelings about it? Gandelsman beams. "Yesterday two young violists came to my master class in Jerusalem, and, believe me, they played very well, but I think I still have a thing or two to teach them." The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance chamber orchestra, with Gandelsman as soloist and conductor, plays Bach's Concerto in B Major for viola and strings, Chamber Symphony op. 110, by Shostakovich, and Symphony Number 39 in E flat Major, by Mozart, on December 30 at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The concert starts at 8:00 p.m.. Entry is free.