A double life well led

Meet Sam Lewis, a consumate musician who also marches to the beat of a different drummer.

sam lewis 88 298 (photo credit: )
sam lewis 88 298
(photo credit: )
It is Remembrance Day, November 11, 2006. A hushed and somber gathering of people assembles at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Ramle on this sunny morning. They have come from all over Israel to honor those buried here who served their countries in war and gave their lives in battle. War veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, stand at attention in uniform. Their children and grandchildren, seated some distance away, look on with pride and affection. Others attend in memory of deceased war veteran parents and relatives buried here and elsewhere. Prayers are intoned and speeches made. A short poem is recited by the British defense attach , clad in the lavishly decorated uniform and green tartan kilt of a Scottish highland regiment. An Israel Defense Force Honor Guard presents arms as a lone bugler plays "The Last Post." Representatives of more than 20 countries and organizations are called forth by the British ambassador to lay wreaths at the foot of a commemorative stone monument. More prayers are recited by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy; a short address by the British ambassador concludes the service. Throughout the ceremony, one man in particular stands head and shoulders above the crowd. He is tall and stands ramrod straight. With bright green eyes and a ruddy complexion under a shock of white hair, he proudly carries the standard of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Formed in London in 1928 to protest against the British government's handling of Arab anti-Jewish rioting in Palestine, AJEX cut its teeth in the 1930s protesting against the rise of pro-Nazi fascist groups in Britain, particularly the National Front led by Oswald Mosely. It was AJEX that physically prevented Mosely's "blackshirts" from marching through London's East End, and instituted its own Remembrance Day commemoration and parade through Whitehall during the turbulent years leading up to WW II. The tall man with the broad smile carrying AJEX's standard on this Remembrance Day commemoration in Ramle is Sam Lewis, chairman of the Association's Israel Chapter. Under Lewis's deft leadership, AJEX in Israel has carried on the mission of combating anti-Semitism and discrimination, perpetuating the memory of Jews who died in the service of their country, assisting Jewish ex-servicemen and women in need, conducting Jewish heritage educational programs, attending commemorative ceremonies and maintaining Jewish museums. With British and Commonwealth military cemeteries in Ramle, Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba, one of the most important tasks that AJEX has assumed is to visit the grave of every Jewish serviceman or woman at least once a year to recite Kaddish. Composed of British and Commonwealth Army, Navy, R.A.F., Home Guard, Fire Service, Merchant Marine and National Service veterans, the membership of AJEX Israel is mostly elderly. The youngest WW II veterans are in their early 80s, with many postwar National Services veterans now in their 70s. Lewis's personal mission is to keep the association going in Israel as long as possible, despite dwindling membership. But that is only half of Lewis's story. The other half is the music. It is a little-known fact that in this country, no symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, band, ensemble, quartet, quintet, sextet or any group of professional musicians can play the music of composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein without Sam Lewis's permission. No radio station in Israel can air their music without informing Lewis and obtaining his approval. No one can even think of recording music by these composers without Lewis's say-so. How did this genial English ex-serviceman achieve such control over the classical music scene in Israel? The answer is a restless spirit and a life well lived. Samuel Lewis was born 70 years ago in the old Jewish neighborhood of Whitechapel in London's East End. "The war came and we were evacuated," Lewis recalls. "We returned to East London after the war. Our house hadn't been bombed, but everything around us was." His focus on music soon began. "Of course, my family wanted me to go into the schmatte business as all Jewish families there did, but I started to play the violin in school. I was in the school orchestra, and later the National Youth Orchestra," he says. Conscripted into the British Army at age 18, Lewis was assigned to the Royal Artillery and trained for a tour of duty fighting the dreaded Maumau rebels in East Africa. His musical background soon brought him to the attention of his commanding officer, however, who decided that Lewis could make a greater contribution to Queen and country as a musician in the Royal Artillery Symphony Orchestra, which needed a viola player. Exchanging his violin for a viola, Lewis played his first performance at the 80th birthday celebration of prime minister Winston Churchill. Lewis soon discovered that many of his fellow musicians were also enrolled at government expense at the Royal College of Musicians. He eagerly joined them, he says, "paid for by Her Majesty the Queen." Following his stint in the army and another year at the college, Lewis was accepted as a viola player, at age 21, by the London Symphony Orchestra. "We played and toured, working with some of the greatest conductors in the world. I decided that this would be my life, playing with the London Symphony." He played with the orchestra for seven years before deciding that a change was needed. "After years of roaming around with the orchestra, playing one night here, one night there and living out of a suitcase, I realized that I didn't want to do this for the next 40 years of my working life." Lewis went to New York and studied orchestration with the musical advisor to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the producers of shows like Camelot and My Fair Lady. "The result," he recounts, "was that I came back to London as the musical director of the Drury Lane Theater, conducting My Fair Lady in London." But restlessness soon got the better of him again, and he found himself impatient "with the routine of conducting the same orchestra performing the same show night after night after night." When he heard that the Haifa Symphony Orchestra was seeking a new general manager, he jumped at the opportunity. "I'd been to Israel with the London Symphony Orchestra and had enjoyed two wonderful weeks there, so I thought, 'Well,why not?'" Lewis thus became the Haifa orchestra's general manager in 1968, in charge of organizing the orchestra, conductors and programming; engaging guest soloists and conductors; arranging bookings; collecting performance fees; fundraising and, he recalls, "finding the money for 70 salaries at the first of every month." He stayed on for four years until the first huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union persuaded the Netanya municipality to form a new symphony orchestra from scratch, composed of some of the world-class musicians that were streaming into the country. Lewis was offered the dual portfolio of general manager of the new orchestra and its musical director and lead conductor. Starting work in 1973, Lewis decided that with Russian-driven symphony orchestras sprouting up all over Israel, Netanya would be the venue for a different kind of ensemble. "What we needed was something like the Boston Pops, offering mixed audiences some of the lighter side of music. We worked with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Julio Iglesias, and offered everything from Handel's Messiah to the popular music of the day." The orchestra's concert with Frank Sinatra was televised live on Israel's then-only TV station. Lewis even got Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops, be the Netanya orchestra's honorary president. "That was how I was able to get all of the Boston Pops's orchestrations and use them over here," he recalls with a smile. The orchestra thrived for 17 years under Lewis's enthusiastic management and direction - a time fondly remembered by many Netanya residents who enjoyed the orchestra's free open-air concerts in the town main square near the beach. The orchestra, says Lewis, "completely collapsed" during the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the almost total disappearance of tourists, who had comprised a major part of the audience. Out of a job after 17 hectic and rewarding years, Lewis returned to London and visited some of the music publishing companies he had been in contact with while directing the Netanya orchestra. At the office of Boosey and Hawkes, one of the largest music publishers and copyright holders in the world, Lewis met with the general manager, who happened to be an old army buddy and fellow orchestra musician. Lewis's friend told him that his company held copyrights to the music of several deceased 20th-century conductors who had not yet been dead 70 years and asked if he wanted to be the company's agent in Israel. Lewis has served in that capacity ever since. Copyright holders collect royalties from songs whenever they are recorded, performed in concert, or played on radio and television. An international association of music copyright holders exists largely to collect royalty fees from radio stations throughout the world that are playing copyrighted songs and music. Lewis explains, "Frank Sinatra, for example, has been dead for several years now but still earns around $50,000 every night. Composers of musicals like My Fair Lady, though they've been pushing up daisies for years and years, still have family members out there holding copyrights and collecting royalties." As the Israel agent for not only Boosey and Hawkes but seven or eight other major music publishers, Lewis has controlled the copyrights and license arrangements for such modern classical composers as Bernstein and Bartok, Stravinsky (all dead less than 70 years, after which the copyright is no longer in force). He has also been responsible for promoting modern classical music in Israel, which he describes as a tough job. "When most people here think of classical music,' they're thinking of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Hayden. Orchestras wanting to make money and carry on performing have to play those composers. The music of modern classical composers like Sibelius is a much harder sell." Successful in his profession and comfortable in life, Lewis these days finds himself getting restless again. Approached last year to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, he promptly said yes and virtually threw himself into the job. The timing could not have been better. As last summer's war against Hizbullah intensified, Lewis was galvanized by the thought of elderly members of his organization languishing in bomb shelters up north. He began an urgent program to evacuate these people to the south of the country. In conjunction with AJEX's head office in London, many AJEX members were offered the option of evacuation to London. Lewis laughs as he recalls one elderly British ex-serviceman telling him, "During the WW II, I was evacuated from London. I have no intention of being evacuated to London now!" Last week, Lewis flew to London, on his way to meetings and events involved with both his chairmanship of AJEX and his role of music company agent. He went to march in a Remembrance Day parade through Whitehall and attend a conference on copyright infringement through the downloading of music from the Internet. On the latter subject, Lewis - controller of numerous lucrative musical copyrights - is philosophical. "Look, it's a big problem, it's a world problem. But it's not a terribly big problem for classical music. No one would really want to download a Wagner opera or a Mahler symphony to listen to through computer speakers. I prefer the sound of Deutsche Grammophon, as I'm sure most others do." Sam Lewis thus leads two very full lives, and neither shows any sign of slowing down.