Maestro, s’il vous plait

Frederic Chaslin takes the helm of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Maestro 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
Maestro 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/The Jerusalem Post)
When Frederic Chaslin, the recently appointed musical director and chief conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, gets on stage to rehearse with the musicians, they know his instructions will contain a fair number of words in Hebrew (he has a private Hebrew teacher) mixed with English and a few words of Russian – but all inflected with a delicate French accent.
The maestro’s accent is only one aspect of the changes he has brought to this venerable institution, including hosting some of the most famous names on the French musical horizon. With an elegant je ne sais quoi, Chaslin’s presence has already managed to bring many of Jerusalem’s classical music aficionados back to the JSO’s concerts following several years of dwindling numbers.
The orchestra is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year – a year that is also seeing an encouraging boost in the resilience of the JSO, which has played with soloists and under the batons of some of the greatest figures in the world of classical music. After about a decade of financial and management difficulties – which have even led to a few threats to shut it down – the orchestra is obviously recovering. There is a new administration, with a new CEO at its head – former Channel 1 TV director Yair Stern – and now a new music director and chief conductor in Chaslin.
One of the first things the two men tackled was rebuilding the orchestra following the apparently too innovative programs that the former music director, Prof. Leon Botstein, instituted. Not that Chaslin, a European-oriented musician, refuses to present modern or lesser-known works from the Western repertoire, but he is careful to intersperse them with some of the better-known classical works.
All signs point to the JSO slowly but surely getting back to its place as a major cultural institution in the city, but as Stern tries to explain, nothing is final yet.
The orchestra was struggling for years with a lack of funds and an inability to bring in the best musicians.
Although the appointment in 1992 of Maestro David Shallon as music director raised hopes, after his tragic and premature death in 2000 things were looking even more dire.
The orchestra attempted to establish a “friends organization” in the US to help fund – and finance – a new musical director. At the end of 2000, Botstein, an American-Jewish musicologist, was the man the association proposed for the position. The orchestra’s management couldn’t refuse. Not only was he a highly appreciated musicologist, but the American friends even proposed to take on most of his hiring costs and thereby free the orchestra’s small budget to enable soloists and guest conductors.
However, says Stern, “choosing Botstein turned out to be a mistake, since he chose to introduce a repertoire that didn’t fit our public here.”
It seems that Botstein, whose experience as a conductor did not match his broad musicology knowledge, built a repertoire that put the emphasis on introducing the public to modern and lesser-known works.
“That was certainly a good intention,” explains Stern in his office on the fourth story of the Henry Crown building, which houses the JSO. “But it didn’t fit the rather conservative taste of our subscribers and the public.
He wanted to educate them; their reaction was to run away. And so, slowly but surely, the public abandoned us, in order to find elsewhere the good old Western classical music they cherished. I can’t blame them.”
The situation became even worse, since at around the same time, at the beginning of 2000, a new classical orchestra appeared in the city. The Jerusalem Camerata Orchestra, which was originally established in Rehovot, began to give concerts in the city, attracting, thanks to its high musical level and attractive chamber music repertoire, many of the patrons who felt alienated by the JSO’s new repertoire.
“Our subscriptions dropped at a frightening rate,” recalls Stern. “We were already under 1,200 [compared to more than 3,000 in the golden days of the orchestra, under the late maestro Gary Bertini].
Something drastic had to be done.”
Things looked pretty discouraging at the beginning of 2002 with the heavy threat of NIS 16 million worth of debts on the orchestra’s head – leading to legal action to dismantle the association that headed the orchestra. That gloomy situation was the result of problems with the administration at the time, which had attorney Yeheskel Beinish as the association’s president and Zussia Rodan as director.
“The two were finally dismissed, while a legal procedure for dismantling the association was decided upon,” recalls Stern, referring to the efforts to correct issues of financial disorder and mismanagement within the orchestra. “Meanwhile, attorney Itzhak Yunger, who was put in charge of the procedure by the Jerusalem District Court, asked Yossi Tal-Gan, then already CEO of the Israel Festival, to serve as director of the orchestra.”
Most of the people involved then had little hope that the outcome of the proceedings would allow the orchestra to survive. But Yunger managed to navigate the reefs and waves threatening the institution, and within five years, by 2007, he had reduced the debts by 50 percent and obtained the court’s approval for some payment arrangements regarding the rest. The court agreed to allow the orchestra’s association to renew its activities.
In January 2008, a brand-new board was appointed.
Stern started off as the president, but by the second half of 2008, when Tal-Gan asked to be relieved of his position as temporary CEO, Stern resigned from the presidency and took over the management.
Today he doesn’t sound particularly concerned by the rival orchestra Camerata’s presence, even though it also receives financial support from the Jerusalem Municipality.
“They are a good orchestra, but they are not a symphonic one, and we have managed, despite all the problems we faced and still face, to remain the major orchestra in the list of sponsored cultural institutions recognized by the municipality and the [Culture and Sport Ministry] in the city,” he says.
Besides that, he points out the growing number of subscriptions since the new music director has stepped in – from barely 1,200 to over 2,000 now. As for the orchestra’s repertoire, it seems to be back to its original design, with the great names of Western classical music that the Jerusalem public – which seems to be regaining confidence in the JSO – knows and appreciates.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be musical novelties here and there, Stern stresses, “but we are very careful not to extend the limits of our public’s patience. We use a lot of energy to find [the appropriate] dosage.”
THE JSO has a glorious past, starting on March 30, 1936, when the voice of Col. Hudson (of the British Mandate authorities) announced on the radio, “This is Jerusalem calling.” A Hebrew translation and a speech by high commissioner Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope followed, officially inaugurating the Palestine Broadcasting Service.
Music was part of publicly broadcast content from the beginning, probably as a means of avoiding political issues on the air, since in the years of the British Mandate the official policy was not to use any political content.
The first musical sounds on that occasion came from the piano of Erich (Aryeh) Sachs, who played an introduction to a song that Haim Vittorio Weinberg sang.
Initially the radio station’s musical needs were supplied by the small Chamber Orchestra of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, under the direction of singer-conductor Karel Salmon (originally Karl Salomon), and that ensemble lay the groundwork for future musical activity in Jerusalem. For example, its 1938 program included a Christmas concert in the YMCA conducted by Oxford conductor Crawford McNair; the Palestinian premiere of Schumann’s Concerto for Violin; and programs featuring works from local composers living in Palestine, including “Suites for Strings” by Vardina Shlonsky, Joseph Tal (Gruenthal) and Mordechai Seter (Staromirsky); “Variations on a Palestinian Song” by Salmon; and a “Berceuse” for strings by Peter Gradenwitz. These were all Jewish musicians and composers who had fled Germany or come here from Russia, and worked to establish a high-level local musical culture – of which the JSO is the direct heir.
According to the JSO website, Salmon and McNair reorganized the ensemble in 1938 and formed the Palestine Broadcasting Service Orchestra, whose founding members included Sasha Parnes as the concertmaster; Wolfgang Schoeken as second violin; Hanoch (Heinrich) Jacoby – a pupil of famous composer Paul Hindemith – Jenny Schmerzler and Arieh Mirkin on violas; Daniel Horfmäkler on cello; flutist Wlihelm von Blaise; and Shabtai Petrushka on brass instruments.
Petrushka was later appointed director of the musical segment on Israel Radio, which became the Voice of Music station many years later and still broadcasts classical music. In 1939, the orchestra began weekly concerts at the YMCA, which ran until 1975, long after it was renamed the Kol Israel (Israel Broadcasting Authority) Orchestra in 1948.
In 1986, with the inauguration of the Henry Crown hall (part of the Jerusalem Theater compound), the JSO moved to its new home and now performs all its local concerts from there. The Henry Crown also has a recording studio for radio and TV, and all the JSO’s concerts are broadcast live on the Voice of Music.
Over the years, the orchestra has emphasized commissioning and performing modern works, both Israeli and foreign, and combined local soloists and conductors with guest artists. It is still a natural venue for presenting new works by Israeli composers – as evidenced last week in a concert that opened with a new work by Russian immigrant and Jerusalem resident Yuri Yossipov. It garnered many bravos – but was safely followed by Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s Second Symphony.
The JSO, which is in fact a joint effort of the orchestra’s association and the Israel Broadcasting Authority (hence its full appellation, the JSO-IBA), also has a long list of outstanding conductors – among them the legendary Otto Klemperer, Heinz Freudenthal, Shalom Ronly-Riklis, Mendi Rodan, Sergiu Comissiona, Luka Foss, Bertini and Shallon. Works that had their premiere in Jerusalem include Darius Milhaud’s David (1954) and Igor Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac (1964). Guest performers at the JSO-IBA have included Arthur Rubinstein, Pablo Casals, Igor Markevitch, Georg Szeryng, Isaac Stern, Radu Lupu and Peter Schrier, to name just a few.
And in May 2013, the JSO will give a concert commemorating the centenary of Stravinsky’s revolutionary work The Rite of Spring – renewing the ancient and glorious tradition of this orchestra, according to Chaslin.
CHASLIN WAS born in Paris to a father born in Odessa, Russia, and a mother whose family had emigrated from Livorno, Italy. In the brochure issued to mark the JSO’s 75th anniversary – and his entry to the position of musical director – he writes that his wish for the JSO is that it become “a Jewish home for all music lovers of the world, as Jerusalem is a Jewish home for all of us.”
Chaslin, in a short interview last week in the JSO offices, added that working in Jerusalem with this orchestra was not just another task in his career. Though he has decided not to make aliya – “I think it is important that as many as possible of Israel’s friends remain over there, in the world,” he said – he plans to spend the next three years, at least, mostly here.
On the issue of the orchestra’s repertoire, he agrees that it is all a matter of “dosage.”
“Rare and modern works are absolutely part of our repertoire,” he insists, “but we do not impose anything that might be too hard or heavy on our public – we alternate, in just the amount of variety required.”
He adds that “the local audience is very much inclined toward a Slavic taste in works. I can understand that – these are rich, emotional and intense works.”
He has already introduced a lot of changes in the repertoire for the coming year, and already has plans for the season after. For example, he has launched a Beethoven symphonies cycle, which implies a pedagogical aspect, with short lectures at the beginning of the concerts. There is also a series of Jewish liturgical music, as well as concerts for the family (as there have been for years).
Chaslin has more in mind – like going out to play in nursing homes or at schools. Obviously he is trying to extend the limits of the orchestra beyond the walls of the concert hall, while keeping an eye on the faithful audience’s tastes and needs.
Asked if this is not too heavy an endeavor, Chaslin smiles even more broadly.
“Great challenges are exactly what I need in my life,” he answers simply. “That’s what I love the most.”
On his views about the particularity of making music in Jerusalem, he says there are three specifics he has encountered since arriving: “We have to play and expose Israeli contemporary music, we have to bring out the spiritual image of this unique place – the liturgy written by two of the monotheistic faiths that I know about, the Jewish and the Christian liturgical works, and there are plenty of them. But also, I would add the Jewish way to make music.”
The musical director immediately elaborates on this last remark: “I mean that there is a specific way of playing music that is relevant to the aspects of a Jewish soul, and that comes to expression in the way it is played. Take, for example, immigrants from Russia who play at the JSO. They have a double nostalgia – as Jews and as former Russians – so of course it finds its way of expression in the way they play, in their emotions. It must be!” In that regard, he has launched a monumental work, an encyclopedia of Jewish music and Jewish composers throughout history – a work he is far from having completed but that adds to his personal experience as the JSO’s chief conductor. •