Noam Sheriff – a multi-faceted personality

On the whole, Sheriff was a prolific composer who created a fusion of East and West, adding to this amalgam musical ideas of his own.

Noam Sheriff - a prolific composer who created a fusion of East and West (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Noam Sheriff - a prolific composer who created a fusion of East and West
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since Saturday, when composer, conductor, arranger and educator Noam Sheriff died at the age of 83, Israel’s classical music world has been overflowing with eulogies. Monday afternoon, throngs came to the cemetery to pay their last tribute to the prolific musician.
What was so characteristic about this man, who dedicated his life to music?
Two musicians answer this question. The first is veteran Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (90), who came to Mandate Palestine in his childhood; the other is Oren Gross-Thaler (21), Sheriff’s last student.
“Sheriff’s was a multi-faceted personality,” Avni said in a phone interview from his home soon after returning from the cemetery. “To begin with, he was born in the Land of Israel at the time when many Jewish composers escaped from Nazi Germany to Israel. He was their student; he learned from them, absorbing the Western classical music tradition. At the same time, he was born into the local folk music of many Israeli tribes, so his output was in many ways a synthesis of both.
“He was so much from here – he was born in ‘Little Tel Aviv,’ into the family of a construction worker. Those were the days, when the ‘Jewish Yishuv’ [pre-state Jewish population] was like one family and people were looking forward for new things to be born,” Avni said.
“Already in his early years, his music talent became obvious,” he continued. “He played several instruments and was a member of the IDF Orchestra. He created numerous arrangements of folk music, and more. Quite soon, his talent crystallized in two directions, composition and conducting, and later also teaching.
“Many local conductors were his students, who continue on his path. When you look at the obituaries, you suddenly realize that there was not a single orchestra or educational institution in Israel with which Sheriff did not collaborate. He also appeared abroad, conducting important orchestras,” he said.
His teacher in composition was Paul Ben-Haim, who was an extremely important music personality for Sheriff and from whom he took a lot. He also studied conducting from Wolfgang Friedlander, who is now nearly forgotten,” Avni said.
SHERIFF CATAPULTED to fame at the age 22, when in 1957 his Festival Prelude was world premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein at the opening of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. It was Bernstein who chose the piece by a totally unknown composer among many, including those submitted by his well-established colleagues.
On the whole, Sheriff was a prolific composer who created a fusion of East and West, adding to this amalgam musical ideas of his own. Not by chance were his pieces often performed in Israel and abroad.
The monumental Mehayeh Hamethim (Revival of the Dead) – which is based on Jewish East-European traditional music as well as ancient oriental Jewish themes of the Samaritans – is among his major pieces. “If you go to his website, you can hear several solo parts from it performed by Placido Domingo,” accentuates Avni.
“Noam Sheriff was especially good in orchestration. He also acquired a great knowledge of electronic music, and was well familiar with the technical aspects of recording. That said, he was never carried away with avant-garde music, never going to emotional extremes – this was just against his nature, because he was a very positive and optimistic person, blessed with a lovely sense of humor. He was just beaming with positive emotions.
“Not to forget,” Avni added, “that his wife, Ella Sheriff, is an important Israeli composer, too. Her operas, dedicated to the Holocaust, are performed in Israel and abroad.”
He concludes: “I can’t say that Noam Sheriff had invented something especially new, but he was just the incarnation of Israeli classical music.”
OREN GROSS-THALER, 21, was Sheriff’s last student in conducting, who studied with him from age 17 until his teacher’s sudden death.
“Sheriff accepted me as a student after watching the recording of a conducting master class which I sent to him,” recollects Gross-Thaler. “His was a very special approach to conducting – that of a composer. This was not about waving your hands, but rather about seeing the piece through the eyes of a composer. Noam always knew how to explain the composer’s ideas – why the piece was written this way and not another,” he said.
“When we speak about him on a personal level,” Gross-Thaler continued, “it is important to remember, that he came from a very simple and socialist background – his father was a construction worker. As a result, Noam was very open and natural, a person of immense charisma; he knew how to speak with one and all, and he enjoyed sharing music with people,” he said.
“Studying with him with just great,” he recalls. “Despite his fame and vast knowledge, there has never been even a touch of arrogance or condescension in his attitude.”
Gross-Thaler keeps a very special memory of his teacher and feels himself a continuation of a music dynasty.
“Noam’s last orchestral piece was dedicated to [Leonard] Bernstein’s 100th [birthday],” Gross-Thaler said. “It was commissioned to him by Regensburg Philharmonic, Germany, and performed by it this winter. I was honored to conduct the piece.
“Symbolically enough, Bernstein was born on August 25 [1918], the same day that Sheriff passed away, 100 years later,” he mentioned. “And you see, Noam chose me to continue this musical dynasty; he himself was 22 when Bernstein chose his piece to open the Mann Auditorium. Bernstein was about this age when he first conducted the New York Philharmonic – and I am 21 and have conducted Noam’s last piece.”