A choir come true

A Russian immigrant beats the odds to find success as a conductor and choir leader.

ilya plotkin (photo credit: Courtesy)
ilya plotkin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Since his arrival in Israel in 1992, Plotkin can no longer count the number of times he's been invited to conduct abroad: whether for the Choir of the Great Synagogue in his native Moscow or elsewhere in Europe and America. Plotkin, with white hair and an eternal thin smile, is prominent among those immigrant artists who have "made it." He has, against all odds (and there were quite a few), realized his dream: To create, in Jerusalem one of Israel's best professional choirs. And he founded the Musica Aeterna choir with only a little local help. "In Russia, I always worked in the choir of the Great Synagogue," he recalls. "So when we arrived here, one of my first contacts was with the choir of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where I was very warmly received, especially by the director of the choir, maestro Eli Jaffe. "But that was more or less all," he adds. "It was very difficult to enter any other musical venue in the country." Plotkin doesn't like to dwell on those times. "Don't drag me into politics," he asks with a large smile. "After all, I didn't have high expectations: I realized from the beginning that I arrived here a little late: both [in terms of] my age and the situation of the musical activities in Israel." He dreamed of conducting a professional choir in Israel and would not be deterred. "I have always conducted choirs, that is my speciality. That is what I have always done and what I always wanted to do." During his first year in Jerusalem, Plotkin joined the choir of the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem. "I wanted to be part of this here, and also I must admit that in those days, it was also a way to gain a few shekalim." Things moved along quickly. "I met quite a few students who came from Russia [in the choir]. It was in the air, I thought that together with them, we had to look for a niche, something that didn't exist. So it came rather naturally. We came from Russia - some of us knew a type of music that was totally unknown here, and that's what we began to do. We created a choir with a repertoire of Russian liturgical music on a very high level." Plotkin doesn't attribute his determination to fulfill his dreams in Israel to courage or stubbornness. "I think it was just curiosity above all. I am always curious to investigate new things and to see what comes of it. Wherever I go, my first visit is always to the local music library, to see if there is something unknown to discover. It comes from there." The Musica Aeterna choir was thus created about four years after Plotkin and his family established themselves in Jerusalem. Eleonore, Plotkin's wife and the main organizational force behind the project, abandoned all her efforts to get a decent job for herself (she taught French at Moscow State University before making aliya) and she started to enable her husband's dream. "After a while we moved from Kiryat Hayovel, where we rented a tiny place, to Patt junction, where we found a small apartment," she recalls, "and there in our living room, we still have rehearsals. "The sounds from outside - cars, buses and neighbors who usually listen to different kinds of music than we perform here, it all merges, but we got used to it somehow, and besides - what choice do we have?" Plotkin prefers to speak about the special sound of his choir, a sound that has gained him the professional respect of many experts here. "It comes from there [Russia], from what we heard while living there, in those places where this music was written. I have heard many excellent choirs all around the world, their performances are good, even very good, maybe I should say too good: it is so exact, so perfect - I listen and I cannot find the soul, the special soul of the Russian liturgy. I sincerely believe that people who do not come from there will find it very difficult to achieve. "And this is something I tried very hard not to do with my choir: We are very cautious not to lose the 'soul' of this specific music." Plotkin adds that today, a decade after Musica Aeterna was created, most of the audience at the concerts are not immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "I know that now, almost 80 percent of our audiences are not originally from Russia, and for me that is the best news. I never wanted to create another kind of ghetto for this wonderful music." "Although," he adds, "I am aware that we also have our snobs, people who'd say: 'If it's not exclusively from Moscow, I'm not going.'" Plotkin loves new and innovating experiences. That is why, when on a simple Shabbat morning walk with his wife that led them to discover the breathtaking beauty of the Monastery of the Cross, he decided to convince the monks to allow him to perform there. They accepted, and for the first time in its existence, the monastery, superbly decorated inside with Byzantine mosaics, hosted a concert of Russian liturgical music. Then came a concert in the St. Joseph Monastery on Rehov Hanevi'im, again a "premiere" that attracted lots of aficionados. Last year, in the framework created by the municipality to attract tourists from abroad and the center of Israel to discover Jerusalem, the Musica Aeterna choir performed - once again in a place that had never served this purpose before - in the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum. Plotkin's newest project is an ensemble dedicated to chamber opera-theater. "It's like riding a bicycle: if you stop for a second you fall. I'm in the same position: I have to continue, to go on," he says. "We're starting a new project, with the same strict professional and musical standards, which has already gained the same enthusiasm and success as the choir." Besides all his professional activities, Plotkin says he is aware of a problem that has to be seriously dealt with. "It's the Education Ministry's job to improve the level of music education in Israel, especially the chorus work. In Russia, it's taken very seriously, the teachers work hard, the students even in the first grades of elementary school work hard. It's not a joke, it's a very serious issue and you see the results - there are no miracles, it's only lot of hard and serious work and we need it here urgently. Think of what it could do to the kids here, to participate in compulsory choirs in schools: perhaps they could learn not to shout so much?" Plotkin's work is highly appreciated in many circles: at the Voice of Music radio station, the editors of classical music programs know him and hold him in high esteem. "I admire Ilya Plotkin's work very much," says Voice of Music editor Rika Bar-Sela. Many others have expressed their appreciation more than once, but it seems that there is still one place where no one has heard about Plotkin and his achievements: the Israel Festival, where he has yet to receive an invitation to perform. Plotkin says at first this bothered him but he is no longer perturbed. "For the first few years I was surprised, frustrated and hurt. But now I have just gotten used to it. I believe it comes from a kind of provincialism: I am from here, I am not a star from abroad, that's all I can say." On November 30, the Musica Aeterna choir will perform a program of Russian liturgy at the Tower of David Museum in the Old City, and on December 15 they will perform a full program of Western liturgical work at the same location.