Speaking of music

Leon Botstein, director and conductor of the JSO, has recently signed a new contract.

orchestra 88 (photo credit: )
orchestra 88
(photo credit: )
Three years ago, Maestro Leon Botstein was brought to Israel to save the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) from its musical mismanagement, financial mismanagement and ultimate demise. He has. Since he came on board, the JSO has improved its performance level, expanded its repertoire, increased attendance rates and, most recently, completed a successful 20-venue tour of the United States. And Botstein has now signed another, three-year contract. Director and conductor of the JSO is merely one of Maestro Botstein's many roles and positions. In addition to being the director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the president of Bard College, where he is also the Leon Levy Professor of Arts and Humanities, he is a prominent scholar of music history. Botstein is also editor of The Musical Quarterly and author of numerous articles and books on such diverse topics as music, education, history, and culture. Internationally prominent and intellectually gifted, he has won numerous awards in the United States and in Europe. Dressed for the interview in debonair black, Botstein is supremely confident and articulate, yet never overbearing. He is a perfected, charming, urbane, and wry conversationalist, sharing control of the interview yet revealing only as much as he chooses. An interview with Maestro Botstein is a fascinating tour through the history, sociology and politics of music, knowledge and art, filled with metaphors and allusions. The breadth of his knowledge is sometimes almost-overwhelming yet always engaging. He answers questions with the same wide-ranging, associative, creative, yet disciplined way of thinking and talking that have made his pre-concert lectures a major attraction for the JSO. "The tour," he opens, "was an unqualified success. The measure of a tour is the reaction of the audiences, the size of the audiences, and the attitude of the presenters and the venues that invite you, and the orchestra has been invited back." Botstein speaks in full paragraphs - and often concludes with a twist that segues elegantly into another topic. Sipping a cold soft drink, he adds, "But then you'd have to ask the orchestra about that" and begins to discusses the relationship between an orchestra and its conductor. "Mutual respect is the most important dimension, based on the orchestra's judgment that the conductor brings the best out of the orchestra musically. "There is a tradition of conductors who are completely distant from the orchestra, whose manner is harsh and imperious. And orchestras will tolerate that if the conductor is very, very good. They may not like the person but she or he has earned the tolerance for the son-of-a-bitch behavior. "There was a time when this was quite common. But now, and I think for good political reasons - the experience of Stalin made the dictatorial style unacceptable in so many ways - a conductor can't and shouldn't get away with it. It's not necessary. It's not morally right." He continues, "The most important things are the quality of what happens on stage and the use of time. Orchestras know very well when they are rehearsing to make the conductor look good, a back-up band for the antics or appearance of the conductor." Conducting, he says, is a physical art, a technique, and it must be studied, as one would study acting or playing the piano, or dancing. "Conducting is the use of the physical space in front and to the side of the conductor by the use of hands, eyes and body. It is essentially a form of pantomime, the making of meaning through the use of physical gestures to create, engage, and direct, and push and mold sound. You're shaping sound without words, so it is essentially theatrical." There are conductors, he explains, whom one admires for their technique. "Physically the most elaborate and, in my view, the most amazing virtuosi was the late Carlos Kleiber. I happen to think that the resultant music was more interesting to see than it was to hear. It was so remarkably and effectively choreographed that it was really spellbinding, mesmerizing because it was so beautiful. "Of course, there is some ballet dancing, but if it's just theater for the audience, it's total nonsense and offensive. But there's balletic stuff, such as what Leonard Bernstein did, that was both helpful to the audience and the orchestra." Botstein emphasizes technique, yet reviewers have often severely criticized his own technique as a conductor. It is the only time during the extensive interview that he bristles. "That's total nonsense. That critique is purely limited to a certain group of New Yorkers. Music criticism is a corrupt and unfortunate genre, marked usually by its mediocrity. "I do music they [the critics] never heard before and it reminds them of their own ignorance. I write about music and what I write has more long-lasting value. It may not be better, but it's scholarly so it is more of record. I am a competitor in their business. I edit a journal, so I usurp their authority. In their mind, I am in their business and I command more respect than they do. So I am the object of irrational rage." How does one know if one has a good technique as a conductor? "Not by talking about it, or writing about it," he retorts, "but rather by the reality. And the amount of new, unknown repertoire that I do can only be done if you have technical capacity. "This year I was nominated for a Grammie with the London Orchestra for an extremely complicated work completely unknown, most of the members of the orchestra had never played it and never even heard of it and recorded it within less than a week. That is a vindication by one's peers." Botstein's biography reveals that his parents were Eastern European Jews who gained prominence in academic medicine in the United States. They urged him to follow in their footsteps, but from the age of 10 he knew he wanted to be a conductor. Yet he has never been solely a conductor and has always been involved in other fields, including academic administration, educational philosophy, research, scholarship, teaching and lecturing. "No one that I respect is just a conductor. Leonard Bernstein was a composer and pianist. Daniel Barenboim is a pianist. I play the violin and I have written music. The music I have written is forgettable but I have had the experience. And my real other contribution to music outside of conducting is in the field of scholarship." He brings this scholarship to the composition of his well-known "thematic concerts," a concept he has created and perfected. Music, he explains his ideas, is connected to life, death, politics, art, sex - to everything. "Music is as integral to life as language and living and breathing. And there is a political context to music, as there is to our lives. Even our approach to sexuality, marriage and death has a cultural context. "So instead of just putting random things together, I do what is done in a museum - I curate a concert. I provide the audience with a concert as they would have a show. Whether the show is about genre or history or biography - it's just obvious, and the audience deeply appreciates it. He continues, "People love the culinary analogy. Do you go to a restaurant where the hors d'oevres are Chinese, the soup is French, the entre is Scandinavian and the dessert is Indonesian? No! Now that's reductive, but we do concerts about, for example, the way Polish identity is formed through music. A nation that has struggled with its own identity because it was not politically independent until the 20th century, whose markers of identity were religion, language and, to some extent, music as well." What were topics of the thematic concerts on the tour? "The relationship between music and politics, between the period of the seizure of power of the Nazis to the end of World War II," he answers. "Simple. We have an American composer, a Russian composer, a German composer, a Czech composer. So we had a collaborator, victims and victors. Those were the theme." Is there a theme of Jewish music? "What is Jewish music?" he restates the question. "Is Mahler Jewish music? Is the only Jewish music Klezmer? Of course not. When the anti-Semites said there is something Jewish about Mendelssohn, what did they mean? These are interesting questions, and those kinds of questions can be made the theme of a concert." There is, he elaborates, a social context to the writing of the music, the playing of the music, the audience that hears the music, and the orchestra that plays the music. "We as Jews feel as the primary victims of Nazism, which we were. Next in line come the Gypsies. Then come the Slavs. In America, the view of what is bad about the Nazis is differentiated: saving England was good. Saving the Czechs was good. The Jews weren't high on the list. So when the Americans commissioned [American artist] Ben Shahn to make a propaganda poster to show how brutal the Nazis were, they didn't appeal to the anti-Semitism, but to the fact that the Nazis had burned down a Czech village. "When you play [Czech music] to a Jewish audience, the association is to the horrors of the Holocaust. They don't hear the nationalist themes, they hear the tragedy, but for a Czech the music is riveting, because it is evocative of Czech identity." Are there themes that are particular to Jerusalem and Israel? "Obviously, the liturgical area," he answers, "ranging from Mendelssohn, St. Paul to any number of works that speak to issues of either the Biblical traditions or the Christian liturgy and the centrality of religion. Much of it is related to the Crusader experience. "National identity is a theme we put forward in our concerts all the time. Because of Israel's relationship to America and my being an American Jew, and there are concerts that have to do with American Jewish identity. "And there's a merger of East and West here, too. Increasingly, music written here involves instruments that are native to the region and Arab traditions in music-making are being integrated into classical music. That has to come through in the kind of music we do." However, he cautions, "This kind of absorption and transformation cannot be viewed as negative or as appropriation or ownership. It has to be understood as part of a very, very long tradition. "I think that if we had an Israeli composer who decided to integrate Indian or Indonesian music, that wouldn't be wrong. You must not have reductive national ownership." In addition to the thematic concerts, Botstein is well-known for including lesser-known pieces in his repertoires. "If we think of an orchestra as a quasi museum, a repository of the art form, we have only two rooms open. Of all the great music, 90 percent is on the shelves and not on the walls. We miss out on a huge, fantastic repertoire and we have overplayed certain other works, making them hard to tolerate. "It's an insult to the history of music. We don't treat art that way. Or books. You don't sit and read War and Peace over. And over. And over. You're very happy to read a new novel." Botstein has often spoken of his Jewish background and his commitment to Judaism and to Israel. Is he a Jewish composer or conductor? "No," he responds thoughtfully, "I am a conductor who is a Jew. I contribute my fee back to the orchestra, and one of the reasons is that, as a Diaspora Jew, I recognize the importance of the State of Israel for us, the Jews who do not live here. "Much of Jewish identity in the Diaspora is dictated by anti-Semitism. "Inevitably. It's not how we construe ourselves, we're just regular people living - getting born, growing up, eating and dying. And Zionism was partly to show that Jews are like everyone else. "There are many ways to be a Jew. So in my view, there's nothing that is Jewish about the way I am a conductor. However, that being said, you cannot deny that I am a Jew. That is my heritage and history." As a result of these multiple influences, he chooses the music differently here than in the United States. "I take into account my admittedly-limited but still general understanding of the context in which the JSO is working. This orchestra has obligations and a tradition, and that is very important. It is still the great orchestra of Israel and Jerusalem, which is the capital. And it has a tacit rivalry with Tel Aviv. Furthermore, this is a nation with its own Israeli identity, so, for example, next year we'll be doing a lot of Israeli music. "This is also a nation where there is a different kind of a battle about high culture and low culture and questions of standards and accusations back and forth about snobbery and elitism. And there is modernization. And it's all complicated by the complexity of the populations here, ranging from the Sephardi population from non-European regions to the Russian immigration, some of whom take very critically any comparison between the cultural standards in the country from where they came and the country to which they came." Jerusalem's status as an international city of tourism also informs his choices. "Our orchestra now is broadcast to over 200 stations in the US. I dare say that the New York Philharmonic could not get 200 stations. Jerusalem means a lot to Americans who are not Jewish. To the entire evangelical community. It's important to every Moslem, every Catholic, every Protestant." And finally, it is clear that Botstein hopes to affect music and music education in Israel, as he has in the United States. As part of the effort, he has initiated courses with the Hebrew University in an effort to increase scholarship and to bring younger people to concerts. He concludes, "Jerusalem has a reputation of being a city with a larger percentage of the population that is committed to religion. But very clearly, we, the orchestra, represent secular culture. "A concert is a secular, inclusive common ground. It is a shared space that doesn't ask religious questions. It is gender and politically neutral and therefore critical in a secular democracy."