Conductor at 88

Sam Zebba leads the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra comprising top-class musicians and budding professionals.

Sam Zebba (photo credit: Gloria Deustch)
Sam Zebba
(photo credit: Gloria Deustch)
Sam Zebba, writer, filmmaker, musician, businessman and – perhaps most importantly of all for him – late-blooming orchestra conductor – arrived in Palestine in 1933 and remembers it vividly.
“Tel Aviv was a small town and we lived on the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Mapu, which is where the town ended,” he says. “There were a few cars around but transport was mainly by horse-drawn carts.”
Reading Power Station was being built and as a young boy he used to watch as the building materials were transported along the beach by caravans of camels, although the foreman travelled by donkey. Days when he was not at school could be spent on the nearby beach, where one could hire a deck chair and enjoy an ice-cream. The mandate was in full swing and like all the other Jews of the Yishuv, he learned to live with it.
Today he lives in Ramat Aviv with his wife, Tessa, on the top floor of a high-rise in an apartment full of antique furniture, good paintings, including some Reuven Rubins, and musical instruments all over the living room. The piano is covered with a dust cloth but a harpsichord displays signed photos – Harry Belafonte, Edward G. Robinson, Albert Schweitzer – all from his filmmaking days in the ’60s.
After 88 years one would expect to hear about a lifetime of accomplishments, but Zebba’s is especially diverse.
He was born in Germany in 1924 but the family soon moved back to Riga.
His parents were Zionists and he and his siblings were sent to a Hebrew kindergarten and school. In 1932 his sister came here for the first Maccabi Games – and didn’t want to go back.
“My grandfather commissioned my dad to come over and bring her back,” he says. “Instead, he decided we would make aliya ourselves. It was 1933 and with great prescience they realized there was no future for Jews in Europe.
We went by train from Riga to Brindisi to take the boat to Palestine. Even then they did not want to go through Germany.”
After a week on the SS Martha Washington, they arrived in Jaffa. His father quickly found accommodation and Sam was enrolled in the Shalva school and later studied at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. At 15 he joined the Hagana and at 18 the Jewish Brigade of the British army, which stationed him in a transport unit in Egypt.
He was sent to an officers’ course in Britain but the war ended soon after and the Jewish Brigade was disbanded.
(Also a talented writer, he has written about his wartime experiences in Esra Magazine, which can be read online.) “Many of us became involved in bringing over survivors but I wanted to study and at 22 I left for UCLA,” he recalls.
He studied theater arts and later gained a PhD from Tel Aviv University.
For his thesis he made the prize-winning documentary Uirapuru, shot among Indians in the jungles of Brazil with music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. During the course of his filmmaking career he worked with Fred Zinneman, Carl Foreman and Mervyn Leroy, as well as the famous stars whose photos grace the harpsichord.
But music was always his first love.
Even as a small child in Riga he had taken lessons with a famous teacher, one Prof. Schubert (not the composer).
He played often with friends, in between helping in the family car dealership.
He never really thought about studying conducting until well into his 50s.
One of his teachers at the Tel Aviv University Music Academy, where he was doing his doctorate, invited him to a conducting class.
“I know you’re dying to conduct,” he said.
After several years of study, including master classes with Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta, he established the Campus Orchestra at Tel Aviv University and was the conductor and music director for 20 years. He traveled all over the world with the orchestra and it is still going strong.
Before starting the Emeritus Orchestra in 2006, he put together an orchestra for new immigrant musicians from Russia who arrived in the early ’90s.
“I met a lot of musicians who came here without knowing the language and were rather bewildered when they first arrived. Originally I invited them just to come and play in my home.
Every week more and more arrived until I realized I had enough talent for an orchestra. We got funding from WIZO so it was known as the WIZO Symphony Orchestra.”
Several other small orchestras were created to accommodate the immigrants who eventually, if good enough, found their way to the Philharmonic and other established symphony orchestras.
The Emeritus Orchestra had a different genesis.
No matter how good a musician you are, at the age of 65 the great Israeli orchestras want you out. Zebba, with the help of Israeli Philharmonic ex-principal horn player and spokesman Yaacov Mishori, collected some top-class musicians who had been put out to pasture and created the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra.
Today, six years later, they perform three times a year.
Rehearsals were, until recently, in Zebba’s apartment but now they have a space at Levinsky College. Performances are at the Chess Center in Ramat Aviv and the Einav Center in Tel Aviv.
Talented amateurs were recruited to make up the numbers, which means the conductor – Zebba – has to perform a balancing act between the professionals and the amateurs who might be very good but have no experience of playing in an orchestra, and are therefore following the conductor and the note-music at the same time.
“We do have the occasional ego problems,” admits Zebba. “You have to have a lot of psychology to run an orchestra.”
If anyone can do it, it’s Sam Zebba – gentle, charming and passionate about his music.
Sam Zebba, 88
From Latvia to Ramat Aviv, 1933