Golden oldies

The Emeritus Chamber Orchestra gives older musicians the chance to make beautiful music, again.

Trumpets 88 224 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
Trumpets 88 224
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
The conductor taps his baton and raises his hands. There is quiet expectation in the air as violins and violas are raised to chins, wind instruments to mouths and the double bass player tightens his grip. Suddenly the room is filled with the glorious strains of a Beethoven concerto. But this is no concert hall; it's a very ordinary living room in Ramat Aviv and at the moment the only place where the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra can rehearse for its next concert. However, this is no ordinary orchestra either. Several of its members played for years in the Israel Philharmonic and the Jerusalem Symphony until they retired. Others have been professional musicians all their lives, while some are gifted amateurs for whom playing music has always been a sideline. There's a lawyer, computer experts, a doctor and even a retired general. The man behind this extraordinary enterprise is Sam Zebba, the founder and conductor of the orchestra, who played the piano all his life, but only became interested in conducting at 56. A lively 84-year-old, Zebba came to this country as a child of eight in 1933 with his prescient parents who thought it a good time to leave Latvia. He studied theater and literature at Tel Aviv University, has written books, made movies and is altogether a Renaissance man. About 25 years ago he founded the Campus Orchestra and conducted it for many years. Two years ago, he had the idea of taking professional musicians who are forced to retire at 65 and creating a framework for them, and the Emeritus Orchestra was born. "I'm an orchestra groupie," says Zebba. "I took up conducting as an adult and studied with Roni Riklis and later in master classes with Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. I started the Campus Orchestra at Tel Aviv University and later the WIZO Orchestra with the arrival of thousands of Russian musicians, but these were mainly amateur orchestras. The difference now is that we have people who were the top players in the country and found themselves suddenly retired with no framework to play as an orchestra any more." The present enterprise started when Zebba met an old friend, Ya'acov Mishori, writer and broadcaster, who had been principal horn player in the Israel Philharmonic as well as a member of the management, and pitched the idea to him. "By the time I got home after our meeting, he'd already sent me a list of retirees whom I could approach," recalls Zebba. Letters were sent out and the idea was enthusiastically taken up by many of the retirees. A few declined, citing various reasons: they felt too old, they'd sold their instrument, they no longer played - but the majority jumped at the chance of making beautiful music again. Among some of the big names who answered Zebba's call were Raphael Marcus, violin; Ze'ev Steinberg, the principal viola; Richard Lesser, the lead clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic, Zvi Segal and Nathan Greenberg of the IPO; Alan Tschaikov, principal clarinetist; Nehama Rosler, violinist; Ehud Avihail, oboist; and Gershon Bar-On, cellist; all of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. While pleasantly surprised at the positive response, Zebba understands the need of a musician to play as part of an ensemble, especially if he has done it all his working life, so the projected orchestra clearly fulfilled a need. AFTER THE rehearsal I spoke to some of the musicians and the consensus was that it's unfair to compare the experience of the Emeritus Orchestra to playing in the IPO or the JSO because clearly it's on a different level. Steinberg, who is close to 90, came to this country from Germany in 1934 and worked as a cab driver to help pay for his music studies. He was lead viola at the IPO for many years and a teacher at what is now the Zubin Mehta Academy of Music. "You can't compare this orchestra to the IPO, which is considered one of the best in the world," he says. "But on the other hand, age does reduce the virtuoso capabilities of every musician, with the possible exception of Arthur Rubinstein." Richard Lesser, who made aliya from Los Angeles in 1966, was the IPO's principal clarinet for many years. "I'm very happy that I'm playing here," he says. "It's a chance to make beautiful music - and the emphasis is more on the enjoyment of making music and not so much on the demand for perfection. We all have a wonderful rapport." Fellow clarinetist Tchaikov, who came from London in 1957 and played for years in the JSO, agrees. "There are many good players and we have a lot of fun as well as making good music," he says. The two sit in the back row with bassoonist Linda Rand, originally from Montreal, and when they're not playing they joke and giggle like a bunch of mischievous schoolchildren. Some of the Russians played in important orchestras back home - the orchestra has just acquired a new violinist who played for 37 years in the Kishinev Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Ari Kernerman played for years in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Concertmaster and leader of the orchestra is Raphael Marcus, who was a first violin in the IPO, and the job of inspector, responsible for discipline, belongs to horn player Aviad Meitar, who as a child studied with his fellow horn player Mishori. As Zebba points out, "meitar" means "string" but this musician plays a wind instrument. Sam Lewis, who played in the London Symphony for many years before making aliya in 1968, had not touched a viola in 45 years when he was approached by Zebba. "I didn't even have an instrument any more," says the youthful-looking septuagenarian, "as I'd sold my viola to buy an apartment. Zebba said not to worry, it's like riding a bicycle - and lent me a viola to practice on. After a few weeks of intensive practice it all came back." So happy is Lewis to be back in the ranks of an orchestra that he has now invested in a new viola and loves the easy-going and pleasant atmosphere of the Emeritus Orchestra. While the orchestra has to rehearse in the Zebba apartment, concerts are usually performed in the Sol and Cissy Mark Chess Center in Ramat Aviv. The second series has just finished, and the Friday noontime concerts are well-attended by a discerning audience which always enjoys the varied program and shows its appreciation with prolonged applause, requests for encores and cries of "bravo!" to the soloists. BUT CAN the Emeritus Orchestra provide its audience with everything? "No," says Zebba. "We are a chamber orchestra and we have the right complement of musicians for orchestral music but not the great Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. We have 25 strings, 12 wind instruments and one timpani. In the second half of the 19th century, composers were writing music for much bigger orchestras, adding trombones, tubas and harps and creating a much bigger sound. If you don't have the right balance between strings and wind, you can start to sound like a brass band." So for the moment the repertoire is limited to chamber music and less ambitious works, like the Schubert 5th Symphony which was the highlight of the last concert of the second series. "Yes, we are looking for more players," says Zebba. "While we have to rehearse in my home because of financial restraints and are a bit limited, we could still grow. We need more strings and if, for example, we had four horns instead of two we could widen our repertoire. The problem is that in music we have great respect for the composer and have to be true to his wishes - it's not like a Shakespeare play where a director can do what he likes, leave out scenes, change locations or even the period in which the play is set. You can't cut Beethoven and Tchaikovsky." Besides professional musicians, the orchestra contains very high standard amateurs. Udi Mike from Petah Tikva has a day job in computers but played trumpet in the IDF orchestra during his military service. "For me it's just a hobby I enjoy," he says. "I never wanted to be a professional musician and dedicate my life to the trumpet." He sits next to the other trumpet player, Uzi Eilam, who is a retired general and was head of the Atomic Energy Commission. When the Western Wall was liberated by paratroopers in 1967, it was his battalion that raised the Israeli flag and Eilam brought the shofar for Rabbi Shlomo Goren and blew it himself until Goren became less emotional and was able to do it. "I don't think my fellow officers in the army ever knew that I played the trumpet," he says. Avraham Dotan is a lawyer, born in Jerusalem in 1929, and has played the violin since childhood, having studied with some of the country's top teachers. "If I can play today with people like Steinberg and others from the Philharmonic, it's the greatest honor for me," he says. Menahem Shapiro was professor of medicine at Meir Hospital for many years and has played the violin since the age of 10. Although busier than ever since retirement, he joined the orchestra a year ago and describes his love of playing as "addictive." "I practice for hours to make sure I can keep up with the professionals," he says. After an hour of rehearsing it's time to take a break and musicians crowd into the open kitchen, where Tessa Swade, Zebba's attractive 49-year-old wife, has set up refreshments. Tessa is one of the orchestra's two flautists; the other is Esther Van der Linden, a Dutch Christian here on a volunteer program. At the last concert Esther played as a soloist in the Mozart Andante for flute. Zebba likes to bring in young soloists, some as guests and others from the ranks of the orchestra. Occasionally guest conductors are invited and concerts are performed in unlikely places, like the one they did recently in Nazareth. Even though he is the founder and power behind the Emeritus Orchestra, Zebba is extraordinarily humble when face to face with his musicians. "Every rehearsal is a private lesson for me," he says. "I sometimes feel I'm still a student and I'm very happy they tolerate me."