The little orchestra that could

Harvey Bordowitz, longtime conductor of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, acts like the proud father of a child.

Harvey Bordowitz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harvey Bordowitz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At this very moment, a world-class, worldrenowned symphony orchestra is gearing up to perform a season of works by Berlioz, Vivaldi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart in a concert hall just a stone’s through away from the Seven Stars shopping mall in Herzliya.
Like everything else in Israel, how such an orchestra came to be what it is today, and where it is today, is “a long story.”
Way back in 1971, Brooklyn native Harvey Bordowitz was one of the chaperons on a United Synagogue Youth trip to Israel from New York.
During the Galilee leg of the tour, Bordowitz fell madly in love with Sara, the tour guide. The two were married a year later.
Six years on, with the ink still wet on the diploma of a master’s degree in music from Brooklyn College, Bordowitz was hired by the city of Herzliya to be its music coordinator. Once settled into his new position, Bordowitz created an orchestra and became its conductor and musical director.
The orchestra was strictly amateur, however, with musicians recruited every September from wherever Bordowitz could find them. To his surprise and delight, the orchestra had an audience.
Encouraged by this success, Bordowitz was able to convince the Herzliya municipality to establish a professional orchestra. Thus was born the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra (HCO), in 1981.
Thirty years later, Bordowitz, now 63, comes across as the proud father of a child who has grown up and become a success.
“We’re now celebrating the grand festive opening of our 30th anniversary, and it’s very moving,” he says. “It’s especially moving because I started this orchestra 30 years ago. It’s my baby, which I have nurtured, and nourished and stuck with through thick and thin. The Herzliya municipality has stuck with it through thick and thin.
“Maintaining an orchestra is a serious commitment,” he continues. “But Mayor Yael German has emblazoned culture and education on her banner.She sees the orchestra as one of the great vehicles of culture in our city and in our region.
“People come to us from Caesarea, from Netanya, from Petah Tikva, from Ramat Gan, from Tel Aviv. So it’s not as though we’re a little community orchestra. We stopped being that long ago.”
That has not been the only change. Even a glance at this season’s program, which opens with Berlioz’s spectacular Symphonie Fantastique, would suggest that the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra stopped being a “chamber orchestra” a long time ago as well.
“The difference is blurry,” Bordowitz says.
“Let’s start with the difference between a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic orchestra.
There is no difference. The two words are synonymous.
Either way, we’re talking about an orchestra with anywhere from 60 to perhaps 110 musicians on stage. And, as I see it, we’re also talking about the ability to play the great 19th-century works which are written for massive orchestras.
“But a chamber orchestra comes from the word ‘chamber.’ It was originally designed as a chamber ensemble to play in a salon and while away the time while the patron was eating his dinner.
“BY DEFINITION, a chamber orchestra is a small orchestra. Many chamber orchestras are strings only. Many chamber orchestras are strings with a certain minimal number of woodwinds. When we started, we were strings only, and then we would add two oboes and two horns and be able to play symphonies by Mozart and Haydn.
“Since we moved to our new concert hall at the Herzliya Performing Arts Center in 2003, we have in every way been a symphony orchestra, with 55 people on stage.
“And last year, we did Sibelius, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba. This year we’re doing Berlioz, which calls for a gigantic orchestra. And we’ve been playing the great Romantic repertoire since we entered the new hall.
“We can pretty much do anything,” Bordowitz notes. “We can bring on four percussionists if the program demands them. We’ve kept the HCO name, because it’s a brand name that people know.
But our posters and programs now say ‘The Herzliya Chamber Orchestra – Your Symphony Orchestra.’” With 764 seats and some of the best acoustics in Israel, the new concert hall has enabled the HCO to perform numerous works that were previously far beyond its reach.
“We are reveling in the fact that we can now play the great Romantic works,” says Bordowitz. “With the Romantic music of the 19th century, we’re speaking of music that broke away from the 18th century music of the Age of Reason.
“We’re speaking of music that suddenly got bigger, and longer and larger. We’re speaking of concert halls that grew to be able to accommodate thousands, not dozens. We’re talking about orchestras that grew both to be able to perform in huge halls and also to be able to perform music in which emotion reigned.
“It’s something new for me as a conductor,” Bordowitz reflects. “I have conducted perhaps 200 different works for small orchestras, and string orchestras, and string orchestras with certain supplementary woodwind players. But any Romantic work that I’ve done, I’ve learned for the sake of conducting other orchestras abroad. But in November, we’re performing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
“IF BERLIOZ had his way, there would be 150 people on stage. That’s because he was a bit of a megalomaniac.
If someone had told me five years ago that we’d be doing Symphonie Fantastique, I’d have said, ‘No way!’ “We’re performing Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, with a fabulous violinist, Bracha Malkin. We’re doing Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms. We couldn’t do these works before.”
One thing that has not changed, however, is a custom that Bordowitz established at the very first performance of the HCO, 30 years ago. For a halfhour prior to each performance, the conductor and musical director provides the audience with a preconcert lecture, in Hebrew and English, both to introduce the evening’s program and enrich the audience’s experience of the performance.
“A conductor is, first of all, a teacher,” Bordowitz says.
One assumes that the teacher/conductor will especially enjoy providing the pre-concert lectures for the “Venice Masked Carnival” program, featuring works by Gabrieli, Salieri, Arban and Vivaldi; as well as “From Napoleon to Beethoven,” which will conclude with Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica.”
And yet, despite the growth of the orchestra and the dramatic expansion of its repertoire, two composers remain out of reach, one through necessity, the other by choice.
“We can’t do Mahler,” says Bordowitz, with an evident twinge of regret. “I would give my left arm to conduct Mahler – not my right arm, but my left one. Mahler requires forces so large that even when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra does Mahler, it takes on extra players.
The “Titan Symphony,” the “Symphony of a Thousand,” not to mention choirs and soloists.
Mahler had a colossal need to express colossal emotions.”
The conductor whose works the HCO categorically refuses to perform is the proverbial “elephant in the room” in any conversation about classical music in Israel, Richard Wagner.
Bordowitz sits silently for a moment, choosing his words carefully. Finally, he says: “Look, let’s start by saying that I own recordings, even multiple recordings, of most of Wagner’s output. I believe that Wagner is in one of the tiniest handfuls of the greatest composers ever born. When I listen to him, I can’t believe how great his genius is.
“Having said that, I have read his essays, I’ve read his essay on Judaism and music. I’ve read him talking about how just as the Jews speak a jargon which they think is German, but isn’t, they can only create an imitation of music, but never real music.
And I’ve read that when he heard of the pogroms in Russia in 1881, he was quoted as saying, ‘There now, that’s the way to solve the Jewish problem!’ “So, I believe there is one country on earth that should be ‘Wagnerrein.’ Now I don’t mean that people shouldn’t be able to buy his music in stores.
Of course they should. But I don’t believe that Wagner should be performed in public here.”
After another brief moment of silence, Bordowitz motions us toward the laptop on the desk in his office and clicks to YouTube. Within seconds, we are watching an April 19, 1942, performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, widely considered to be one of the greatest symphony orchestra conductors that ever lived.
On an enormous stage, bedecked at either end with a huge swastika banner, Furtwängler conducts his massive orchestra and equally massive choir before an audience of high-ranking Nazi officials, including Joseph Goebbels. As the performance ends, the audience erupts with thunderous applause and a smiling Goebbels rises from his seat to shake the great conductor’s hand.
The YouTube clip ends, and Bordowitz sits in front of his laptop, visibly upset. He says, “Here is a concert in which they were singing about the brotherhood of man, and they were burning Jews at the same time. We like to say that art ennobles human beings, but it’s not true. Human beings have to ennoble art. It’s only what we do, our acts, that can give art its justification and its power to elevate the spirit. It is a reciprocal relationship.”
ASKED WHETHER he thinks that his concerts have in any way ennobled his audiences or elevated their spirits, Bordowitz ponders the question for a moment, and replies, “I hope so and I think so. I know that sometimes when I’m conducting a piece of music and out in the audience I hear a thundering silence, a silence so perfect that even a butterfly doesn’t flap its wings, I know that I’m touching people. And I know that I’m moving people.”
Unlike other orchestras of its caliber, the HCO does not tour, as it did to some extent when it was smaller. “I’m afraid that touring is simply too expensive a proposition,” Bordowitz says. “We stay at home. But we do reach other audiences.
“We’ve put out three compact discs, and we’re also on YouTube. We now have 40 different clips on YouTube, spanning our repertoire from Mozart through Mendelssohn, through grand opera, and through the 20th century. This magical invention called YouTube enables people all over the world to hear us. So we don’t travel physically but we travel in cyberspace.”
The HCO does travel occasionally, however, as far as the nearby Seven Stars Mall, where they perform a series of concerts on Monday evenings for around a month and a half.
Bordowitz says, “Little children come with their parents and grandparents. We give out little straws for drinks and kids ‘conduct.’ It may be that in 40 years, someone will be a famous conductor who began his career with a drinking straw at the Seven Stars Mall.”
Although the HCO stays put, more or less, Bordowitz himself does a fair amount of conducting abroad.
“Virtually every year I’ve conducted orchestras overseas. I’ve worked in China, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Wales, England, Germany, Turkey and Hungary. I wouldn’t want to do more. I’ve never wanted to live out of a suitcase. Nor do I like hotels.
But the pleasure of going abroad is working with another orchestra, before a different audience.
That’s pretty thrilling. I’ve also had the custom of learning the language of every country where I conduct, so I can communicate with the orchestra in their language.”
Asked if he knows Chinese, he laughs and admits, “China is the one place where I studied like a demon, but they still didn’t understand what I was saying. But I’ve actually learned Turkish and Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian. I’ve taught myself Russian.
“And only when I got to London to conduct the London Schubert Players I said, ‘Enough, enough! I’m not going to learn your language!’”
Happily ensconced in his office in Herzliya, Bordowitz eagerly looks forward to the 30th anniversary year programs of the HCO, his own creation and musical alter ego. Eagerly contemplating a season that promises to be the orchestra’s biggest and best, Bordowitz says, “In this season, every blessed concert is going to be a knockout!”
For further information about the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra, tel. (09) 955-1149, or visit the orchestra’s website,