Musician and magician

Astrith Baltsan’s blend of music, history, family and Zionism connects with audiences worldwide.

Astrith Baltsan and her son Itamar Zorman at his Juilliard graduation (photo credit: Courtesy)
Astrith Baltsan and her son Itamar Zorman at his Juilliard graduation
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Astrith Baltsan is a concert pianist, has a PhD in musicology, and is a scholar and lecturer, whose specialty is communicating the sources and stories of “Hatikva,” the national anthem of Israel to audiences in Israel and around the world.
“I am also a ‘magician,’” she says with a brilliant smile. “My job is to bring music to life.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1956, Baltsan was drawn to classical music early in life.
“I was perhaps the youngest member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra audience, and I always felt a connection to the vivacious, thought-provoking and talented people who surrounded me,” she says in an interview with the Magazine.
Baltsan went on to study music both in Israel and the US, at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.
“I became a concert pianist – and was always a Zionist.”
Her background and ideals motivated Baltsan to start her Hatikva program, which mixes musical performance with stories and anecdotes about the history of the different iterations of the anthem.
“Perhaps I needed another project in life, and found it in the year 2000,” Baltsan says of devising her set.
“I performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time playing a Chopin piano concerto. My father, who was in his 90s, and his caregiver made the effort to reach their seats in the front row. I know that he made a huge effort to come and listen to my concerto, and he looked very weary. Yet, when the orchestra started to play the symphonic poem Vltava – also known as Die Moldau – written by Smetana, I saw that he raised his head. The twinkle returned to his eyes, and he began to smile. When the orchestra played the main theme, which so much resembles the ‘Hatikva’ melody, I saw a tear roll down his cheek. ‘That is Jewish music,’ he told me afterwards,” says Baltsan.
“I remember later rethinking the popular story that Israel ‘stole’ the ‘Hatikva’ melody from Smetana, a Christian Czech composer, whose music became identified with his country’s yearnings for independent statehood. Could it be that there was additional, and perhaps even different information to this story? So began my eight-year quest that resulted in 2009 in a book titled Hatikva – Past, Present and Future, and in concert lectures that I give in Israel and all over the world.”
“I BEGAN my search to answer the question of where this melody really comes from. Is it from Smetana, is it a tune from a European folk song or a melody found in the Spanish Jewish liturgy of 700 years ago? Is it perhaps a combination of the above? “What about the lyrics? Are they only from the poet Naftali Herz Imber, who liked to drink, was a womanizer, and sold the words of ‘Hatikva,’ his best poem, over and over to many fledgling communities in Israel, which he said was ‘a hymn written especially for them’? What is the connection between Imber and the Druse community Daliat al-Carmel? “How did the melody and words spread through the Jewish world – even to the ghastly hell-hole of Bergen-Belsen, whose inmates sang ‘Hatikva’ soon after liberation on April 15, 1945? This is documented by a BBC recording found in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington in 2006, which I use in my lectures.
“These are some of the questions I explore in my multimedia program about ‘Hatikva,’ which I give many times during the year in Israel, abroad, and at least five times a year in English at Beit Hatfutsot [the Museum of the Jewish People]. I believe that someone who is Jewis h will find himself moved by the show, and his personal attachment with Israel will deepen.”
Baltsan feels that a person who comes to a concert must receive something that they cannot get from a recording or a book. Therefore, in June, she will be the pianist in concerts with Ariel Horowitz, who is the composer/singer son of Naomi Shemer, legendary musician and songwriter. The collaboration will highlight Shemer’s music and that of her talented and renowned son, but will also provide an added dimension: a personal and intimate picture of Shemer as a woman and mother; a composer who touches the hearts and souls of all Israel, wherever they come from and wherever they live.
FOR BALTSAN, there must always be a new project on the horizon. Later this month, she will host her Israel concert lecture series (in Hebrew) with her son, Itamar Zorman, an accomplished violinist.
This will be a prelude to her June series, with Horowitz.
“These two series of concerts are definitely new,” her voice rings out with happiness and pride.
“With Itamar, my son, it is a wonderful opportunity for us to make music together, and with Ariel Horowitz, a very special occasion both to play with him and pay respect to Naomi Shemer, one of the greats of Israeli music and poetry. Personally, she was the first to give me tremendous support and inspiration as I started my career in Israel.”
The concerts with her son, Baltsan explains, will take the listener on a journey from the Vienna of Schubert to the Paris of Paganini, and from the European shtetel to the music of the State of Israel. The selections will be from the repertoire of encore music – pieces written and played for the delight of the audience.
Baltsan points out that all of the concerts will be in the style she has become known for over the years – part interesting conversation, sharing information, and part playing beautiful music.
“It is never enough for me to come onto the stage, play, then finish and bow,” she explains. “I never feel fulfilled. Therefore, I developed another style of concerts in which I converse with the audience as well as play. It adds another dimension to the music, a personal aspect that the audience will remember after they leave the concert hall."
Zorman will follow her lead and also converse with the audience. In the IDF, Itamar served in a unit for musicians who performed in educational settings, and afterwards he received his BA from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He then went to America where he received an MA from Juilliard, artist diplomas from Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, and numerous distinguished prizes. In 2011, he won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow.
“This is the life of a musician,” he says in a phone conversation from the United States, where he is based.
“I come to Israel several times a year to see family and perform. During May, I will perform with the Beersheba Symphony, the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra and with the Israel Chamber Music Project. In addition, this will be the first time I will play with my mother in concerts given in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv through the Cathedra Music School that she and my father, Prof. Moshe Zorman, founded. The topics of conversation with the audience will add to very festive concerts that mark the 25th anniversary of my mother’s concert series. I am proud to participate and am looking forward to it.”
Baltsan adds, “It is very fine to watch Itamar grow from the student stage into a fine, mature artist.”
In 2011, when Zorman was competing in Moscow, his parents relate that even before their son was announced as the winner, people were coming up to them and whispering “‘Mazel tov!’ They knew Itamar had won. Amazed, we wondered how they also knew who we were, and that we were Jews,” Baltsan relates.
“‘We look into your eyes,’ someone answered. ‘They are intelligent eyes, keen eyes that resemble slightly the eyes of a bird – a bird who roams the world.’ “With this answer, I realized once again that we Jews are a family with a shared heritage and stories,” explains Baltsan.
“I have to thank my father for putting me on the trail of Jewish history in Israel and sharing the story of ‘Hatikva.’”
For further information and concert schedule, including lectures in English:,, or call (03) 642-0847.