A musical talent

Conductor Karin Ben-Yosef stands out in the Israeli conducting scene, but says gender was never an obstacle.

Karin Ben-Yosef (photo credit: Courtesy)
Karin Ben-Yosef
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When 57-year-old Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the fabled Last Night of the Proms concert in London last summer, the issue of women conducting orchestras became the subject of public discourse. But that issue seems to pose no difficulty to 33-year-old Karin Ben- Yosef.
Ben-Yosef says she has not encountered any gender-related obstacles to her professional endeavors thus far.
“Absolutely not,” she declares when we meet at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv between rehearsals for “Don Pasquale” last month.
“No one has related to me as some sort of curiosity.”
Of course, her age also makes her stand out in this line of work.
“When I began conducting professional orchestras, seven or eight years ago, there would have been all sorts of things that could have raised some eyebrows among the orchestra members,” she notes. “A young conductor might evoke some degree of incredulousness, but it very much depends on the circumstances. And if the young conductor also happens to be a woman, say, seven years ago that might provoke some reactions.”
She also points out that in her experience, you get what you give.
“I noted that as long as I didn’t make a thing out of my gender and I just buckled down to the work, and the work was interesting, and the players saw they had a colleague, the gender thing was not an issue. I just did my best, and when it worked out well, the orchestra would invite me back, and that was that.”
While women conductors are still a minority, particularly in this country, the path was first blazed many years ago. “There are, of course, plenty of female choir conductors. There are many fewer women orchestra conductors.”
And the future is looking rosy. “What I find very encouraging is that I see more and more female conducting students in our academies. Ten years ago there were very few.”
Ben-Yosef was almost in a class by herself, literally. “There was one other female student on my conducting program,” she recalls. “But I never made a big deal about being a woman, so it was fine.”
Her musical education began in earnest at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, where she studied French horn and recorders.
However, she harbored no adolescent thoughts of eventually picking up a conductor’s baton.
“I just like to play music,” she says, adding that as a teen, her musical interests spread far beyond the realms of Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky. “I liked rock, pop and Israeli music, too.”
Her musical ante was upped when she relocated to the capital to further her education.
“I discovered the Israel Arts and Science Academy [IASA, a high school for gifted students] in Jerusalem, through a [musical] summer camp I went to at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot which was run by [composereducators] Michael Volpe and Andre Hajdu, and [ear-training teacher] Batsheva Rubinstein,” she recalls.
“There are teachers for life, not just at school,” continues the young conductor. “Michael Volpe teaches with such enthusiasm. I think he got all us students going.”
The camp took place during the summer break between eighth and ninth grade, and it also gave Ben-Yosef her first taste of getting into the inner workings of the musical world.
“We did some composing at the camp,” she says. “I realized that I could actually do something with tunes I had in my head.”
She returned to Thelma Yellin after the break, took and duly passed her entrance exam to the IASA the following summer, and started boarding at the Jerusalem school at the beginning of 10th grade.
The budding conductor was able to expand on that initial composing experience, and even got to hear her works performed by the school ensemble.
“That was a great experience, to hear something you wrote actually performed by an orchestra,” she says.
“I got so much from that school, from Andre Hajdu and Batsheva, too. We had improvisation workshops and lots of other things. We could improvise in jazz, pop, rock, anything. We got a wellrounded education. I came out with the confidence to explore things for myself, and not just to play the notes I read. And I came out with a lot more skills, and more ability, to do things in music.”
That willingness to explore comes into play in her role as a conductor. However, she says she is not looking to reinvent a composer’s work. “I generally take a broad view of life. But I start by reading the text and trying to understand what the composer meant, and to focus on the score in as objective a way as possible.”
She says she pays as much attention to familiar works as to scores that are new to her.
“I might know a composition very well, but then I’ll look at the score and I’ll suddenly see things I hadn’t noticed or heard before. I’ll see something the composer wrote, and I’ll realize I can take it in another direction. That’s what we conductors are here for. That’s the fun of it all. When I address a work, I feel I am engaging in a conversation with the composer – even if he lived 400 years ago.”
In Ben-Yosef’s view – with the greatest respect – all works are fair game for that individual approach.
“The composer implicitly gives us conductors permission to do with the work what we feel is right. If he had meant otherwise, he would have written precise instructions into the score, about the dynamics, articulation and so forth.
When they wanted something specific to be done with the music, composers do just that, and everything else is open to scrutiny and interpretation.”
The preparatory process can also include getting a better understanding of the composer himself.
“I do that, although I don’t always have the time,” she says. “I have sometimes addressed the work objectively, without getting to know about the composer.
Then, when I do find the time to look into the person behind the score, I’ll suddenly gain a better understanding of why he put this or that into the work.”
Naturally, addressing a new score can never be an entirely objective exercise.
“Of course I bring my own baggage to the work, but this profession is a never-ending learning process,” she says.
“That’s what makes it so much fun.”