Aso Conductor Serves Up Multicultural Meat And Potatoes

World Traveler Ben-dor Takes Ethnic Approach

February 08, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

It's only the beginning of February, and it's already been quite a year for conductor Gisele Ben-Dor.

In early January, she made her Carnegie Hall debut with the New Chamber Orchestra of New York, an ensemble of distinguished free-lancers, in a concert featuring works from several Italian operas.

Just 10 days ago came news of her appointment at Boston's Pro Arte Orchestra, a 40-member group that performs an annual four-concert season at Harvard University's Sanders Theater.

"Imagine my surprise when I realized they were hiring a Yalie like me for the Harvard concerts," laughs the conductor, who will be on the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's podium this weekend as the season's third contestant for the directorship of the ASO. She will be conducting works by Verdi, Beethoven and Brahms.

A Uruguayan whose family emigrated to Israel during her childhood, she came to the United States and the Yale School of Music a decade ago to begin the career that today brings her toMaryland Hall.

Of the six candidates for the ASO position, Ben-Dor is the most established internationally, having performed in South America, France, the Netherlands, Eastern Europe and Israel.

In fact, she says, this international dimension is central to her musical personality. "I grew up in such a multicultural environment between South America and Israel -- which all by itself is a multicultural society -- so that I am really an ethnically oriented conductor," she says. "I tap into that energy so readily, especially the Spanish, Italian and Slavic idioms. It's been there for me since the cradle."

Thus, in a field where many first establish themselves in the central Germanic repertoire and then branch out, she lists Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek and Kodaly as her true "meat and potatoes."

But it is in the Germanic mainstream that she will appear with the Annapolis Symphony, conducting Beethoven's titanic "Emperor" Concerto with pianist Alexander Peskanov as soloist along with the monumental Symphony No. 1of Johannes Brahms. Opening the concert will be Giuseppe Verdi's riveting overture to "La Forza del Destino."

"With music, I really don't play favorites anyway," she says, smiling. "Whatever I happen to be conducting is the greatest music ever written."

She is particularly happy to be performing the brash, energetic Beethoven Concerto. "I've been conducting the 'Emperor' in my head all my life," she says. "What a treat to finally get to do it."

The hub of Ben-Dor's U.S. career is Houston, where she is the Houston Symphony's resident conductor. She conducts subscription concerts and handles children's concerts and run-out performances for the ensemble, which is recovering from hard economic times. "It's an orchestra and a whole city of fighters," she says.

She lives in Houston with her husband, a mechanical engineer, and their 8-year-old son who, his mother says, has not shown much affinity for musical study. "I did Suzuki violin with him,"she says, "and nothing happened. Now, he is studying the piano."

Talk of her husband and son leads to the tense situation in Israel, where the rest of her family still lives. "One of my sisters has a house with a built-in shelter about 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, and they're all moved in there together. I remember the Yom Kippur War back in 1973 very vividly, but the missiles this time are a first. What a scary, ghastly situation."

She is buoyed, however, by the excitement of this weekend's concerts. "I am very much looking forward to makingmusic here and to interacting with the audience as well," she says. She is familiar with several of her announced competitors for the joband admires the quality of the field.

"Whatever happens," she says with a chuckle, "you should get a good deal."

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