When Yuval Zaliouk was pencilled in to guest-conduct the Annapolis Symphony during the reshuffling of the concert season that followed the hiring of Gisele Ben-Dor, he was largely unknown to the orchestra that booked him, a name suggested by the same New York manager who oversees Ben-Dor's career.
But Zaliouk has quickly become much more than a name to the staff and musicians of the ASO as they prepare for this weekend's concerts, which will feature compositions by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, along with the radiant Second Symphony ofJohannes Brahms.
In fact, the 52-year-old Laureate Conductor of the Toledo (Ohio) Symphony reveals one of the most interesting musical personalities tohave visited Annapolis in many years. Zaliouk has enjoyed an accomplished, varied career that has taken him to orchestras across Europe, America, Japan and his native Israel.
Born in Haifa to musical parents who were both graduates of the Paris Conservatory, he knew at a young age that he was destined to make music. Yet he graduated from Jerusalem University as a law student and, for a time, served as an assistant to a justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.
"I was the opposite of my father," the conductor recalls. "My father was an excellent violinist who couldn't reconcile himself to the fact that he wasn'tJascha Heifetz, so he studied law and became one of Israel's foremost lawyers. I, on the other hand, figured that a law degree would always give me something to fall back on, but that I wanted a life in music."
Armed with an advanced conducting degree from the Jerusalem Academy, he won the International Conductor's competition at Besancon,France, where he impressed such judges as Seiji Ozawa, Igor Markevich and Jean Fournet.
From there, it was off to London, where he became the assistant conductor of the Royal Ballet Orchestra at Covent Garden and acceded to the principal post in 1966.
"When I think today of how I stood in the pit and conducted the great ballet scores with virtually no experience at all," he laughs, "I hit my forehand andsay to myself, 'How could you do such a crazy thing?' "
But he would learn the conductor's craft in the dance theater. "Many of the finest conductors -- Ernest Anersmet, Colin Davis, Pierre Monteux -- spent time in the ballet pit," he explains. "It is a wonderful place tolearn conducting because of the repetitiveness. When you do 300 'Swan Lakes,' you begin to experiment, to try things this way one night and that way the next and see what effect each has on an orchestra.
"You also become a human metronome, because tempos are so important to the choreography. You have to memorize 150 different tempos for each performance. It is great experience. Besides, you get to hang around with a lot of pretty girls."
One of those ballerinas became hiswife, by the way.
In 1980, at the suggestion of American pianist Jerome Rose, Zaliouk applied for and won the conductorship of the Toledo Symphony, where he spent the next decade upgrading that ensemble with the techniques he'd acquired from Covent Garden and his close associations with such podium giants as Jascha Horenstein, Antal Doratiand Otto Klemperer.
Ernest Green, conductor of the Annapolis Chorale, was a young University of Toledo undergraduate at that time and remembers Zaliouk's Toledo concerts -- as well as his own private lessons with him.
"I learned a great deal from him," Green recalls. "He has a terrific sense of how the orchestra works as a single instrument, how to make it play as one. His feel for that dynamic really can help an orchestra, and I'm happy he hammered some of that into my head."
Zaliouk recently stepped down from the Toledo post and, reflecting on his tenure there, expresses strong views about the state ofthe arts in America today.
"In tough economic times," he complains, "the first thing they cut is the arts, and that's disgraceful. I think this is one of the main reasons for the recent decline of sensitivity, imagination and creativity in today's society.
"People alsoforget the role the National Endowment for the Arts plays in helpingthe orchestras, opera houses, dance ensembles and theaters in this country. You only hear about crucifixes in urine," he said, "not aboutthe necessity of art. There are German cities that spend more on thearts than our whole country does. It's disgraceful."
Perhaps thisgeneral disenchantment explains why Zaliouk is so upbeat about what he finds in Annapolis.
"I'm amazed that such a small city maintains a first-rate orchestra," he says. "The staff people -- many of themvolunteers -- are unbelievably dedicated. All they want to talk about is the orchestra. I'd like to see this enthusiasm nationwide."