Celebrated for his ‘indelible mark on Israel’s music culture,’ Noam Sheriff continues to create and recreate music and orchestras at age 76.
Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein.
Sheriff, 76, is more than worthy of inclusion on that short list. He receives a 2011 Israel Prize this month, an award reserved for particularly accomplished Israelis and presented by the Ministry of Education on the eve of every Independence Day since 1953.
The prize committee noted that Sheriff “has left an indelible mark on Israel’s music culture. He is a multi-talented teacher and educator, and his students are among the top musicians in Israel and the world.”
Performing at 10, conducting at 17
Born in 1935 Tel Aviv to Russian immigrants, Sheriff was instilled with a respect for manual labor. “My father was a simple worker,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “He had been a teacher in Russia, but in Israel he decided the only thing one should do here is build the country with one’s own hands.”
The young Noam’s hands, however, seemed destined to make a different kind of contribution. Talented in both painting and music, he was encouraged by his mother, who “had a perfect ear and a beautiful voice,” to choose music. She found room in the family budget to hire private instructors and purchase a piano.
When Noam was about 10, his uncle arrived from America with a manual gramophone and shellac recordings of great Italian operas.
“After listening once, I could repeat what I heard immediately, and I could sing in Italian even though I did not understand a word,” he recalls. “My parents put me on a chair and brought the neighbors.”
At 17, he began military service in the Givati combat brigade, but successfully petitioned for a transfer to the IDF Orchestra, becoming its deputy conductor. As a soldier, he was once invited to conduct the Kol Israel Symphony Orchestra and later conducted this group many times after it was renamed the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
After his discharge, Sheriff went to study philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Just 20 years old, he gathered music students and professors to form a university symphony orchestra.
“The Hebrew University authorities were so positive and encouraging that they gave full scholarships to every student in the orchestra,” says Sheriff. “It played a major part in every activity of the university, including the ceremony inaugurating the Givat Ram campus [in 1958].”
Surprise encounter with Leonard Bernstein
“Festival Prelude,” a composition the 22-year-old Sheriff submitted anonymously to an Israel Philharmonic competition, was played at the opening ceremonies for Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium in 1957 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. The great American conductor himself had chosen the winning score.
“In my life, nothing was really planned,” reflects Sheriff. “Things came by surprise. I suddenly found myself with Leonard Bernstein, a composer with world recognition. Lenny had a mesmerizing quality … and played a major role in my life till his very last days.”
Sheriff went on to study in Tel Aviv, Berlin and Salzburg, and was a professor at Tel Aviv University from 1991 to 2004, heading its Samuel Rubin Academy of Music for two years. He founded the Israeli Symphony Orchestra of Rishon Lezion, which under his leadership became the house orchestra for the Israel Opera.
Sheriff’s vocal work “Genesis” was commissioned and premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Maestro Zubin Mehta to mark Israel’s 50th Independence Day in 1998. Today, he continues to guest conduct his compositions in countries such as Germany and France.
“The cradle of really good music-making is still in Europe,” he says, “but my main activity is in Israel. Music in Israel — any kind of music, not only classical – should be something the Jewish people can create and recreate. This link between world Jewry and Israel is really important.”
Making his musical mark in Haifa
Six years ago, Sheriff founded the New Haifa Symphony Orchestra. “What I really love is creating and restoring orchestras,” he says. He strives to bring this orchestra “to a place where it will be respectable and bring many young composers to create a new climate for the ever-changing music scene in a changing society.”
Sheriff’s first wife died when their two boys were very young. Thirty years ago, he met renowned international composer Ella Milch and fell in love at first sight. Their family grew to include her son from a former marriage and then a son of their own. All are distinguishing themselves in professions ranging from finance to photography, and the youngest, now 23, may follow his parents into music.
Ahead of accepting the Israel Prize, Sheriff confides that awards are nice – he’s also won prizes from ACUM, Israel’s music and publishing rights association, and a $1 million EMET award – but they’re not what keeps his baton aloft.
“The real prize for me,” he says, “is to be able to work and do things for Israel.”