Jerusalem above all others

Leon Botstein, music director and principal conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, wants to ensure that the sounds of Jerusalem can be heard around the entire world.Sometimes things go right. In 2003, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), plagued by debt …

Leon Botstein, music director and principal conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, wants to ensure that the sounds of Jerusalem can be heard around the entire world.Sometimes things go right. In 2003, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), plagued by debt and bad management, was placed under receivership, its general manager fired and board of directors dissolved. Now, five years later, the JSO’s fortunes are on the rise – despite almost being dealt a deathblow when funding was cut severely in 2007. Critics are also praising the performances as well. The upswing is due in a very large part to JSO’s visionary music director and principal conductor, Leon Botstein, who terms it “the most rapid turnaround in the history of Israeli institutions.”

This week, Botstein and the revitalized JSO embark on their second US tour in the past three seasons, visiting Midwest and western cities between October 26 and November 16. The eclectic programs include Aaron Copland’s monumental “Symphony No. 3,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade for Violin and Orchestra,” Ernst Toch’s “Big Ben, Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes” and a work from 1938 by Israeli composer Erich Walter Sternberg, called “The Twelve Tribes of Israel,” the first large-scale orchestral composition ever written in pre-state Palestine. Later in the season, the JSO will open the 2009 Leipzig Bach Festival.

Now in his sixth season with the JSO, Botstein is that rarest of creatures in the arts: a man whose executive talents do not fall short of his artistic ones. In addition to the JSO, he is also music director and principal conductor of New York’s American Symphony Orchestra, president of Bard College, co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, music director of the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra, and has an active international touring career. As a scholar of music history, Botstein also edits The Musical Quarterly, and has written numerous articles and books on music, education, history, and culture.

Botstein’s skills and experience in management and fundraising stood him in good stead when he was invited to join the JSO. If things continue this way, he might even be able to get paid; to date, Botstein has contributed each year’s salary to the orchestra, to aid its recovery.

The band plays on

The JSO wasn’t always in such a state. The orchestra was founded in the 1940s as an adjunct to BBC radio in Mandatory Palestine, and became the Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) national radio orchestra with the establishment of the State of Israel. In the 1970s, it was expanded and became the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

Unlike the Tel Aviv-based Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which was established as a cooperative, the JSO was a state-funded part of IBA, an arrangement that suited everyone until budget cuts and privatization – in the form of commercial TV and radio – began to gnaw away at IBA.

In 2003, the JSO went into receivership due to mismanagement, which is when Botstein was brought onto the scene. “It appeared chaotic,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “And what looked to be, at the time, chaos, appears to be everyday life in Israel. So I came to recognize that this is day-to-day life in Israel.”

As someone who understood very well how things work outside Israel, Botstein immediately set about creating a support system, something the orchestra had never needed before. “Because JSO was a state bureaucracy, it never developed a network of foreign funding and depended entirely on the government. The modern world makes it clear that such institutions must be private-public partnerships,” says Botstein.

“So we built the Friends of the Jerusalem Symphony and that accounts for 15 percent of the current budget,” he explains. Two representatives also sit on the board of directors. The list of Friends, he adds, reads “like a ‘Who’s Who’ of American-Jewish philanthropy,” and includes notables such as New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz (who serves as chairman), financier-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, architect Moshe Safdie, and others. Botstein also initiated contact with Chicago’s WFMT Radio Network, resulting in regular JSO broadcasts in over 200 stations across the US.

On the plus side, Botstein also found an orchestra that – despite having weathered a 20% pay cut – “was very committed, and intact as a musical and artistic ensemble. To them, making music is more than a job, it is a calling.” He set about “rebuilding the institution, the audience, and the orchestra,” increasing salaries and bringing in new musicians, Jewish and non-Jewish, from Israeli and abroad.

Funding cuts

And then more chaos – or if you like, everyday life. In June 2007, just as the JSO was emerging from receivership, IBA announced it was cutting funding by 60%, effectively shutting down the orchestra.

Following an appeal, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the IBA and JSO to devise a recovery plan. Botstein participated in the meeting as the Friends of the JSO representative, and the sides reached an agreement that was then presented to the court. IBA now provides NIS 6 million of the JSO’s annual NIS 9 million budget, with the remainder coming from the Friends, the Municipality of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, and independent income.

“It is possible to operate honestly and transparently and succeed,” Botstein says. “I must also express some dismay at the very low status that education and culture is given in this country. It turns out that orchestras are endangered species here – as are education and academic standards – as they are in other countries as well.”

About 40% of JSO’s players come from the former Soviet Union, 25% are native-born Israelis, 10% come from the US, a significant contingent from Romania, along with Greece, Germany and Japan. “It’s very international, with a very wide age range and a very wide political span – from extreme left to extreme right – and I admire the civility with which it handles itself,” Botstein observes.

Audience building does demand the power of persuasion and Botstein – who is known for adventuresome musical programming – had to temper his initial ambitions. “You have to build trust with the audience. I had expected the Israeli audience to be more curious and less conservative in its musical taste than it’s turned out to be. Like many new nations, especially among the older populations, there is a conservativism that exceeds that of London, New York, Berlin and Paris. My first obligation is to the orchestra. I’m a realist, so over the years we’ve reconciled more conservative programs with others. And there is a small, younger audience for new music.”

The JSO currently presents five concert series: Musical Discoveries, featuring masterpieces and rare works by 19th and 20th century composers; a traditional classical series; a liturgical series; a series for children and families; and a Friday afternoon series of light classical music.

Musical Discoveries is in keeping with the JSO’s long-standing tradition of varied repertoire – from the baroque and classical periods through to the 21st century – including commissioned works by Israeli composers.

Rediscovering old classics

And Botstein’s true passion is digging through archives to create such programs. “I’m not trying to do something that’s so radical, just trying to bring back repertory that’s fallen out of circulation, unfairly. And it has had a following. On this tour, for example, we’re doing a whole program of Jewish composers who wrote music for Hollywood: Ernst Toch, Miklos Rozsa, Aaron Copland. The other theme is emigration. And then we’re doing ‘The Twelve Tribes,’ which is a kind of textbook trip through the entire musical rhetoric of the intellectual legacy of the educated early pioneers. And we’re doing the Bernstein serenade, which he conducted many times when he was in Israel.”

The JSO is known to the American audience through its syndicated broadcasts Botstein says, and has a good reputation abroad. Moreover, audiences have welcomed the visiting orchestra’s new programs as a refreshing change to the standard seasonal fare.

Botstein is now looking to capitalize on that standing, and create an orchestra that is unique to Jerusalem and will draw people to its home. “The agenda is to give the Jerusalem Symphony an artistic profile that makes it distinguished – separate and distinct from others – and find a way to reflect where it is.”

The ideas begin pouring forth. “Jerusalem is the tourist center of Israel, and Jerusalem Symphony has huge tourist potential,” he says. “I’d like to create a chamber music series, play in different venues, expand our educational program, do opera-in-concert, bring classical music to industrial parks, more entrepreneurial activities – and use more technology, streaming concerts over the Internet, provide music from Jerusalem on the Christian holy days.

“I’d also like to reach out to the citizens of east Jerusalem and make the Jerusalem Symphony a symbol of the many traditions and cultures of this city. The great thing about this franchise is that name, which wreaks its magic and havoc on people on many faiths — even on people like myself who have no faith at all.”

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will be on tour in the US until November 16, 2008, and is joined by renowned violinist, Robert McDuffie.

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.