March 15, 2000
Ben-Dor Plans 'Amerindia' Recording
By Louinn Lota
Los Angeles (AP) - Gisèle Ben-Dor is tired of reporters asking, "Is that chiffon?"
"People still care about my dress, my hair, my scarf. ... Nobody asks questions about what men wear. Ridiculous," said Ben-Dor, maestra and music director for the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Ben-Dor is one of four women in the United States who conduct symphony orchestras. But it's more than her sex that has gained Ben-Dor prominence in her field.
In 1997, Ben-Dor recorded the works of Silvestre Revueltas, one of Mexico's most prestigious composers, and in January, orchestrated the first recording of "Amerindia" from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. That recording, her second commercial album with the Santa Barbara Symphony, will be released this spring.
Despite her accomplishments, Ben-Dor said most interviewers focus not on her work but on how she balances career and family.
"I wanted to talk about so much richness and beauty created by these relatively unknown and unrecognized composers with the reputation of being from the so-called Third World," she said after a recent TV interview. "How I look for composers who have created, in their musical language, the essence of their people, but through pure historical, political, economical facts, they have been ignored."
However, Ben-Dor does manage to keep a sense of humor about the attention she gets as a woman conductor.
She tells a favorite story about when her oldest son was 2 1/2 and had traveled with her to concerts around the world. "A reporter asked, 'When you grow up, you're going to be a conductor, right?' And my son says, 'No, yuck. That's for girls!'"
Born Gisèle Buka in Montevideo, Uruguay, Ben-Dor played piano as a child and remembers bullying her friends to play arrangements her way.
"I told them, 'You do this. You're out of tune.' Friends of mine gave up when I showed my will and power," she said, laughing. "I grew up knowing I was a conductor. If it didn't exist, I would think I had discovered it."
Her father, an accountant, was stunned by her career choice. But by 14, she was being paid to arrange music.
She won a full scholarship to the Yale School of Music, where she received a master's degree in orchestra conducting in 1982.
The next year, when she was nine months pregnant, she made her conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
"My first child and my first concert," said Ben-Dor, who is married with two sons. "The orchestra was 110 strong and probably remembers the piece as 'The Rite of Offspring.' My son was born two weeks later.
"I had so much poise. I felt so strong, so secure. I still believe it was the best performance of my life."
Since then, she has worked with the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Phoenix Symphony, among others. She debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1994, stepping in for an ailing Kurt Masur. She took the podium without a rehearsal, a score or a baton.
Ben-Dor, who speaks Spanish, English, French, Italian, German and Hebrew, also has worked with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra.
She has recorded the works of Argentina's Alberto Ginastera with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
"I'm not saying Ginastera is as good as Beethoven, but they can share in the same company," she said.
Ben-Dor said she has the satisfaction of bringing composers like Ginastera "to the fore and making an impression on people that classical music is no about old, dead white men in powdered wigs. Their time is coming."