GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor

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Classic CD
February 1999

Future of Music: Women Conductors

By Malcolm Hayes

Ben-Dor's own ascent is well on its way, particularly in America, where she has built a reputation as a conductor whose flair for leading from the front co-exists (for once) with seasoned musicianship to match. Already she has productively held down two music directorships, with the Annapolis Symphony in Maryland (from 1991 to 1997), and with the Santa Barbara Symphony in California (from 1995 until at least 2001). Other positions, with the Houston Symphony and the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, have underlined her impressive credentials. And these credentials are now beginning to be presented more frequently over here.

There's Gisèle Ben-Dor's latest recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, for instance (reviewed by me in Classic CD's Christmas edition, issue 106). This serves notice that there are much more interesting ways of approaching Alberto Ginastera's two ballet scores, Panambí and Estancia, than the usual method of tearing through them like a bandmaster on crack - a point made by Ben-Dor's exemplary mirroring of the music's balance between tumultuous dynamism and evocative atmospherics.

Talking to her about this project seemed as good a moment as any to bring up the inevitable gender issue. Encouraged by Ben-Dor's voluble lack of pretension and evidently reliable sense of humor, I mentioned that the LSO, in days of yore at least, used to regard itself with pride as the most uncompromisingly macho orchestra on the planet. Sure enough, she rocked with laughter at the appropriateness of the encounter, while insisting (convincingly) that whenever she raised her baton before the assembled LSO players, their professionalism was exemplary.

"I know it sounds like an obvious thing to say, but I really don't think being a woman is a problem once you've got to the point of standing up before an orchestra and working with them. The problem is much more how you get there in the first place. But then that, too, is the same for every conductor. Assuming that you have the talent and the energy, so much still comes down to whom you happen to know and where you happen to be. In other words, it's down to luck."

For all that, does she feel that an orchestra reacts differently to a female or male conductor with notionally equal ability? "Orchestras have collective mentalities. Either you and they get on, or you don't. Yes, there have been individuals in the orchestras that I've worked with - sometimes extremely talented players - who will always have a problem taking instructions of any kind from a woman. But it doesn't happen often. When it does, you just try to keep the temperature as level as you can.

"On the whole I've found that players are more interested in finding out what I have to offer as a musician. I'm sorry if that doesn't sound exciting enough, but that's just how it is! Working with the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra was especially rewarding in that respect, because they're self-governing - they choose their conductors themselves, and so you know they really want you to be there. Now, however, I've reached the stage in my career where I'd rather be taking more of the decisions myself."

Gisèle Ben-Dor was born in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, into a Jewish family that had emigrated there from Poland before the Second World War. "They were all musical people," she says, "although none were musicians professionally. My father was an accountant. But he encouraged me from the very start to make a life in music if that was what I believed in. I was raised to have such confidence. Especially from the intellectual point of view. My father was really my first feminist."

Her early years encompassed the unorthodox first stages of her musical training, and led to her counducting an assortment of local school choirs and orchestras at the veteran age of 12. "I know it sounds absurd," she says, "but I really didn't see anything strange about it. It just happened." At about this time she was taken to her first classical concert, where the gestures of the conductor on the podium before the orchestra struck her as somewhat strange. ("I thought he was a madman. I couldn't see any connection between what he was doing there and what I was doing at school.")

During her teenage years, as with hordes of her contemporaries, her guitar was her best musical friend. It might have remained so if, at the age of 17, Ben-Dor hadn't suddenly found herself pitched into a different cultural world. "The political situation in Uruguay had become very difficult, so my parents decided to take us all to live in Israel. I enrolled at the Rubin Academy in Tel Aviv, where I studied with Enrique Barenboim, the father of Daniel. Things went on from there."

She met her future husband, Eli Ben-Dor, an engineer with whom she now lives, at their home in New Jersey. She then won a place to study conducting at Yale Music School, and immediately after graduating made her debut with the Israel Philharmonic, standing in at ultra-short notice for an unwell Kurt Masur - an occasion that has gone into local legend, thanks to Ben-Dor being nine months pregnant at the time with the first of her two children. But for all her cosmopolitan upbringing and North American-based career, her Latin American roots are important to her.

"One reason I feel close to the music of Ginastera, for instance, is that I'm from Uruguay - Argentina and Uruguay are on opposite sides of the River Plate, but they share exactly the same culture. Also I feel that Ginastera has been much misunderstood. He is famous for his folk-influenced music - the suite of dances from Estancia, for instance. So there's this feeling that all the rest of his music ought to be like that too. And of course it isn't. The style of many of his later works is much more advanced. Some of them even use serial procedures.

"He was really several different composers rolled in one," she says. "I think he came to feel that South American music depended so much on the folk-music tradition behind it that it risked becoming a backwater, and he wanted to take a more universal approach. From this point of view he is like Copland, whose music also passed through several different styles. In painting and sculpture, this is true also of Picasso, whose whole life was a statement that there are always different ways of doing things."

So why does Latin American music in general, and Ginastera's in particular, continue not to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be? Gisèle Ben-Dor's views are forthright: "I think it's political," she says. "There is still this enormous North-South divide, and it comes out in ideas about musical repertory too. Latin America has produced magnificent composers besides Ginastera and Villa-Lobos. But Chavez is still not so well known outside his native Mexico. And Revueltas even less. Recently I was able to record three works of Revueltas on Koch International Classics, and two of them, La Coronela and Colorines, had never been recorded before. You should hear them. This music is just remarkable." (I since have, and it is.)

"Revueltas's centenary falls on December 31 this year," continues Ben-Dor, "the day before the new millennium. And yet he still isn't on the international map. There is this simplistic view of Spanish and Latin American music - that it's capable of a folk idiom in the concert hall, and Zarzuela in the theatre, and that's it. As a conductor I have needed to build a wide repertory, and that's as it should be. But I'm also too deteremined to work for music like Revueltas's whenever I can.

For all of Ben-Dor's feisty optimism, plus resources of artistry, stamina and determination that are clearly as unquenched as the day she started out, it has been a long haul for this gifted musician. It's fortunate that she believes in life and living everyday life to the full as well.

"No-one likes being unemployed too often. I've been in work steadily now for the past 10 years, but I wasn't before then. There were quite long periods when not much was happening. It's true that many young conductors who find success early seem to suffer from over-exposure. In that respect I was lucky, my career developed slowly for a quite a long time.

"I had time to learn, and to reflect. Also I had started a family by then. So the last thing I would want to say would be that all those years were not time well spent. Equally, I'm not saying that I would have chosen not to be in work! It isn't an easy profession. But who said it was meant to be? You just have to be very, very persistent."


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