The following section is taken from a book titled "Mastery" by Joan Evelyn Ames. The book comprises a series of 'interviews with 30 remarkable people', one of which includes Gisele Ben-Dor.
Gisele Ben-Dor is one of the most exciting young conductors in the world today. Her concert reviews are filled with accolades focusing on her musical leadership, technical mastery, exuberance, and charisma. In 1993 she received a standing ovation for her debut with the New York Philharmonic when she was called in as the last minute replacement for Kurt Masur and proceeded to conduct the orchestra without rehearsal or scores.
Born in Uruguay of Polish parents, she graduated from the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv and the Yale School of Music, where she completed her master's degree in 1982. She is currently Music Director of the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Boston ProArte Chamber Orchestra. She has also been Conductor of the Annapolis Symphony, Assistant Conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, and Resident Conductor of the Houston Symphony. She frequently performs as a guest conductor for orchestras throughout North America, Europe, and Israel, including, among others: the Boston Pops, the London Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, Spanish Radio and Television, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Jerusalem Symphony. She lives on the East Coast with her husband Eli Ben-Dor, an engineer, and their two sons, Roy and Gabriel.
Ben-Dor has said that a conductor needs to have emotional strength in every hair and flowing out the tips of the fingers. And indeed, my first impression of her comes sparking and zapping off the stage, radiating from the small and slender figure on the podium all the way to the back of the concert hall where she is rehearsing the Santa Barbara Symphony for one of their season's concerts. She conducts with precise and commanding movements, deftly molding together the orchestra and the piano soloist in a concerto by the American composer, Amy Marcy Beach. Three Slavonic Dances by Dvorak and the Brahms Symphony No. 4 complete a dynamic and impressive concert. The standing ovation she receives is not just a perfunctory ritual; it is an inspired and exuberant response to having been in the presence of greatness.
How did you get started as a musician and a conductor?
I asked my parents for a piano when I was three. Somehow, I knew instinctively that the talent was there, that this was a game I wanted to play. When they bought me the piano I was always improvising, and with or without teachers I found my way. Isn't it a magical thing that we can be so attracted to something even before we've learned to really speak!
When I was twelve, I organized my school friends into a choir and started conducting. It was completely out of the blue because my parents were not musicians. I was not put on a career path. I grew up like every other kid in the neighborhood in Montevideo: family, brothers, sisters, friends, studies, school, parties. But I started conducting as naturally as a baby starts to walk. I had this music, these different voices, these ideas. everything was in my head. I loved to teach, I loved to put it all together, and music was the material. I could have been something else - an accountant like my father - but I was born a musician. That's something that chooses you.
By the time I was fourteen, the school was actually paying me to teach the younger kids and organize the music department. Can you imagine how encouraging that was? It was okay with them because I was a kid.
However, once I was older and made the decision to be a conductor, you cannot imagine how much discouragement there was. I was dissuaded from doing this a thousand times. I was in shock. It was a kind of schizophrenia because one part of me was already built with a certainty - like a backbone - that this was what I was supposed to be doing. Suddenly I was constantly being told I shouldn't be doing it. They were saying, "Well, wait a minute, it's not so simple. If you want to be a conductor you should pay the price. You can never be as good as they are."
How did you handle this discouragement and the adversity?
I was fortunate because I grew up expressing myself as a conductor and that strong self-image is what kept me together throughout the resistance and the discouragement. Also, when things get hard - and for me it's been appalling sometimes - I think of the great composers; I put myself in their place. There are numerous examples of composers being insulted and rebuked for some of the greatest masterpieces that have ever been created. Think of a nineteen-year-old Brahms premiering his first piano concert. It is such a beautiful and monumental work yet the public just didn't get it. They didn't even clap. What would that do to you? Would you keep writing? Of course he was hurt but he took it stoically. So I say, "Who am I to complain? Put yourself in perspective; you're doing very well. Nobody said it was going to be a rose garden!"
I think you grow with adversity. You learn to roll with the punches. Like Nietzsche said, if it doesn't kill you it's going to make you stronger. Even in situations where it is bad luck and I seem to have no control, I always try to find my part in it and how I'm responsible. I have learned from failures whether they were due to my mistakes or bad luck.
One of the greatest obstacles we face in music in the United States is raising funds and getting people in the community to understand how important this is. Musicians have always been dependent on the society around them for support, but there is so little funding for the arts today! Everybody is constantly telling you, "Oh, this is a dying art. In twenty years there are not going to be any more concerts." Even our basic notions of culture are called into question: "What is art? Why should we hear Beethoven? Why not a Polynesian Gamelan? Who says what's good and makes the choices?" These are legitimate questions, but I can't answer them and retain full integrity in my work. I do what I do because that is what I know and love. Music is almost like one's religion, and I don't want to compare my religion with yours.
Being a conductor or a musician is difficult; it's a very competitive field. But I don't think about it being difficult for me because I'm a woman. That's handicapped thinking. I always keep going even if it's difficult or horribly disappointing, as it has been on occasion. It is also true that some of the best opportunities have come from some of the worst disappointments. We have an expression in Spanish that my mother used to say all the time, " No hay mal que por bien no venga. " There is nothing bad that doesn't come for good. Well, it does not have to be an objective truth, but it's a way of thinking, a way of interpreting life, that I grew up with.
There is another component to this: I never expected anybody to do anything for me! It was always, always my responsibility. My parents, especially my father, taught me that there were no excuses; I had to make things happen. I was raised to persevere and accomplish. I was very competitive also, very demanding. Sometimes it was a little too much because I can be very hard on myself, very critical and negative about what I'm doing - beyond proportion. I think resilience is basic. You can see that in some children from the beginning, in the kids that know how to develop a thicker skin and learn to protect themselves. Then there are others who are appalled by events and destroyed. I think resilience is inborn; there has to be a genetic component to it.
What role did you teachers play in your career?
I had teachers who told me, "You'll never be a conductor. You have no talent, and I don't want people even to know that I'm your teacher." There were teachers who had absolutely no faith, who would recommend against me behind my back. I have tasted some of the toughest cups in that respect.
This happened not only because I'm a woman - I'm sure a lot of my colleagues have similar stories - but also I must have scared the daylights out of them because I was very strong willed and had the self-confidence that came from conducting as a kid. They must have interpreted my confidence as a supreme act of arrogance. They expected me to be more of a follower, more submissive. Actually, they didn't expect me to really be a conductor!
Also, in my family there was ambivalence about the way girls are raised. As a child I was encouraged like a boy would have been. Excellence was the goal, and I could do anything that I wanted. I was not prepared to hear, "All that we told you for the past twenty-two years was all very nice, but now you're a woman; this is the real you. First get married and have children." What? Why?
On the other hand I consider myself very lucky because if I had been born thirty years earlier I would not have become a conductor. The obstacles would have been insurmountable.
Will you talk about taking risks?
In the most areas of my life I don't take risks. I'm cautious with finances and with the way I raise my children. I don't do adventurous sports; I don't even know how to jump into a swimming pool. But as a musician I've always had this sense of adventure - it's "Let's see what happens!" In this case I have the confidence and go after the risk.
I actually like it better when I don't know what's going to happen during a concert. I get more nervous when I am totally prepared and I think I know everything perfectly, because then I could lose some of those things I thought were going to happen. I have to be protective of all the details, of all the moments. But when I don't know how things will go there is the possibility of adventure and I'm a lot less nervous. I can jump into an opportunity where I haven't even had a chance to learn one of the pieces, and I have no fear. There is room for me to create something and I will know what to do right there on the spot, because it's an instinct.
Recently I was asked to step in and conduct the scores for four different finalists in a world piano competition in Cincinnati. I had to learn one piece overnight. There I was in front of an international jury with a packed house and I had no fear. I was completely happy to just see what would happen, and it went perfectly well.
Tell me a little bit about performing and what the high points are. Athletes talk about the "zone," when everything is going perfectly.
There is a zone also for musician, and it can be just a few seconds during a performance. You find a point when you become absolutely one with the sound - it's really intangible. And it's one of the strangest things because as a conductor you have no physical contact with an instrument.
Isn't the orchestra your instrument?
But who? It's not the instruments or the musicians. Is it their minds? Is it the sound? You could say it's vibrations, but that's being picky. As far as I'm concerned, it's very much a spiritual thing. It doesn't happen all the time, but suddenly you are in absolute contact with that sound and you forget yourself physically. In my case it's dangerous because I have almost lost balance and risked falling off the stage many times. I don't have the coordination of an athlete or a ballerina, so I have to work on my posture, and my balance, and make sure that if I lose myself I won't fall.
You have to give the performance everything that you have got!. to the point that if you give another iota you are going to disintegrate, your heart is going to burst open or you're just going to faint. It has to be to that point. There are so many things that your mind can do to distract you from that: thinking about what comes up next, or being critical of how the orchestra is playing. You have to be really concentrated; that is part of the profession.
As conductor you are there to guide the musicians, you're not there to be lost in the stars. They need cues from you, they need good direction. You cannot afford to lose yourself - but then it will happen and it's just fabulous. Sometimes in a performance I find myself saying, "Thank you," very quietly and simply, no big production or particular words to it. It's just an attitude of being grateful for being there. And it's worth everything; that's all you do it for.
What are the pitfalls on the road to mastery?
It depends on what your needs are. I interpret pitfalls as ways of hurting yourself and one way is to take on too many responsibilities. The more success you have the more temptations there are: more fame, power, influence, and money. Success itself carries a lot of danger - assuming you have needs. I think I have a healthy attitude in this respect; my system puts on the brakes. I could have the most unbelievable responsibility, but if I don't get enough sleep I know I cannot function.
For me the greatest pitfall is to leave my family behind. I love to spend time with my kids. This is the one thing that is constantly on my mind. When I'm away too long I miss them and then things lose their luster and value for me. I'm fighting this issue now and I'm determined that it is not going to get to me. It's so much a matter of what you propose to do, your decisions.
Recently I gave up one of my positions. I decided I can live with less money, less influence, and fewer professional possibilities if it allows me more time at home following the normal routines with my kids and having enough time to study my scores. So I'm slowing down and saying "no" to a lot of engagements and positions worth considerable financial reward and security. Such things could be very comfortable, but I'm too curious about what could be to settle for certainty right now. I'm lucky that my husband understands and supports me in these decisions.
Another pitfall is to forget your humble origins. And my background is very humble: Montevideo, Uruguay is not New York, USA, or other places. The people around me were always nice, simple, unsophisticated people. So, I think a pitfall is to become enveloped in your public persona.
Would you translate that into ego?
There are different theories about why people feel the world revolves around them, the pre-Copernican egos: in some cases it could be a deep insecurity, in others they were just born to it. Mozart was very arrogant because he was born a genius and raised as one. There is no way his brain could have accustomed itself to any type of humbleness. His personality was entirely shaped into that role of being better than everybody else. He ruined a lot of opportunities for himself because he was arrogant or perceived as being so. Public relations was not his thing.
I have a healthy ego, but I don't have the larger than life ego that it would take to make me neglect my family. Actually, I have never had dreams of being a superstar on top of some huge success away from my family. I don't know how far I will go; it's just too complicated to be able to judge. Of course I am ambitious, but it is a natural ambition: I want to be a better conductor, I want to have the best possible orchestra and concert hall. There are ambitions, but I don't think I carry with me this overriding need to be on top of the world.
Ego is very important for mastery or a great career because you must project that quality of, "I know, I'm right, you follow me, this is the way it is." I think you fulfill your own prophecies. You have to see yourself at the top before you actually get there. Those who have it will ultimately achieve it because they already are that and it's just a matter of finding the way.
So a healthy ego is particularly important for a conductor?
Absolutely. The orchestra has a gut feeling about the conductor and it doesn't matter how great a musician you are, the moment you project any degree of insecurity you've lost everything.
Conductors have been tyrants for a long time, to the point of abusing the players. Today the pendulum has swung to the opposite direction. The musicians have a lot of power and most conductors have calmed down and are more congenial with the orchestra. Sometimes musicians will resent the self-assured conductor and test him, or they will help the conductors who don't have that big sense of themselves. I think it all comes down to the genuineness of the conductor's personality.
Being genuine is another requisite in mastery. It has to be you a hundred percent for better or for worse, because then it all comes together in its own mysterious way, even with the contradictions or the paradoxes. If you are pretending, even in the slightest way, the players will see through you immediately and you will not be trusted. They will resent it.
The job of the conductor is such a strange job! The musicians are making a huge effort and you just stand there and don't play anything! It looks so easy.
Wasn't it Zubin Mehta who said that conductors are the only musicians who practice in public?
He's absolutely right! You make your mistakes in front of everybody else, and you're Maestro You're the teacher. You're not supposed to be making mistakes!
The conductor must have the persistence and the ego. Sometimes you have doubts, and the better you are as a musician the more doubts you are going to have. But you have to be convinced, yourself, in front of the musician, in spite of your doubts.
So what keeps you growing and developing as a musician?
I think it's integrity, and it's important to be very self-critical. As I said earlier, it scares me when I think that I know something very well, because then I probably don't. I watch myself. When I begin to feel comfortable, or to choose the easier thing, I tighten the screws again. Otherwise every bad habit - the worst of me will win. I start all over at square one and ask myself how I'm going to do it now. There are always things you let go of, and you say, "No, I'm not going to be a mediocre conductor!" That keeps you growing. Life and getting older do it as well; things happen that deepen your understanding.
And suddenly you discover something new in a Brahms symphony and you say, "Well, it's been played so many times; so many great conductors have interpreted it, where is my place? Why should I grow with a Brahms symphony, who cares?" I care , nobody else does! And I think that's what makes the difference, because growth and success are two different things. You can grow enormously and not have success. The reasons for success have relatively little to do with your talent. They have to do with other things: where, when, who you know. I think luck plays a huge role in our profession.
For example, Dvorak was unknown outside of Bohemia until he was thirty-six years old. He was poor, he had to write all kinds of things just for survival. Then Brahms discovered him, gave him a scholarship, and recommended him to his publisher. As a result, some of Dvorak's dances were published and he became world famous. Now what did that fame do for him? There was money; he didn't have to worry; he could write what he wanted and he produced all this wonderful music. What if Brahms had not discovered him? Where would all his other great works be? Was Dvorak any less talented when he was unknown and poor ini Bohemia wasting his energies doing other things?
Have you had moments of epiphany or key turning points in your career?
It happens when I listen to music and that spark is still there after all these years. There is music I used to love when I was twelve years old that means nothing to me now, and there is music that still brings me to tears. If I can react to this music after all these years, then there is truth in it. I know I am still on the right path even though I carry with me the idea that the performance of live serious music as we know it may be a dying art, that I am unfortunate to be a witness to its disintegration, and that fifty years from now there may be no concerts. Can you imagine what it is like to feel that you are part of something that is dying - that you've struggled so hard - it's your entire life and you may be irrelevant?
But then there are those moments. It could be in a Verdi Requiem or a Joan of Arc . Usually these are pieces that carry their own message; even if Verdi may have been an atheist, a requiem is a requiem. It's about life, about what we are, about saving us from everything that is dark, that is death. And you don't have to be a Christian or a Catholic - don't have to be anything at all because it has meaning in itself. And the music is just. [slowly draws in her breath].
When I'm still shaken by that, simply as a humble human being - even when I'm not conducting or physically engaged in the performance - I say, "Wow, this must not disappear!" Even for the sake of this one piece I know I'm doing the right thing by being a conductor. And as long as that inspiration still happens. I hang on to that.