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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8 May 2011

Yoav Talmi’s Journey of an Orchestra Conductor, From Kibboutz to Quebec

May 2, 2011

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Taken from the Berlin Philharmonic

As Yoav Talmi was preparing to conduct the OSQ in Beethoven’s Ninth for the last time as musical director of the orchestra, Éditions Septentrion published the maestro’s autobiography. The following is an exclusive excerpt.

At the very beginning of June 1982, as my old Arnhem orchestra’s season was drawing to a close, my German agent in Munich, Dr Göhre, from the Concerto Winderstein, gave me a call:

“Carlos Kleiber has just cancelled all his concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. There is only a dress rehearsal tomorrow, and three concerts starting tomorrow night. Dvořak’s New World Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Alexis Weissenberg are on the program. They are asking if you can replace Kleiber.”

I hold my breath. This orchestra is the best of the best great orchestras in the world; offers like this hardly come around every day! Fortunately, I was at ease with the repertoire, but my heart was still beating like a Hungarian czárdás.

“Of course. I’ll do it. I suppose I should take the next flight to Berlin?”

“Yes. The orchestra has already booked a hotel room for you. They will be waiting for you at the Filharmonie tomorrow morning at 10.”

I booked my plane ticket for the first flight to Berlin, grabbed my scores, excitedly packed my bags and rushed to the airport. Just like when I left London for my first replacement in Arnhem 10 years before, I took the time to memorize my scores in the plane during the entire flight and even a good part of the night at the hotel.

At 9:30 a.m., on June 3, 1982, I arrived at the Filharmonie where I was welcomed by Dr. Girt, steward of the Berlin Philharmonic, who introduced me to the musicians. I was very happy to be working with Alexis Weissenberg again, and the Tchaikovsky Concerto played itself.

After the break, we got started on the New World Symphony, and I was interrupting the orchestra fairly often to ask such and such a detail. The musicians, who had been playing the work for years with Karajan and who were therefore used to his interpretation, seemed reluctant. I could see in their eyes that they appeared to be asking: “Really, you want it played like that?” I was slightly taken aback, but I continued working my way.

The Berlin Philharmonic follows an old tradition and substantially delays attacking the notes after the conductor has beat them. When it came to the famous slow movement, the delay was so great that I had enormous trouble keeping the beat and I was losing my inner tempo. I stopped the orchestra and naively asked:

“Could you attack the notes as I beat them as much as possible?”

“Nein! No!” cried the first trombone.

Michel Schwalbé, the orchestra’s legendary concertmaster, got up, approached me and quietly said:

“Herr Telmi, many of the current great conductors have the same problem when they conduct us for the first time. Conduct as if you feel the pulse solidly in your balls! Don’t let the delay influence your pulse.”

He returned to his place and I picked up the slow movement while doing my best to follow his advice and arranging myself to keep the tempo steady.

Once the rehearsal was over, Dr. Girt came to find me in my dressing room and, seeing that I was rather sullen, asked:

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, see, I would have expected a little more collaboration from musicians in such a tight spot. Their lack of solidarity makes me uneasy.”

“I’m going to tell you something, Herr Talmi. When Leonard Bernstein came to the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time, to conduct Mahler’s Ninth, he wanted to pack his bags as of the first rehearsal. He was really troubled by the musicians’ lack of enthusiasm, but, after a lot of effort on our behalf, we persuaded him to stay. By the weekend, it had become a love story between them, and he was extremely pleased with the orchestra. Wait for the concert, and don’t let this rehearsal get you down.”

That’s what I did. That evening, in the New World Symphony, every detail that I had asked for in rehearsal was in place and my wishes granted to perfection! The orchestra’s play was magnificent, especially the ppp and pppp (the softest pianissimi) as written in the score. These pianissimi were simple overwhelming, breathtaking.

Many of the musicians came to shake my hand after the concert... and came Dr. Girt’s turn.

“So, Herr Talmi, how do you feel now?”

“Marvellously well, I answered. The personal investment of the musicians was exemplary and every minute of the symphony gave me shivers.”

“Well, he added, know that the musicians have already asked me to hire you again! Come back tomorrow with your planner and we’ll set the date for our next meeting.”

The OSQ in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Coriolan Overture, as well as maestro Talmi’s creation of the De Profondis. www.osq.qc.ca

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