Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 2

Yoav Talmi - The Knight of the Rose

by Lucie Renaud / October 2, 2002

Version française...

photo: Russell Proulx

Whether you're a Quebec City resident or merely a tourist who likes walking or running, you may have unknowingly passed Yoav Talmi standing meditatively in front of a clump of rosebushes in the Jeanne d'Arc Gardens on the Plains of Abraham. The conductor of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra is a man who thinks it worth his while to stop and smell the roses. In fact, he has an unusual passion for horticulture, a passion that, despite a very full timetable on more than one continent (he is also the maestro of the Hamburg Symphony), makes him take time for these blushing beauties during his daily walk. He has cultivated this love of flowers since his childhood years on an Israeli kibbutz, where he had the delicate task of pruning roses and taking cuttings for propagation. The terrace of his Tel Aviv apartment is equipped with a hi-tech, automated watering and fertilizing system so that he can enjoy his beds of roses when passing through.

Talmi has another devouring passion--one that dates from his adoles-cence: the orchestral repertoire. "I found it more satisfying to listen to a symphony than to play a sonata," he explains. "The rich sound and colours of the orchestra were far more exhilarating than simply playing the piano." At the age of eighteen he left Israel to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York. He also followed many summer courses with the greatest conductors of the time--Walter Susskind, Eric Leinsdorf, and Leonard Bernstein. "I was lucky to have learned how to bring the music across rather than just conducting technique," he says. After finishing his studies, he went back to Israel, where he was offered some sixty concerts a year. Three years into this hectic schedule he began to have doubts and decided to take a sabbatical. He left for London with his wife, the flutist Er'ella Talmi, and his son (then very young, but now a composer of music for films). The couple taught in order to put bread on the table. The students were a mixed bag, some more talented than others--"a real torture" groans Talmi. There were compensations, nevertheless. Each morning he would slip into Festival Hall to listen to rehearsals by the greatest conductors of the day. "I learned so much during that year, especially how the conductor can successfully transmit his ideas to the musicians without scaring them, and how to get results through the love of their work rather than fear. I learned more in that year than in all my years of study."

He returned to his work, totally refreshed and ready to take on the major challenges. For some years he was musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, filled the same post with the Arnhem Philharmonic between 1974 and 1980, became principal guest conductor of the Munich Philharmonic between 1979 and 1980, and conducted the Israel New Opera Company from 1984 to 1988. From 1989 to 1996 he was musical director of the San Diego Symphony, which he transformed into a world class ensemble. In 1998 he applied for the conductorship of the Quebec Symphony.

Making changes

From the start he began to implement subtle changes. "I was given an orchestra with a number of extraordinary qualities, the most striking of which was certainly the desire to surpass what it had already achieved," says Talmi. "Some sections of the orchestra were a little weak, but I'm proud to say today, after three years with the orchestra, that this is now a thing of the past. You have to be very patient and work hard, but I couldn't have done it if the orchestra hadn't had the desire to work. I've had the chance to work with the best orchestras in the world. Every note is in the right place, but often their hearts aren't in it. Then you find yourself working with an orchestra that may seem less accomplished, if you take every player individually, but whose members are sitting on the edge of their chairs and giving their all. The tension level becomes so great during concerts that it leaps into the hall."

Preparation is a team thing, and Talmi knows just where to direct his energy when it's time to galvanize the troops. "I rarely need more than five rehearsals with the orchestra to prepare a program, whether it's a Mahler symphony that the musicians have never played before, or a Canadian original. The musicians know how to prepare before the first rehearsal, when we go through it for the first time together--a prima vista, so that they grasp the essence of the work. After this first reading we work in sections, in a very open way."

Darren Lowe, the symphony's first violin, doesn't stint on praise. "He's an all-round conductor," says Lowe. "He's an excellent musician and also has the qualities needed to gain the musicians' respect when he's conducting. He studies the score thoroughly and knows how to communicate his ideas forcefully and effectively." Jean-Louis Rousseau, a violinist with the orchestra since 1954, has seen a number of conductors come and go. He says that he finds Talmi deeply human, that the conductor knows how to get what he wants from the orchestra with the minimum number of gestures. "He knows what it's like to be a member of the orchestra," says Rousseau (Talmi was an orchestra pianist at one time). "That's why he knows how to ask for what the orchestra is capable of performing. He rehearses things in depth and is sensitive to the balance of sound. Above all, he is profoundly human, very responsive."

This responsiveness makes Talmi stand out from the general run of egocentric maestros who get what they want by way of threats. Says Talmi, "I treat my musicians as colleagues. I never tap anyone on the head. That's not my style. If a conductor says to a musician, 'You're always pushing the tempo,' the musician will probably have trouble swallowing the criticism. He could also say, 'Can we try this section once again, making sure the tempo stays the same throughout and not getting ahead of ourselves?' I say the same thing in an entirely different way, and the musician understands it differently. I try to create an atmosphere during rehearsals that makes the musicians feel involved. I think that if you succeed in creating this atmosphere, the musicians will be all the more motivated. On concert nights, what we've worked on will be in their fingers, minds, and hearts. I don't want to be a traffic cop. One of the reasons I memorize my scores is that it gives me a chance to close my eyes and concentrate on the atmosphere of the work. Of course, I look the musicians in the eye to underscore when they're to come in, but I feel free to let them know, intuitively, that they can forget what we've done so far and let themselves go. The music must get off the ground, be alive in the air. It's no longer work: it has become an art."

Darren Lowe, emphasizing Talmi's charisma and his role as a catalyst, says, "He lets the musicians express themselves through their instrument, lets them bring out the best." Anne DeBlois, a volunteer and a member of the symphony choir, says of her first meeting with Talmi, "When I joined the Quebec Symphony choir in June, 2002, I didn't know Mr. Talmi at all. We first met in a work environment. What surprised me was his quiet, very serious manner. He didn't raise his voice or say anything that wasn't necessary. He was serious when he had to be and congratulated us when he was satisfied. I'll always remember the few moments after Verdi's Requiem in May, 2001. I wanted to congratulate him, as was natural, when to my surprise it was he who, on seeing me, praised my work--and I was just a simple choir member hidden in the five rows of singers at the back of the stage during concerts!"

Talmi's influence is felt at all levels of the organization. He personally supervises the hiring of new musicians and is involved as much in the season's programming as in the choice of soloists. His ability to take the long-term view helps him define the orchestra's character. For example, soon after his arrival, he suggested that the orchestra do all the Bruckner symphonies--works that it had never dared take on. "People will know Quebec City as Bruckner City," he said slyly, smiling. The orchestra is now doing the Mahler symphonies, this year the Second, for which Talmi admits having "a tremendous affinity." This year the orchestra will also present the Brahms Requiem, a new endeavour, after having done the requiems of Fauré, Verdi, and Mozart. This tour de force will display the orchestra's newly-acquired skills: a warmer, fuller, more fluid tone, better ensemble playing, and an adroit balance among the various orchestral sections.

Talmi moves seamlessly from conductor to negotiator, taking a firm stand with the members of the board to persuade them to combine his tastes with those of the audience. He seems to have a charmed relationship with the public. The orchestra throws its net wide and offers "light" concerts (extracts from the season) that sell well in shopping centres. Talmi has also launched a very popular series of family concerts that mix theatre arts with symphonic music. Before concerts, children who visit the "musical zoo" can look at the orchestra instruments.

The conductor has a long reach: his idea is to get the whole community implicated in the orchestra's centenary celebrations. For those with a sense of nostalgia, a "1900" ball will be held on October 5 ($100 a ticket, of which $60 is tax-deductible). "I want people to be proud of being involved in celebrating the symphony's centenary," he states. Also on the program: the launch of an abundantly illustrated history of the Quebec Symphony (we'll review it in our next issue), the release of two new CDs, and an interactive exhibit at the Museum of Civilization about the symphonic world and the elusive figure of the conductor (from October 16, 2002, to September 2, 2003). The orchestra will also make its first Canada-wide tour, stopping in Vancouver, Banff, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Talmi makes no bones about the fact that he hopes the tour will have a snowball effect and open doors for the orchestra. "The orchestra will reach greater heights than ever before," Darren Lowe believes.

Talmi's head may be in the clouds, but his feet are firmly on the ground and on the fertile soil of the Old Capital. There is no doubt he will leave his mark on the city that welcomed him with open arms a few years ago. Like a diligent gardener, he'll do it through rehearsals, concerts and recordings, sowing the seed for a new series of concerts, grafting onto it a concert with young professionals from the Conservatory or Laval University, certainly enriching the lives of an ever-growing audience. "Why do we like him so much?" wonders Anne DeBlois. "His musical gifts account for it in large part, and certainly his contribution to the city's cultural life. But perhaps more than anything, we like him because he likes working with us and trusts us. And it seems we return the compliment. Maybe it's also because he has the good of our orchestra at heart." Does not the rose bloom so sweetly because of the time spent in its care?

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale