Profile: Pioneering Woman Commands the Baton at Israel Philharmonic

When Gisele Ben-Dor made her conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1983, she was nine months pregnant.

Her concluding piece was Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which, in view of her particular condition, was renamed by the orchestra as “The Rite of the Offspring.”

“All during the performance he didn’t move, but as soon as it was over, he did a mambo,” recalls Ben-Dor. The musically attuned fetus was born two weeks later as the first of her three children, and named Roy.

These days, Ben-Dor leads a bicoastal existence as musical director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony in California and musical director of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.

Also penciled into her upcoming schedule are engagements for orchestral and opera performances in Geneva, Helsinki, Mexico City, Italy and across the United States.

The conductor was born in 1956 in Uruguay, the daughter of two Polish immigrants named Buka.

Her family loved music, with a grandmother who knew every opera by heart and a mother “who sang like an angel,” recalls Ben-Dor.

She remembers herself as an “obsessed kid,” who at 3 started nudging her parents to let her use the family piano.

At 12, she took up conducting “out of the blue,” and two years later was hired, at a salary, to conduct her school orchestra and chorus.

Three years later, at 15, while accompanying her family on a tourist trip to Israel, she met her future husband, Eli.

“Our respective grandmothers were friends,” she recalls, “and on our first date we went to the opera.” Neither the date nor the opera was that good, she says.

Eli Ben-Dor is an engineer, who built up his own high-tech company and sold it recently to Texas Instruments.

Her parents moved permanently to Israel months before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and settled in a small apartment in Ramat Gan.

Their daughter studied at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and in 1980 enrolled at Yale’s School of Conducting.

Shortly after her graduation from Yale in 1982, her budding talent was recognized by Leonard Bernstein, who adopted her as one of his last proteges and sharpened her skills with the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra.

Her initial positions were with orchestras in Louisville, Ky., and Houston, and she first came to national attention when she conducted the Houston Symphony at President Bush’s inauguration early in 1989.

She made the musical limelight again in 1994, when in the best Hollywood tradition, she stepped in at the last minute for the ailing Kurt Masur to conduct the New York Philharmonic without a rehearsal, score or baton. Of course, she was a smash.

Twice a year, she returns to Israel, where her parents still live, to conduct the Israel Philharmonic.

She has a wry comment on the occasionally boisterous behavior of the instrumentalists, and quotes violinist Pinchas Zukerman to the effect that “Sometimes I regret that I understand” Hebrew.

These days, though, she adds, “I’m learning Russian.” She can add that accomplishment to her six other languages. At her home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., the conversation is in Hebrew and the oldest son is slated to join the Israeli army next year.

Ben-Dor is only of three women conductors leading prominent orchestras, and audiences and critics often comment on her gender.

Conducting is so demanding — “I need emotional strength in every hair,” she says — that she cannot afford to worry what others think of her as a woman.

“If I worried about (the audience’s perception), I would become self- conscious,” she says. “I have conducted since I was 12 years old. Being a woman conductor may not be normal to the outside world, but it’s normal to me. I must say that since I came to the United States, I have been given every opportunity, and I hope I deserve it.”

Ben-Dor is rapidly gaining a reputation as the premier interpreter of the works of Latin American composers.

Leading her orchestra, she recently recorded, for the first time, the ballet score from “La Coronela” by Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas. Due out in the next few months is the world premiere recording of the “Amerindia” symphony by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

“Maestra Ben-Dor,” noted the Los Angeles Times, “is just the conductor we have been looking for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers.”

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