Renowned Israeli Composer Noam Sheriff Carries Jewish History on His Shoulders

November 18, 2012 2:27 am 0 comments

Noam Sheriff conducting. Photo: Mahler1234/Wikimedia Commons.

NEW YORK—Noam Sheriff, conductor of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and 2011 winner of the Israel Prize (largely regarded as the state’s highest honor) in music, believes decades of experience gives him a unique perspective on major prizes.

“If I were 20 or 30, the excitement would be overwhelming,” the 77-year-old Sheriff, one of Israel’s leading conductors, said in a recent interview with JNS.org just before his composition, Mechaye Hametim (Hebrew for “Revival of the Dead”), was performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. “Now, I see things from a different angle—a different kind of excitement. One is the feeling that, on my shoulders, I carry a very long history of the Jewish people. It does not matter from where they come—Poland, Germany Morocco, Syria, Russia Iraq—they are Jewish people.”

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of conductor Zubin Mehta, presented Sheriff’s symphony during a historic program that included three major compositions, all written by composers of Jewish heritage at its gala concert Oct. 25.  Also performed were Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre and Felix Mendelsohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor. But Sheriff’s composition, Mechaye Hametim, commissioned by a Dutch Holocaust survivor as a memorial to Jews murdered in the Holocaust, was the headliner.

Following the concert that evening, speaking from a balcony at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Mehta greeted and warmly thanked members of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic (AFIPO). Mehta, who is celebrating more than 50 years as conductor and musical director of the orchestra, was exuberant. “In New York, even in Beijing, we are reaching the people,” he said.

The afternoon before the gala event, Sheriff spoke with JNS.org about the interplay of music and language, and of music and philosophy. “A composer,” he said, “sometimes is expected to act like a composer,” he said.

What does that mean, exactly?

“Absent-minded, impractical, a wild look—perhaps a red scarf—like other artists! But composers always look like bank officials—very square… Musicians, classical musicians, are not people of small talk,” Sheriff explained.

In July 2012, the Mechaye Hametim composition was played during the opening performance of what Sheriff termed the “shrine” of classical music, the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Sheriff marveled at how “unexpectedly well” the “very selective Salzburg audience” had received his music.

“If this work was accepted by the keen musicologists of Salzburg, approved and recommended, it is something which transcends nationality and becomes universal,” he said. “That is my main concern—not about myself, but about all that is known as Jewish music—not only klezmer music or melodies of the hazanim (cantors).”

Months after Salzburg, on the day of the symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut, Sheriff’s excitement was palpable. He expressed great gratitude to New York Times music critic James R. Oestreich, whose critique titled “A New Faith in Classical Music,” appeared on the paper’s front page.

Sheriff told JNS.org that the composition “is a portrayal of the Jewish people” and offers a melodic narrative of Jewish history, including Diaspora Jewish life before the Holocaust and the Holocaust itself, as well as Jewish revival and renaissance in Israel. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the piece in Amsterdam in 1987.

“For me, it is subjective—like closing a circle,” Sheriff said. “Gustav Mahler, I believe the greatest Jewish composer, practiced conducting in New York. In Mahler’s compositions, you find the quintessential element of what I understand is being a Jew.”

With a bit of laughter, he added: “Being a conductor and a composer is very Jewish… I am speaking of composing and conducting as two sides of the same coin. In the end, it is the composition that remains. Yet, it will stay dormant on paper—it needs someone to bring it to life.”

Sheriff is deeply engaged in Judaism. About the Jewish state, he said “To me, it was always Israel. I was born in Israel [in 1935]. I grew up in Israel. Israel is where I live… First I am a Jew, second I am Israeli.”  He continued, “Being a Jew is not only a religion or a nationality. It is the yearning to achieve another dimension trying to combine the dualism built in nature—the physical and the spiritual of the human being. This is not easily understood… For me, the senses are built so that you can combine them to give a virtual third dimension. Each sense contributes something different.”

Referring to the physical, he noted that, “The dichotomy is reflected in the two hemispheres of the brain. When the brain is in perfect harmony, another dimension is achieved.”

Sheriff called the Hebrew language “something that actually looks like a miracle.” He spoke about its influence on the creation of music.

“It is a language that came back to life—something extremely rare,” he said.  “Little children speak the language of the Bible… Language is the territory of the Jewish people, not only land. The real place of a nation is where its language came to life. Music has to be based in language: in this respect, I write my music from the very ancient bases.”

When Sheriff was awarded the Israel Prize in 2011, he said he “had no feelings at all.” After 50 years teaching conducting, “they made it official,” he said of the honor. “I know how [teaching music] should be done,” he said. “The knowledge of the theoretical—of music, notes, and the technical part—is only 50 percent. The other 50 percent is a question of personality and idiosyncrasies.”

The conductor speculated that perhaps he did not have a strong reaction to the Israel Prize because he was “spoiled,” recalling moments such as “being in the limelight with ‘Lenny’ Bernstein at the 1957 opening of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv (when Sheriff’s Festival Prelude made its premier).”

JNS.org also asked Sheriff for his thoughts about politics and peace.

Scher tsu zein a Yid (it’s difficult to be a Jew)” he said. “I’ve been through five wars [in Israel]. One cannot hold a dialogue unless one creates the ground for a common terminology and defines the terms. Words are very important—they are vehicles of thinking – points of knowledge that influence a pattern of thinking. All I wish now is good health and clearness. Will there be peace? I don’t know what is peace.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Sports Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Three years ago, kayaking coach Roei Lev found aspiring Olympian Ilya Podpolnyy crying on the steps of the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Podpolnyy, then 17 years old, had just been disqualified from the Israeli kayaking championship. He couldn’t survive the heats. He didn’t make the start line. He was devastated—and he had no one with whom to share his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointment. His divorced parents still live in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.