Renowned Israeli Composer Noam Sheriff Carries Jewish History on His Shoulders
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.”