Yehuda Gilad teaches the importance of strong minds, muscles and funny bones
Ever since Mozart discovered the clarinet’s versatility and tonal beauty in the 1760s, the instrument has grown in stature, relying on distinguished teachers to keep its wide range of joyous, jazzy, autumnal and rapturous moods thriving. And there’s no better caretaker of the instrument’s legacy than Yehuda Gilad, whose studio at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles is a go-to venue for aspiring professional clarinetists everywhere.
Gilad, who took up the clarinet late (he was already 16) on a kibbutz near Caesarea, Israel, a town midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, discovered he owned an extraordinary gift, or as he put it recently during an interview from the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest 2015 in Madrid, “I was a little bit talented, and very quickly began to do good things.”
Gilad’s comments about his thriving conducting career are equally understated. “I got into conducting by chance,” he said, adding he saw the job as an opportunity to become the “total musician.”
Gilad will conduct the Colburn Orchestra, the conservatory’s flagship ensemble, at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Sept. 27 in a program including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, “Emperor,” with new Colburn faculty member Fabio Bidini as soloist, and Brahms’ sweetly melancholic Symphony No. 2 in D major.
Before that, on Sept. 12, Gilad will lead the first Colburn Chamber Music Society concert at the school’s Zipper Hall, featuring Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 for winds in B-flat major, “Gran Partita.” Listeners may recall the adagio from this score in the acclaimed 1984 film “Amadeus,” in which rival Salieri rhapsodized how Mozart’s use of a clarinet filled him with delight and “such longing, such unfulfillable longing.”
Gilad’s musical life began with a recorder. “It was all we could afford,” he said. His father escaped pogroms in Russia in 1925 and his mother fled Germany in 1936; they met on the kibbutz. “They were pioneers who had three kids. I’m the youngest.”
Gilad said he was virtually penniless after his army service, but that didn’t deter him from moving on. “When you’re at zero,” Gilad explained, “everything you get or achieve is a plus.”
After moving to London and then, in 1975, to Los Angeles, Gilad met the composer, conductor and arts activist Herbert Zipper, whom he called “my teacher, my rabbi, my mentor.” Zipper encouraged Gilad’s conducting career, which began with a six-year stint as music director of the Santa Monica Symphony. Later, as conductor of the Colonial Symphony of New Jersey, Gilad combined conducting and teaching, winning awards for innovative school programs that made music more accessible to students.
Gilad also said he learned from attending classes by conducting masters such as Sergiu Celibidache. “He was a difficult personality,” Gilad said, “but an unbelievable musician. He taught the long line, the inner lines of music that keep the ship moving.”
As music director of the conservatory’s Colburn Orchestra since its inception in 2003, Gilad said he sees between 30 and 50 new faces every September. “This is a big challenge for any conductor, when almost one-half of the orchestra graduates each year,” Gilad said. “Suddenly we have 17-year-olds performing with 23-year-olds. You have to find ways to make them singing musicians, professional musicians.”
Although Gilad still occasionally performs, his work and reputation as a clarinet teacher have taken center stage, with some 100 of his pupils at USC’s Thornton School of Music and the Colburn Conservatory over the years earning positions in major international orchestras.
For Gilad, the recipe for making a good musician includes three things. The first is physical. “To be a great musician, you must train and educate your muscles and fingers, bones and body,” Gilad said. “You have to take care of your machine.”
The second component is developing a philosophy of music and the world, without which, he said, a musician would just be a shell. “This is the depth of my teaching,” Gilad said. “The ‘why’ is the most important. The ‘how’ comes later. It’s about understanding what a work can say and how you can say it.” To perform Stravinsky, for example, one should understand Russian culture and literature in order to discover “your part in it, what you bring to it,” Gilad said.
The third ingredient is a sense of humor. For Gilad, this allows a soloist to “take the ego away, so the music will come through you. This applies to an orchestra as well.”
For clarinetist Signe Sõmer, 24, who started working with him at the Colburn Conservatory in the fall of last year, Gilad is “a living legend.”
“I really like that he is trying to describe a certain atmosphere behind a piece,” she said, adding that while working last year on Sibelius’ Second Symphony, “he managed to describe everything … the people, scenery, the darkness and even the sound of the Finnish language.”
Gilad said when a student is learning a piece, he forbids them to listen to anyone else’s version. “If you are learning Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano,” he said, “I would have you listen to the composer’s String Quartet, ‘Jeux’ [and] ‘Afternoon of a Faun.’ Then the music will come to you. If [you listen to] other artists, you start to copy and lose your own special colors.”
But Gilad doesn’t neglect strictly technical matters. “We have been working on embouchure [the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece], air, and last year I changed my tonguing technique,” Sõmer said.
Sõmer is scheduled to perform Max Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra with the Colburn Orchestra at the Ambassador Auditorium on Feb. 6.
Todd Cope, 30, another former student of Gilad’s who is now principal clarinet of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, recalled his teacher’s three ingredients of a good musician, especially the part about having a sense of humor.
“You have to be able to step back,” Cope said. “Sometimes we take everything so seriously. We’re all guilty of it. … Gilad teaches us that everything’s going to be OK.”
Cope said Gilad encouraged him to compete in international competitions, and “put myself out there.” The level of preparation required, Cope said, paved the way for successful auditions, leading to his present position in Montreal. Cope added that he still goes to see Gilad once or twice a year to play for him. “Once you’re a Gilad student, you’re a student for life,” Cope said.
Gilad seems firmly entrenched in L.A. He is married to Kimaree Gilad, an oboist who played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for 30 years, and they have three grown children.
Yet Gilad is often on the road teaching, performing and conducting. People marvel at his energy. “It doesn’t matter if a student plays for him at the beginning or at the end of the day,” Sõmer said.
“I hate the travel,” Gilad offered, “but I love the stuff I’m doing. Making a difference in people’s lives is rewarding and enriching. It recharges my batteries.”
Yehuda Gilad and the Colburn Orchestra will perform a free community concert at 3 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Valley Performing Arts Center, located at 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. For more information, call (818) 677-8800 or visit