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

Tel Aviv’s Anat Cohen again takes clarinet award

For the fifth straight year, Tel Aviv native Anat Cohen received the clarinetist of the year award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

The awards were presented Saturday in New York City.

Cohen’s last CD, “Clarinetwork,” featured the music of legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman. It was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 2009 during a weeklong centennial tribute to Goodman and included Benny Green on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.

In 2007, Cohen was the first woman and the first Israeli to headline the famed New York City jazz club.

Based in New York since 1999, she is widely regarded as well for her versatility on the tenor saxophone, playing contemporary jazz as well as Brazilian choro and other world music.

Cohen, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, provides an important modern voice for an instrument that is no longer widely played, according to Larry Monroe, Berklee’s vice president of international programs.

Monroe praised her strong musicality and superb technique, as well as her great sense of the clarinet’s tradition and tremendous vision of where it might go.

“I am not at all surprised by her success,” he said.

Cohen’s brothers, Yuval and Avishai, also are acclaimed jazz musicians. Together they have recorded as the Three Cohens.

Cohen told JTA that she is headed to Israel for a guest appearance at the Giv’ataim Theater with the Shtricker Big Band conducted by her brother Yuval. Later this summer she is scheduled to perform in New York, Montreal and at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen — so many roads

Jazz stays vital by virtue of the young players who step up and bring something new to the music. One of the most delightful “arrivals” to the jazz world in the past several years is Israeli-born clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, who performs a free concert Tuesday night at the Hollywood & Highland complex. She combines virtuosity with warmth, the experimental with the universal, and an eclecticism that avoids the pitfalls of mish-mosh.

The clarinet has had a shrunken profile in jazz since the demise of the big band era, roughly 60 years ago. Clarinet-playing bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw (both of Russian-Jewish heritage, not coincidentally) and Woody Herman kept the demanding reed instrument in the public ear, playing for dancers and listeners alike. In the interim, the instrument divided its limited exposure to two camps: the jazz avant-garde and traditional revivalists. Virtuosos like the late Kenny Davern and Evan Christopher explore traditional jazz, while Perry Robinson and John Carter innovated in the jazz avant-garde. Don Byron has been the principal contemporary jazz clarinetist of the last 20 years, reimagining jazz repertory and klezmer toward his own ends.

In Anat (pronounced a-NOT) Cohen’s music, Israeli songs, jazz, Brazilian choros, klezmer, Cuban habaneras and more all have a place. Speaking from her home in New York, she said, “Clarinet is a natural folkloric instrument of world music. With it I can have the classical feel, but I can also bend the notes and play the subtones of jazz.”

She was a classical music student in Tel Aviv from a musical family (her brothers Avishai and Yuval have jazz careers in New York, as well) when she heard the siren call of jazz. “My younger brother Avishai was my first influence,” Cohen states. “He picked up the trumpet, and I listened to him. The way he played — with the half valves and the smears — made me want to play like him. I had a strong classical foundation, but I switched my major to jazz in high school.”

“The clarinet is not so dominant in Israeli music as it is in klezmer,” Cohen continues. “I heard klezmer when I was growing up, but for some reason I avoided it. I listened to Louis Armstrong instead. But the sense of melody is the connection between jazz and klezmer. They both use simple, minor melodies, and you can bend the notes. The same thing happens in choro and the music of other cultures. You can laugh and cry on the instrument; it’s really expressive.”

The jazz world has taken notice of Cohen through her work with the swing-rooted big band Diva, Brazilian drummer Duduka Da Fonseca’s band, the sibling group 3 Cohens she shares with Avishai and Yuval, the Gully Low Jazz Band, Pedro Ramos’ Choro Ensemble and her own Anzic Orchestra and small group. Last year, she won Downbeat magazine’s Rising Star award in the clarinet category and was voted Best Clarinetist by the Jazz Journalist Association, an international body.

Brazilian music is something she particularly enjoys. “It’s intimate and sensual,” Cohen reveals, “yet it’s for the people. Being in Brazil is fantastic because the people know the songs, and they join in with the singer. Everybody feels the music.”

The 33 year-old Cohen makes her local debut as a bandleader Thursday at the free “Wine, Jazz, and Moonlight” series (she visited as a sidewoman with the all-woman Diva on a couple of earlier occasions). She fields a quartet of keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Ben Street and drummer Daniel Freedman. They’ll be playing music from the upcoming “Notes From the Village” album on Cohen’s Anzic label.

Aside from her originals, Cohen takes a thoughtful (if far-ranging) approach to standards. She takes Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” at double the usual tempo, executing the staccato theme like a football player high-stepping through tires at top speed. Her solo, though, is a playful dance of phrases with upturned ends and a paraphrase of an Irish jig. Sam Cooke’s civil rights lament, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is full of soulful gravitas, with equal parts of mourning and hope.

Does she see herself as an Israeli ambassador to the music? “I definitely see myself as an international musician,” Cohen says. “When I play, I respect the source of the music, whether it’s Cuban, Brazilian or Israeli. I try to bring that to all of the music I play. Music has no borders and no flags.”

Told that her playing radiates a life force, she clarifies the point. “Israeli music,” she concludes, “has a lot of life — joy, but also a lot of sadness. My everyday life is not just walking around on clouds. But you have to give the really special things in life importance and not let the temporary things roll you off the road.”

The Anat Cohen Quartet will perform July 29 at 7 p.m. as part of the Wine, Jazz and Moonlight series at 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.