January 21, 2019

Haifa Symphony: Welcome to America, finally

For Polish conductor Boguslaw Dawidow, long tours with symphony orchestras have become a way of life. In 2011, as music director of the Opole Philharmonic of Poland, he took the orchestra on its first transcontinental United States tour, which included 48 concerts in 19 states. Now, as principal guest conductor of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra of Israel, Dawidow is leading 78 musicians on their first U.S. tour. 

While the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra are both well known, Haifa Symphony’s brand is less so. But the orchestra, founded in 1950, is a major musical center for the northern part of Israel, with a mission of bringing classical music to places without a symphony orchestra. 

With the U.S. tour, however, it appears to be making a move toward wider recognition, if not international stature.  

“The musicians were a little scared,” Dawidow said by phone while waiting to join the orchestra on a bus headed out of snowy New York to its next destination in Virginia. “It’s a daunting prospect to be doing 38 concerts in two months. But they are doing fine. They are accommodating to the winter climate. It helps that so far we’ve been given a surprisingly warm reception. Audiences are accepting us and liking everything.”

On March 9 and 10, the Haifa Symphony performs at the Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State University, Northridge. The first concert features Weber’s “Euryanthe” Overture, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The following morning, the program changes to Weber, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Before its last tour stop, on March 16 at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall, the orchestra’s California visit also includes appearances in Palm Desert, San Rafael and at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The Haifa Symphony is a full-time orchestra that works year-round and is supported by the city. There’s also a jazz band, mixed and children’s choirs, and programs for young people. 

Dawidow, who has served as principal guest conductor since 2011, admits his programming is typical of most touring orchestras — low-risk, standard repertory fare. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, for example, are frequently rated most popular by audiences.

But Dawidow pointed out that six of the tour stops would include Israeli composer Uri Bracha’s “Melodies for Mount Carmel.” Although the score, infused with a Romantic feel, never gets more modern-sounding than Stravinsky and Bartók, it’s not often performed here.

“Modern Jewish repertory is characteristic programming of the Haifa Symphony,” Dawidow, 59, said. “The choices for the tour, as much as possible, represent the music I love and that the audience will love.”

Along with the Tchaikovsky concerto, Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich will be performing another beloved score: Rachmaninoff’s melodically gorgeous Piano Concerto No. 2. At the March 9 concert in Northridge, he plays the composer’s fearsome Piano Concerto No. 3, widely regarded as the most technically challenging concerto in the standard repertoire.

“I’m doing four different programs,” Rabinovich, 28, said. “I’ve played six concerts so far, including one with Beethoven’s third piano concerto. I have 22 more to go. It’s a great opportunity for me to get these pieces under my fingers, and I’m really developing a deeper relationship with the orchestra and music.”

Rabinovich, a gold medal winner at the 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, made his debut at age 10 with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. His first recording, “Ballets Russes,” released last year, features music of Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky.

“I experiment with each performance,” Rabinovich said. “The hall’s acoustics, the piano you are given — every time is different. When a piano is out of tune, it can be frustrating. You do your best and use your imagination to connect the piano’s limitations to the sound that’s in your head. The power of imagination — it works most of the time.”

The pianist met Dawidow just two weeks before the tour began on Jan. 22, though he has performed with the Haifa Symphony since he was a kid. He recalled being “11 or 12 years old” when he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 with the orchestra.

“The maestro has amazing energy,” Rabinovich said of Dawidow. “A lot of the time, it’s a gamble, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but musically speaking, we’re on the same page.”

Dawidow recalled being impressed after hearing Rabinovich in a solo recital. “This was a musician who could immerse himself in the music,” Dawidow said. “He has a style, but every time he plays, it’s different. His power makes me want to push a bit, and he gives back. Every concert brings more freedom and beauty. We don’t have to watch and think what might happen, because we feel it.”

The conductor said it’s his own provocative nature that got this tour off the ground: “I provoked the orchestra’s management and started to work with Columbia Artists Management on the idea,” Dawidow said. “I wanted to show the Haifa musicians America. If you don’t push, it doesn’t happen.”

Dawidow feels the same way about audiences reluctant to let classical music into their lives. “The public is interested in classical music, even if they don’t know it yet,” he said. “Music makes life easier. I show people that without classical — Schubert, Strauss and others — there would be no pop.” 

Like Leonard Bernstein, one of his teachers, Dawidow wants to take audiences on a memorable musical ride. “To be great, Bernstein taught me, you must be simple,” he said. “I’m looking for a simplicity that becomes open to the public. You have to be flexible. I must feel the audience is with me.”  

Rabinovich said the orchestra’s large Russian contingent is mostly responsible for producing a rich string sound and that its younger members are starting to make major contributions. “A lot of the winds are young people, and that section has a wonderful energy,” Rabinovich said. “It’s a nice mix.”

Dawidow, who loves to travel, called it “a pity” the U.S. tour is “only” 38 concerts. “It’s hard to say where I reside,” Dawidow said. “I’m a traveling conductor, so my life starts when I’m on the stage. I plan to be on the stage all the way.”

For tickets or information about the Haifa Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performances in Northridge and Costa Mesa, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.