Gary Bertini: Influential Figure in Israeli Musical Life

Gary Bertini: Influential Figure in Israeli Musical Life

Gary Bertini: Influential Figure in Israeli Musical Life

Martin Anderson

More than any other musician, the conductor Gary Bertini brought Israeli music-making to a standard that could readily bear international comparison.

Gary Bertini, conductor: born Brichevo, Romania 1 May 1927; founder and music director, Rinat (Israeli Chamber) Choir 1955-72; founder and Chief Conductor, Chamber Orchestra of Israel 1965-75; Principal Guest Conductor, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1971-81; Musical Director, Symphony Orchestra of Jerusalem 1978-86; Musical Adviser, Detroit Symphony Orchestra 1981-83; Chief Conductor, Radio Cologne Symphony Orchestra 1983-91; General Music Director, Frankfurt Opera 1987-90; Artistic Director, New Israeli Opera 1994-2005; Musical Director, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra 1997-2005; married Rose Berengolc (two daughters); died Tel Hashomer, Israel 17 March 2005.

The founder-fathers of Israeli music were composers like Paul Ben-Haim and Stefan Wolpe, refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bertini built on those foundations, establishing a performance tradition in choral, orchestral and operatic work that will long outlive him. Of course, he was internationally respected, too; in fact, he was in Paris, where he was a frequent guest conductor, when he was hospitalised several weeks ago; three weeks ago, he was transferred to a medical centre just outside Tel Aviv, allowing him to die in the country whose musical life he had done so much to enrich.

Bertini was born in 1927 in Brichevo, in Bessarabia, then part of Romania; his mother was a biologist and doctor and his father was K.A. Bertini, the poet and translator. Taken to Palestine as a boy, Gary Bertini began violin lessons when he was 16.

He attended the Milan Conservatoire in 1948, continuing his studies at the Tel Aviv College of Music with Mordecai Seter and George Singer, graduating in 1951. Thereupon he turned to Europe, studying conducting and composition in Paris, at the Ecole Normale de Musique and the Conservatoire. At the Sorbonne, Jacques Chailley was the leading French musicologist; Bertini studied with him.

Bertini returned to Israel in 1954, and his career took off immediately – not least because of his own decisive action: he founded the Rinat Choir (later the Israeli Chamber Choir) in 1955, remaining its music director until 1972 and introducing Israeli audiences to first-rate choral singing for the first time, the repertoire ranging from early music to contemporary composers. In 1965 he likewise established the Israeli Chamber Ensemble, bringing it to world standard in his 10 years there.

He was soon attracting interest further afield. He spent a decade, from 1971, as principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, where he also worked with Scottish Opera. Thereafter he spent two years as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before moving on to the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Cologne for eight years as principal conductor, until 1991, his last four years there spent concurrently as Intendant and Generalmusikdirektor of the opera house in Frankfurt am Main. Rome Opera summoned him as music director in 1997, and this season (2004-05) saw him begin as musical director at the San Carlo Opera in Naples. It was also the last of his seven years as musical director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

Meanwhile, he had become one of the most influential figures in Israeli music, as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for nine years, from 1978, artistic adviser of the Israel Festival from 1976 to 1983, and artistic director of the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv from 1994, a post he still held at his death.

Bertini was a frequent guest conductor elsewhere, appearing regularly with the Berlin and Israel philharmonic orchestras, among others. He was often seen in the opera pit at the Bastille Opera in Paris, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and La Scala in Milan.

Bertini was awarded the Israel Prize in 1987, in honour of his work for music in his adoptive land. Italy’s music critics endowed the Abiati Prize on him twice: Best Conductor in 1995 and Best Operatic Conductor three years later. Their French colleagues agreed, pinning a Grand Prix on his recordings of Britten’s opera Billy Budd and Prokofiev’s War and Peace (Warner).

Bertini was proud of the breadth of his repertoire, which stretched from his contemporaries – Luigi Dallapiccola, Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti, Darius Milhaud, Mordecai Seter and Josef Tal among them – back to Josquin, whose life straddled the 15th and 16th centuries. He had a generous number of first performances to his credit, including recordings of some 20 Israeli premieres. He was particularly good at the simultaneous articulation of detail and structure in large-scale works. His account of the Berlioz Requiem and his cycle of the complete Mahler Symphonies drew high praise from the critics.

But then Bertini was not only a conductor: he had that extra insight that came from being a composer himself, with orchestral works (including a ballet and a horn concerto), incidental music for some 40 plays, chamber works and songs to his credit. He was particularly active as a composer in the period after his studies, although he received the Israel State Prize for composition as late as 1978.

To his orchestras Bertini, though technically invigorating, could sometimes appear rather aloof. His agent, Thomas Jung, conceded,

“He could be severe – but with himself as well. He was a grand seigneur, a wonderful man, of wide learning and interests; he spoke eight languages. He was a warm-hearted personality, always open to the new, always youthful and modern in spirit.”

Bertini’s last appearances came in January, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and with the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow – triumphantly received.     

Published in Independent, 25/03/2005