The Conductor Gary Bertini: A Musical Driving Force

The Conductor Gary Bertini: A Musical Driving Force

The Conductor Gary Bertini: A Musical Driving Force

Michal Zmora-Cohen

It is customary in the world of music to distinguish between those who create it and those who perform it. This gives the impression that music makers belong to two separate worlds: one creates the music and leaves it in its embryonic state, the other brings it out into the world; the one composes the music as notes on paper, the other sets it free, turning the creator’s notes into audible reality.

Not so! If we look beyond the confines of 20th century art music, we can clearly see that, in most musical cultures, creators were also performers. Performers, for their part, do not serve as mere executants; they shape the music, interpret it and perpetually re-create it.

If this division into creators and performers is misguided in most cases, it is glaringly misleading when applied to Gary Bertini, one of Israel’s greatest musicians who, sadly, was snatched from us so suddenly by death. Gary was an architect of music. He constantly envisioned and planned the performing bodies of which he was in charge, improved them and continually raised their stature. His unique quality cannot be fully appreciated by pointing to a specific concert under his direction; it was discernible, above all, in the vision of his grand designs and in his constructive work, which led to the successful establishment of splendid musical institutions.

It was Gary Bertini who, in the 1960s, initiated concerts dedicated to contemporary music – long before such events became fashionable; it was he who, as musical adviser for the Batsheva Dance Company, inspired Israeli composers to write serious dance music; it was he who formed ‘Rinat’, the Israel Chamber Choir, and brought it up to a standard of excellence in choir singing hitherto unknown in Israel; it was he who created the Israel Chamber Ensemble, a unique musical body which combined voices and instruments into a basically complete entity; it was he who brought the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, IBA, to the splendid heights it attained during the years when he was its music director; and it was he who thought out and steered the artistic course of the New Israeli Opera during his tenure as its artistic director. 

As a planner and architect of music Gary Bertini enjoyed spreading his wings wide and hovering, like a great eagle, over music centres of the world. He served, at various periods, as the artistic director of the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, the Hamburg Opera House, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the Rome Opera House, and the San Carlo Opera House in Naples – a post which he took up a few months before his death. He was also principal guest conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra and artistic consultant of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and appeared frequently with major international ensembles, including the Scottish Opera, the Paris National Opera, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the La Scala Opera in Milan. He recently appeared in Moscow and at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, at the invitation of their music director Valery Gergiev. 

Yet it seems to me that his greatest contribution was in shaping and promoting Israeli music. He was bound, as if by a Gordian knot, to the music of Mordecai Seter, his revered teacher and mentor; he often conducted his Sabbath Cantata, Jerusalem Symphony, Midnight Vigil and Ricercar, recorded them, and introduced them to audiences and ensembles all over the world. He conducted two operas by Josef Tal and Israel Eliraz, Ashmedai and The Temptation, in Hamburg and Munich; here in Israel he premiered their first electronic opera Massada 967, and their opera Josef, which he conducted at the New Israeli Opera. He also premiered Ben-Zion Orgad’s cantata The Old Decrees and Mark Kopytman’s Memory, and promoted many of these composers’ other works. In the last months of his life he immersed himself in Joseph Bardanashvili’s opera A Journey to the End of the Millennium, based on A.B. Yehoshua’s novel, in preparation for its forthcoming world premier at the New Israeli Opera in May. I am not aware of any major Israeli composition that has not been performed by Gary Bertini; no other musician contributed quite so much to the success of Israeli music. We can not imagine what we would have lost, and how much poorer Israel’s musical life would have been, were it not for the splendid work of Gary Bertini.

Gary was born on 1 May 1927 in Brichevo (then in Rumania, now part of Moldavia). After staying with his grandparents in the village, he and his parents moved to the town of Soroka, where his father, the poet and writer K. A. Bertini, was the principal of the local ‘Tarbut’ Hebrew high school. During the Second World War, he was sent to a camp in Bessarabia, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Red Army. He reached Eretz-Israel at the end of 1946. He studied music at the Music Teachers’ College in Tel Aviv, then in Milan and later at the Paris Conservatoire. On his return, he worked for a while at the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Folk Music Department, before devoting his powers and energies to promoting choral music in Israel – not least through the establishment of ‘Rinat’ – and to developing and shaping other musical bodies which he founded and conducted. He also made an invaluable contribution to Israeli theatre, as the composer of incidental music for about forty plays produced by ‘Habima’ (Israel National Theatre) and the Cameri Theatre.

His education made Gary a true man of the world, who spoke and understood over eight languages. But in his heart he always remained an Israeli and an enthusiastic Zionist. He was bound heart and soul with all that took place in Israel and strove tirelessly to give as much as he could of himself to the advancement and development of the musical life of his country. Gary was also a grand master in the field of friendship; the circle of people who were close to him enveloped him in their devotion, stood by him at the difficult moments in life and drew upon the generous gift of his friendship, which was beneficent and encouraging.

We all grieve for him we lost and is no more.

Michal Zmora-Cohen, a musicologist and lecturer, was former head of the Music Division of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and former head of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.