I had the pleasure of interviewing conductor, harpsichordist, teacher and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, Dr. David Shemer.
Pamela: David, would you like to tell us about your childhood and early musical training?
David: Yes. I was born in Riga. My parents were not musicians; my father loved music but had never taken any lessons. It was clear to people close to me that I was musical and, like any good Jewish child, I began learning the violin when I was five and a half. This went well and I was sent to the school for musically gifted children run by The Riga Academy of Music. I enjoyed school as well as studying in small classes. But the violin was not what I really wanted to play and I decided to make Music Theory my major, graduating in theoretical subjects in 1970. I applied to study at the Rimsky Korsakov Conservatory in what was then Leningrad, but was not accepted for reasons not connected with music. I was, however, accepted to the Riga Academy of Music to study Music Theory and Musicology; I was a student there from 1970 to1971. In 1971 we applied to make aliya to Israel and ended up being refuseniks for two years, during which I was not officially studying at any institution. But a group of us at the Academy had formed a chamber orchestra and I was interested in finding music suited to an ensemble of that kind. What I came across was Baroque repertoire – J.S.Bach and Handel – and, for the first time in my life, I played the continuo part, but on the piano, as there was no harpsichord there.
Pamela: So in 1973 you migrated to Israel.
David: Yes. I arrived in Israel in August 1973, two months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The academic year was to begin later that year, due to the war and I, with my poor Hebrew, was enrolled to study Musicology at Tel Aviv University. It soon became clear to me that Musicology was not what I wanted to be studying: I wanted to be conducting and went to discuss the matter with Maestro Mendi Rodan in Jerusalem. My friend Valery Maisky was teaching harpsichord in Jerusalem and I decided to go there to study with him. However, as fate would have it, by the time I had moved to Jerusalem, Maisky was no longer teaching there. I did study harpsichord with Professor Haim Alexander. The instruments available at the time were what were called “plucking pianos”, built by William de Blaise. At the time I had no idea how far they were from beingthe real thing, but there were no other instruments…and, anyway, I had, by now, fallen in love with the harpsichord. After graduating in theory, conducting and harpsichord from the Jerusalem Academy of Music I was conscripted into the army to do my compulsory service.
While in the army, I completed an M.A. in choral- and orchestral conducting and took lessons from pianist Boris Berman on the harpsichord. I learned so much from Berman, played on a more satisfactory harpsichord and began to broaden my knowledge about historical instruments. Boris Berman is one of the most brilliant people I have come across and a wonderful person, too.
Pamela: What were your plans after your release from the army?
David: On completing my army service, I was fortunate to win a British Council scholarship and left for England to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London. The truth is that I was not sure what I really wanted to be studying there - probably harpsichord, probably conducting. My heart was already set on historical performance, not so much for historical reasons, but because I just loved it! Hearing so much wonderful early music in England made me want to bring it back and establish it in Israel. At the Guildhall School of Music I studied harpsichord with Christopher Kite, the first authentic harpsichordist under whom I was to study; then with David Roblou, taking performance practice with Philip Pickett (of the New London Consort) and French Baroque style with Stephen Preston. We also had lessons in Renaissance and Baroque dance, which I loved. Staying on in London to continue private study, I took a job with El Al as a member of their security staff and went on to study harpsichord under Trevor Pinnock; however, the harpsichord teacher who was to have the strongest influence on my playing was Jill Severs. Severs, not a performer herself, has taught many harpsichordists of repute; I have never learned as much about playing the instrument as I did with Severs.
Pamela: When did you return to Israel?
David: I returned to Israel end of 1982. On my return, I gave a lecture-recital at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and was consequently invited to join the teaching faculty. At the Academy I teach harpsichord, Baroque performance practice, theoretical subjects and musical forms and analysis.
Pamela: You have recently finished a doctorate. Can you tell us about that?
David: Yes. From 2003 to 2004, I spent a year at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to pursue their DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) program. I studied harpsichord under Arthur Haas. Haas and I really got along well and the year was a very stimulating one for me. During that year and in the year following that, requirements were to perform six recitals, to do the programming, write program notes and to take a colloquium. One of the concerts was a lecture-recital on harpsichord music by Israeli composers. I graduated in 2007.
Pamela: It is almost 20 years since the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was founded. Can you tell us about this illustrious ensemble and its history?
David: Yes. In the 1980’s there were already quite a number of Baroque orchestras in Europe and the USA. The American harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg in collaboration with the Jerusalem Music Centre endeavored to set up a Baroque orchestra here. Goldberg brought out some excellent musicians for the project, but it did not work out. Some local musicians then claimed that if I did not take the opportunity to set up a Baroque orchestra in Jerusalem, nobody would. So, somehow, the chance to combine my two predilections - Baroque music and conducting - just fell into my lap! I began to look for suitable players – not an easy task. There certainly are more Baroque experts around now than there were then. Some musicians started their careers of playing Baroque music with us and, consequently, went overseas to continue their studies in the field, to return some years later; some did not return. With so much interest in playing and listening to early music now, there are players of modern instruments who want to experience playing Baroque instruments. Running the JBO has been a hard financial struggle, but we are about to celebrate the twenty years of our existence with a festive concert on June 29 2009. Our very first concert was June 29, 1989 and that was a year and a half after we had begun to rehearse together.
We have come a long way in the twenty years. With Andrew Parrott as honorary conductor, the JBO hosts many fine guest artists, broadening its repertoire and attracting new players and larger audiences. One of our aims is to add more wind players, enabling us to perform a larger selection of works. The ideas behind the programming are mine and I am happy with the results: audiences are hearing Baroque works that are new to them and developing a taste for this elegant body of music. These twenty years have taught me that that our continuing existence and progress are not to be taken for granted!
Pamela: And the Israeli audience?
David: I love the audience and Israeli audiences in particular. They are such an adrenaline booster! Playing for audiences makes you perform as you would never do without them. So the audiences are an important part of the JBO and we are happy with them, especially with our subscribers. Israeli audiences can be conservative at times, but they are warm and supportive.
As an audience member myself, I see music as an adventure, its enigmas forming much of its fascination. One of my most enjoyable pastimes is sitting in libraries and chancing upon some little-known gem of a work. I like to hear new musical approaches and, of course, to hear new works being performed.
Pamela: Talking of musical adventures, you have been performing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in recent years.
David: Yes. However, at a certain stage of my professional life it became clear to me that, not being a keyboard player from early childhood, I would never perform the “Goldberg Variations”. Then, in 1990, when performing in Hanover, Germany, I went to see harpsichord builder Tilman Skowroneck at his workshop in Bremen and had my name added to his waiting list. I wanted him to build me a two-manual harpsichord and knew it might mean waiting for ten years. It actually took eleven years and I took delivery of this wonderful instrument, my first two-manual harpsichord, seven years ago. It stood to reason that I should now begin working on the “Goldberg Variations”, (which calls for a two-manual harpsichord); one of my performances of it was for the doctoral program. Each time I go back to working on the mammoth work, it means taking a fresh look at it. Two months ago, I recorded the “Goldberg Variations”. With the number of recordings of it to choose from on disc, one could ask why we need another one. Individual players have very different interpretations of it; this one is mine!
Pamela: David, it has been very interesting talking to you. Thank you for giving our readers a glimpse into your professional life. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra has greatly enriched Israel’s concert life. We at “Living in Harmony” offer you our congratulations on twenty years of fine Baroque orchestral performance and look forward to many more years of JBO concerts.