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I was born in St. Petersburg and was named after my grandfather’s name, who was a Shochet and a Baal Tefila in Proskurov (today's Khmielnitzki, not far from Medzhibosh). The grandson of rabbis on both sides, I was raised as a “secular atheist" and knew very little, if anything, about Judaism.
My music studies started with violin at age 5, piano at age 7 and when I was 15 (in 1966), we moved to Israel. I graduated from Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music in conducting and composition, and went on to Europe to train as a conductor in Saltzburg,Vienna, Rome, Stuttgart, London under such figures as Sergiu Celibidache and Franco Ferara.
I attended major conducting courses in Europe, until in the summer of 1979 I was accepted as a Fellow Conductor at the prestigious Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, USA. There I met Leonard Bernstein, who coached me for a concert in which we shared the podium (I conducted in the first half, and he did in the second). After that summer he invited me to be his assistant conductor with the Vienna State Opera. Working with the Maestro, the person whom I greatly admired, was an exhilarating experience.
All these years, I was in a “constant search for the truth”, which ultimately led to a change in my life. Shortly after that project, a friend invited me to meet “a special type” of intellectual people in New York. We came to Crown Heights by subway from Manhattan and met with R’ Yoel Kahn.
That night, around Sabbath table, I heard Hassidic nigunim (tunes) for the first time in my life. All my rich previous musical experiences were put at once into a different perspective. None of them succeeded in such a way to simply enter into the innermost part of my being, leaving me stripped of all the external ‘shells” (for once I had realized they were external), and letting me just be there, whole and at one…
I became a frequent visitor in Crown Heights, started to learn Torah and Hassidus and after a couple of weeks moved there to stay with R’Yoel. At the same time I was getting ready for the BBC-Rupert International Young Conductors' Competition in London. I decided to write to the Rebbe and to ask him for his blessing. In a few days after that, R’Yoel brought me a reply from the Rebbe's secretary. In the letter there were 5 English Pounds, and a promise by Rebbe to mention my name on his father in law's (previous Rebbe's) grave site, which, as I was told , was a blessing in itself. Besides that, Rebbe suggested, that I should check my Tefilin. I was surprised, and R.Yoel even more so – Tefillin, that he himself brought me just a couple of weeks ago, were brand new. Nevertheless, he took them to sofer, who found in the Tefillin three different mistakes!
A day before my trip to London, R’Yoel gave me a tape : ”Listen to it sometimes, when you're free ”- he said.
The week of the competition was extremely intense, demanding and excruciating. Day and night I studied the difficult and previously unfamiliar pieces on the program. Every evening after the first and second days I was told on the phone, that I was chosen to proceed to the next stage.
On the third morning, having slept for an hour and a half, I left my room for the BBC Radio Studio to conduct at the semifinals, among four remaining competitors.
That morning I stood on the conductor's podium (stage), soon to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra and felt like my “self” ceasing to exist and totally surrendering myself into the hands of Kodosh Borukh Hu … I raised my hands… and the Rebbe's blessing is materializing in front of my amazed eyes. It was looked like the Orchestra started playing as if by itself, and splendidly! I only moved my hands to the music! I don't know how it all went…It was simply unbelievable and thrilling!
And sure enough, I was chosen to proceed to the final stage, held the next day, which was a public concert, along with another competitor.
After the concert the jury retreated for a brief discussion and announced the results: I was named the first prize winner!
Everything after that was like in a dream. I remember myself returning to my room very tired, exited and worn out. Next morning I woke up late, nowhere to rush anymore. But I also felt a little empty after two month of intense daily preparations… Suddenly my eyes fell on R’Yoel’s tape, which was lying in my open suitcase. I put it into the tape recorder and, suddenly : “Tzo-ma Le-kho Naf-shi…" Rebbe’s voice filled up my small room, to be answered by hundreds of voices singing together…
To describe my reaction simply as “deeply moving” would be an understatement: I was at first baffled by the nigun's simplicity, heard it again and again, feeling increasingly defenseless and unable to oppose it's overwhelming power. Rebbe’s singing this nigun somehow pierced my soul. All of a sudden, I broke into crying like a lost child, sobbing bitterly and could not control myself for a long time, I don't know just how long… The competition, my career, my whole life suddenly seemed so irrelevant, so illusory, compared to the truth of this nigun and all it stood for…
Ein Od Milvado! (There’s nothing else beside Him!)
Later, I wrote to Rebbe all about the competition, saying, that everything happened the way it did because of his blessing.
Few months later, during a rehearsal of “Tristan and Isolde” with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in Munich, I told Bernstein, that I would not work on the Sabbath. He was shocked. He tried to convince me to abandon my stubbornness, saying, that conducting on Sabbath would be my divine service. When I wasn't convinced, he added, that refusing at this critical stage of my career was a professional suicide. I remained steadfast…
Our official collaboration ended then, though the two of us remained in touch until his death, in 1990.
Since that significant encounter, I continue working in the field of classical, as well as Jewish music to this day, teaching, composing, playing and recording. I have done numerous arrangements of authentic Hassidic music, both in popular genre and for concert stage.
I have a dream – to have a high-class ensemble, that would perform authentic Jewish music in a variety of styles, to play in it and to conduct it.
I would like to express my endless gratitude to my revered great masters and mentors in the world of music, from Bach to Leonard Bernstein, from Mahler to Chick Corea, too many to mention, as well as to the great Hasidic masters and saints, from R.Yisrael Baal Shem Tov to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, from R.Mikhel of Zlotchov to R. Nachman of Breslov, who, being so close to Creator, remained as close to their people, and whose teachings, stories and tunes revived many souls over the generations and inspired me to try to unite two words, that of Spirit and that of Music – in my own way. May this attempt bring nachas ruach (satisfaction) to all these great souls and above all, to the Infinite Source of All Being, Who helped me through to this day.