Yaacov Bergman isn’t so much a conductor as he is a semi-conductor. Tall and lanky, his presence energizes a room, rippling from his excited cadence when talking, to the tips of his wiry, grey hair. With roots in Israel, a home base in New York City, and a distinguished career in the Pacific Northwest, is a walking epitome of the classic yet experimental fusion that underscores the Portland Chamber Orchestra. He is a Mozart connoisseur, but he can drive a tractor. He studied under classic icons like Richard Westenburg and Leonard Bernstein, but is known for incorporating multi-media visuals into his productions. He conducts famous orchestras worldwide in bow tie and cummerbund, but he’d like you to call him Yaki. In short, he’s the kind of guy who conducts an orchestra in Portland.
Yaki is an orchestral conductor, and his ability to understand both the big picture and the nuance of how a violin should sound, makes him an incredible conversationalist. He is simultaneously a passionate artist, a curious intellectual and a perceptive man. Our conversation flowed like a philosophy class, where only one student and the eccentric teacher showed up, and wild markings were left on the board afterwards, leaving both inspired. Fundamental to Yaki’s work is his understanding of the connection between the elements –between art and community; history and modernity; intuition and practice. To Yaki, conducting is about keeping it all in balance.
Classical music has a reputation for being highbrow and more separate from everyday life than other art forms. What’s your feeling on that?
People are intimidated by names like Mozart, Beethoven, and people think twice before considering conductors as normal human beings. Part of my success as an artist has come from breaking down those assumptions. I grew up in a kibbutz in Israel. As a child, community was a central part of my life. I grew up learning many instruments –violin was my main instrument –but I made music in connection with community events. I was very much involved with dance, singing, composing music, arranging for the children’s choir, adult’s choir, the orchestra. As I developed as a performing artist, the whole aspect of community was an organic part of what I did. Music is transformative, but you have to connect with people on their level before they’re open to it.
You seem to have found a home away from home here in the Pacific Northwest. How have you connected to people in places like Walla Walla and Portland?
Many orchestras are struggling with audience development and support, and one of the things I have always done is invite the board and the volunteers to establish a reality that enables me to be the guest in private homes. Dinner parties. But not ones with cheesecake –my cholesterol rises too quickly –
(Laughs) Vegan cheesecake from now on!
You sit down and you talk about life, not necessarily about music. When people realize their conductor was a farm boy, that he drove tractors –when we talk about sports and politics– low and behold, you see those people come to a concert. And those are the kinds of people who have never been to a symphony. I can name a number of people who had never been exposed to classical music and became board members because of this accessibility and outreach. It’s transformative.
So that’s a way you can connect on an internal level–but what about in terms of the style of the music you put on? What sort of thing have you done to appeal to a modern day audience?
The evolution of my work as a performing artist goes hand-in-hand with my evolution as a human being. As a young conductor, I had a tremendous appetite to learn more about composers and their lives. I was hungry to embrace the repertoire, and dig into the complexity. Eventually, you develop a palate for certain composers and kinds of music. For example, in order to understand Mozart, it’s not enough to conduct his symphonies; you need to put on his operas. You really learn how he spoke through his music, and while the meaning of his symphonic ideas is not verbal, the narrative becomes clear when you get familiar with all the genres he composed in.
As a conductor, it seems you are a conduit for the composer’s intentions, but many classical composers are long gone. How can you ever know if you are conducting correctly?
That’s a great question. One of the most difficult composers to understand is Mozart, for example. Some composers put everything in the music –the level of the dynamics—even text –that directs you to think in a certain way. But not Mozart. He just gives notes.
It’s like Shakespeare –he didn’t breakdown the characters lines into dialogue, but gave each actor all their lines on one sheet, so they had to figure out when to speak.
Exactly –but it’s even deeper because Mozart himself is deceivingly transparent. If you play Mozart even slightly out of key, it’s obvious. But truly understanding Mozart is a gift, in a way. The truth of the matter is that Mozart is the reason I conduct orchestras. I played the violin my whole life, but my real love was composing and singing. I studied choral conducting first. When I came to New York, after graduating from the academy in Jerusalem, my teacher invited me to sing the orchestral accompaniment.
You had to sing the orchestral music?
Conducting is much more complicated than people think. As a conductor, you have to know every note in the score in order to conduct the piece. Otherwise, you have no business standing in front of professional musicians that expect you to know. During one of these lessons, I was singing one phrase of the orchestral text in the movements of the Requiem, and my teacher stopped me and said, “You know, Yaki, you are a Mozart conductor.” It was a completely new revelation to me. Not just understanding Mozart, but the whole idea of approaching the full spectrum of the music, not just the narrow one as a choral director, but engaging myself in orchestral conducting.
In addition to being a conduit for the composer, you’re also an artist yourself. How does this dynamic manifest –does it ever become your piece, or is it always Mozart’s piece?
There are conductors that if I listen to their productions, I can tell you that it’s “them.” Conducting has to do with interpretation, with sound, phrasing, clarity, emotional depth. And there’s other aspects that come into the realization of the musical composition, which have to do with acoustics, the size of the orchestra, the balance between wind and string –there are a million different considerations. But above all, you will never be able to be successful in front of an orchestra unless you bring a sense of authority. You have to really know what you want. If you balance all of these things right, the most amazing things can be conjured.
What is your relationship with the musicians like?
To be a good conductor is to be able to communicate. Obviously, you have to come with knowledge of the score. You have to know a great deal about each instrument in the orchestras, what they can do, how they can do it. And you have to inspire the musicians to do the best they can. It’s a fine line between knowledge, psychology, personality, understanding the repertoire, having a clear idea of what you want to hear, or what you think the composer would want to hear.
It sounds like there’s a million moving pieces. Before you enter a rehearsal situation where you will be conducting, how do you prepare yourself?
It takes a lifetime of study. You learn techniques, you watch other conductors, you learn from others’ mistakes, and eventually you establish some sort of understanding of how to go about things. In a professional orchestra, you have only four rehearsals, of two and a half hours each. It’s very intense. You have to calculate and prepare yourself in a very professional sense for how you use your time. When I come to rehearsals I have a sticker at different parts of the score. Sometimes it’s just a portion –and I’m always happy if I hit my mark in my rehearsal.
What inspires you currently?
I deal with master works: with remarkable composers that have survived for centuries. Every time I come back to Beethoven’s score, or Mozart’s symphony, it’s a process of discovery. It never stays the same. That’s the great part about being a performing artist –you grow. You realize things that you never saw before. It’s a process of discovery that is so inspirational you can’t even imagine it.
How does your artistic inspiration line up with your work at the Portland Chamber Orchestra?
The Portland Chamber Orchestra’s mission is to create artistic fusion. We call ourselves the intimate symphony with the infinite imagination. You cannot run an orchestra without playing Beethoven and Mozart. They tune the orchestra, they force the orchestra to stand on its toes, and strive for perfection. But all my life I was very involved with all sorts of genres. The balance between the standard repertoire and the fusion is very much who I am.
How exactly, does the orchestra achieve fusion? Do you actively incorporate twenty-first century technology into the music?
We live in a fantastic era where technology is so advanced. In our work, we incorporate projections, visuals that sync with the music, sound effects. For example, we produced an opera written by a Jewish composer killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. There’s one section where nothing happens, it’s very staccato, almost meditative silence mixed with horror. During this section of the piece, we projected a visual of Hitler screaming out one of the most horrible speeches that he ever gave. The combination of the orchestra playing the night dance, his speech, and the stage was one of the most powerful things you can imagine.
Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring provoked a riot in the symphony hall when it first premiered in 1913, because it was too avant-garde. Do you face resistance when being innovative today?
It was actually my teacher Pierre Monteux who conducted the premiere of the Rite of Spring in Paris. I have his markings on my score. His students were always told never to be afraid to bring new music and new composers to the stage, because you never know who will be the next Stravinsky. That said, when the Rite of Spring premiered, the audience was much more conservative. The beauty about today, although we do have some conservative segments of our community, is that there is much more openness and flexibility and leniency towards more experimental music. We do things that are on the cutting edge and stimulating – I have had some sleepless nights before a premiere, because I didn’t know if I would be fired. (Laughs)
One of your more avant-garde productions was the Diary of Anne Frank, and you got to meet the composer. What was that experience like?
Incredible. The Diary of Anne Frank is a powerful opera written by Grigori Frid, a Russian composer. When I heard the music for the first time, I thought why am I ever bothering? It’s almost totally atonal. But as I studied it, I realized I was dealing with a wonderful masterpiece. Once I began to understand the full scope, and the possibilities it offered to bring theater and music together, the whole thing developed into one of the most exciting projects of my career. While he recently passed, I was very fortunate and very lucky to meet him in Moscow. He was so taken by the fact that the Portland Chamber Orchestra was going to do his piece. I have a picture of him looking at the website of the PCO on my iPhone, seeing the poster of his opera. It was special for both of us.
So meeting the composer adds depth to the work you put on?
Absolutely –and it works both ways. Sometimes the composer comes to you and says, “Yaki –you did something I didn’t realize, and I want to mark it on my score.” During my early period in New York as a student, I conducted four or five world premieres at every concert. It was always in a Broadway theater, and the idea of mingling with living composers was always part of the purpose.
You’ve talked about all the different elements that go into conducting, and you’ve mentioned all these words to describe different kinds of music –atonal, surreal. It’s as complex as literature.
History shows us that in almost every form of art, we can expect a period that is more experimental, where the development of style and techniques occurs. The latest one is minimalism. And there are parallels to that in visual arts, in poetry, in prose, in theater. We are all inspired by each other, there is a relevance that is there that affects all art forms. We are lucky to live in times where everything is allowed, and there is a mish-mash, a fusion, of all of those ideas.