PERFORMING ARTS : San Diego’s Quiet, Principled Maestro : When Yoav Talmi came to town, his orchestra was in disarray. Now, he’s pulled it together with his own imprint.

<i> Kenneth Herman is a free-lance music writer based in San Diego</i>

What orchestra conductors do offstage is a mystery to the general public. San Diego Symphony Music Director Yoav Talmi likes to tell of his encounter pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket near his San Diego residence.

“Some people recognized me there, and they just stood with their mouths open. Finally two of them came over to me and said, ‘Maestro, we didn’t know that you buy food also!’ ”

That symphony patrons might think their ascetic conductor was above such banal necessities is a forgivable assumption. The 51-year-old Israeli conductor, now in his fifth season with the San Diego Symphony, projects the introspective, serene demeanor of a Talmudic scholar.

Talmi can appear other-worldly. His passion, which he unleashes only on the podium, is for music, specifically the traditional Beethoven-to-Mahler canon of orchestral music.


“He is not wildly flashy,” observed Deborah Rutter Card, executive director of the Seattle Symphony and formerly of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, two orchestras Talmi has guest conducted. “But he is someone who commands respect from both the audience and the musicians. By the end of a performance, people value his contribution.”

Talmi has won the loyalty of his San Diego audience by steadily improving the orchestra’s level of performance. He has smoothed out the once grating string section, bringing it up to the strength of the winds. David Gregson, San Diego Magazine music critic, has even gone so far as to dub Talmi’s reign the orchestra’s “golden age.”

Not everyone, however, is enamored with Talmi. Although in a recent interview Valerie Scher, San Diego Union-Tribune music critic, gave Talmi high marks for his podium ability and his good relations with the players, she said that some people don’t go to concerts because they find him boring. “He’s not the most demonstrative conductor--he’s not exciting to watch,” Scher said.

She also lamented the limited scope of the maestro’s choice of music. “I would like to hear more of both ends of the repertory: more of the music that people love to hear--the Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert--and at the opposite end, more exciting, daring and unusual pieces.” Gregson noted Talmi’s negligence of American music. “I think we should hear the major American 20th Century symphonists before the 20th Century is over,” Gregson said.


One’s first impression of Talmi can indeed be underwhelming. In a field where an inflated ego often seems to be a prerequisite, Talmi’s soft-spoken modesty is unexpected. But beneath his placid exterior resides a passionate musical commitment, a trait that has sustained the morale of the San Diego Symphony players during recent fiscal crises. Two years ago, for example, symphony musicians agreed to take a 7% salary cut to keep the organization afloat. And at that time their base salary was less than half that of Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians.

“The orchestra has played extremely well in difficult periods,” Talmi observed. “I was astonished sometimes that during the most bitter weeks--when people were scared of what might happen (to the orchestra)--they played marvelously, as if their lives depended on it.”

Michael Tiknis, San Diego Symphony executive director, gives Talmi much of the credit for nurturing the musicians’ positive attitude and zeal for performance.

“They have respect for what Yoav has done, and they are a very eager group of musicians. Every guest conductor that comes through this orchestra makes a point of telling me--without being asked--expressing the same sentiment in almost exactly the same words: ‘What is it about this orchestra that they still love music?’ Because so many other orchestras they have been to recently seem somewhat jaded in their approach to playing.”


Like his personality, Talmi’s vita is not particularly flashy. Although he spent the 1979-80 season as principal guest conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, when he came to San Diego in 1990 he had completed a four-year stint as music director of the New Israeli Opera and a similar post at the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Topping his modest list of recordings with European orchestras was a Grand Prix du Disque (1987) for the completed version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Oslo Philharmonic.

A devoted exponent of Bruckner’s work, Talmi has regularly programmed his sprawling, late-Romantic symphonies in San Diego with missionary zeal, a necessary approach since Bruckner was practically unknown to San Diego audiences. Talmi’s predecessor, David Atherton, hated Bruckner and never programmed him.

Talmi was quick to reveal his musical preferences, but not until the current season has he expressed his personal side, which he discloses gradually and with great caution. Earlier in the season, he featured his wife, Er’ella, a professional flutist of note in her native Israel, as soloist in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 1989 Flute Concerto. It was her first appearance with her husband’s orchestra. She charmed the symphony patrons, predictably cool toward contemporary music, and critic Scher praised her technical prowess and “alluring” tone. “I thought that after five years it was about time to have her play with the orchestra,” Talmi said with characteristic understatement.

As part of this weekend’s programming, on Saturday, Talmi will conduct a program in Copley Symphony Hall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust, a subject that has marked his identity since his earliest memories.


“My parents came to Israel when they were 25 years old. They tried to convince their parents to come but they wouldn’t listen. They said, ‘Nothing will happen to us,’ and they were all executed in the Second World War. I never knew what grandparents, aunts and uncles meant.”

On the negative side, Talmi’s strong feelings about the Holocaust have deterred him from conducting the works of Richard Wagner, a composer the Nazis posthumously lionized. He does, however, conduct the work of Richard Strauss.

Performing a concert to commemorate the Holocaust, however, gives a positive vent to Talmi’s Angst. His program will open with “Variations on a Moravic Song” by Gideon Klein, a work written in Theresenstadt, a Nazi concentration camp where many Jewish artists and composers were held. Nine days after Klein completed his variations, he was taken to Auschwitz and executed. Talmi will also conduct Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, whose sung text includes a fragment written by an 18-year-old Polish woman imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944. To complete the program, American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham will solo in Ernest Bloch’s “Ba’al Shem Suite.”

When Talmi first arrived in San Diego, the orchestra he inherited resembled a patient just released from intensive care. During the lockout season of 1986-87 there were no performances, and over the ensuing three seasons, the orchestra struggled without benefit of a music director. Due to the symphony association’s widely publicized bouts with insolvency in the 1980s, the organization was unofficially renamed in both press and casual conversation “the financially troubled San Diego Symphony.”


Talmi did not find this daunting, however. Based on his box-office success as music director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra (1984-88), he thought he would be able to turn the San Diego Symphony around on a dime. When that didn’t happen, he began to despair.

“I started to feel very awkward,” he explained. “Contrary to what happened to me in Israel, where after a year I was able to quadruple the audiences of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, I did not manage to do it here. I felt the burden on my shoulders getting heavier and heavier.”

Adding to Talmi’s unease were pressures from the community and even symphony management to lighten his programming to attract larger audiences.

“I don’t believe that the symphony orchestra has any justification to survive if we do not produce the highest quality of music which was written over the last 300 years,” Talmi said in a recent interview in San Diego. “For several years many ideas have circulated through the American Symphony Orchestra League, and many orchestra managers try to convince everyone in the field that unless we revolutionize our programming, we will slowly lose the audience for our orchestras . . . I oppose all these ideas with my entire body, soul and mind.”


One major change in Talmi’s professional life, as well as a change in the fortunes of the San Diego Symphony, was the resignation of then executive director Wesley Brustad. Brustad left in May, 1993, after the ambitious 1992 summer pops season (overseen by Brustad, not Talmi) incurred an embarrassing $1-million deficit. His post was filled in August, 1993, by Tiknis, former executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. A marketing specialist, Tiknis increased San Diego’s sagging winter season attendance by 40% in his first year on the job, and his telemarketing strategies have increased the current season’s subscription sales by 32%--from 9,434 subscribers in 1993-94 to 12,386 as of last month.

“The arrival of Michael Tiknis to the San Diego Symphony marked a very blessed change,” Talmi said. “First of all, he is simply madly in love with classical music, and because of that he is committed to our raison d’etre. (Secondly,) he has a wizard’s touch in marketing.”

Tiknis was Talmi’s first choice for the executive director’s position. The two had met in 1992 when Talmi was guest conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic. As outgoing and confident as Talmi is reserved, Tiknis appears to have no qualms playing second fiddle to him.

“Talmi is the soul of the organization,” Tiknis offered. “I get some of my greatest satisfaction feeling close to him and seeing some of what he wants to be done with the orchestra accomplished.”


Although Talmi is pleased with the direction the symphony has taken with Tiknis as executive director, including the signing of a financially favorable contract with Naxos Records to record all of the instrumental works of Berlioz, some problems remain. The organization’s debt, now pared down to $700,000, still puts a crimp in programming. Large orchestral and choral works are still too costly to mount.

Another frustration is the dwindling number of invitations to guest conduct in the United States--although his international invitations continue unabated--because he is music director of a regional orchestra.

“It was easier for my managers--and they tell me this very clearly--to sell me here in this country when I was this promising young conductor from Israel than as the music director of the San Diego Symphony. I am looked down upon by some of the major orchestras here because I am ‘just the music director of one of the local bands,’ ” Talmi said. Ernest Fleischmann, Los Angeles Philharmonic executive vice president and managing director, declined to comment on the fact that Talmi has never been invited to guest conduct at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion nor the Hollywood Bowl, despite the fact that Atherton, Talmi’s predecessor, conducted the Philharmonic on three occasions between 1983 and 1987, and brought the San Diego Symphony to the Hollywood Bowl in August, 1986.

Last year, Talmi was appointed music director of New Jersey’s Waterloo Summer Music Festival. Like the San Diego Symphony in 1990, Waterloo’s fortunes have sagged in recent years, and Talmi has been hired to resuscitate the organization. Talmi is philosophical about carrying out his work in unglamorous venues.


“The chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra is the most important thing. I have conducted several orchestras with tremendous prestige both here and in Europe where I did not enjoy the experience at all. The chemistry has to work.

“I belong to those fewer and fewer conductors today--like in (George) Szell’s time or (Eugene) Ormandy’s--who will be very happy to stay a long time in a place like San Diego to build a first-class instrument.”

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San Diego Symphony


Address: Copley Symphony Hall, 1245 7th Ave., San Diego

Price: $15-$42

Hours: Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m.; Feb. 5 at 2 p.m.

Phone: (619) 699-4205 for program schedule