Yoel Levi Launches Music School for Rising Israeli Stars
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Yoel Levi Launches Music School for Rising Israeli Stars

The world-famous conductor and former music director of the Atlanta Symphony is creating opportunities for young musicians in his hometown of Haifa.

Young musicians will work directly with orchestra members of the Haifa Symphony.
Young musicians will work directly with orchestra members of the Haifa Symphony.

When Yoel Levi, the world-famous conductor and former music director of the Atlanta Symphony was a young teenager in Israel, his father urged him to take up a trade. Maybe he could become a carpenter or mason, a person who could build with his hands to provide for his future.

But Levi, who grew up in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, had other ideas. Instead of working with timber and stone, he wrapped his hands around a violin.

In time, the talented young musician became a student of one of Israel’s best-known teachers, a no-nonsense woman named Ilona Feher, who had helped launch the careers of outstanding Israeli violinists such as Pinchas Zuckerman and Shlomo Mintz. But working with her, according to Levi, was a challenging ordeal.

“She was a tough cookie, with very high standards. She wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. I had to practice my violin for eight hours, every day. You wouldn’t dare to come to a class unless you were very well prepared, because then you would be really shredded to pieces.”

Early in life, Levi learned the importance of the rigors of preparation and discipline and what can happen when a talented teacher and a gifted student bond. What he learned in Haifa became the foundation of his work as the assistant conductor to the legendary Loren Maazel at the Cleveland Orchestra, and then as the successor to Robert Shaw in Atlanta.

Yoel Levi was the music director of the Atlanta Symphony for 12 years and returned in 2020 to conduct its 75th Anniversary concert.

Today, after a 40-year career that has seen him conduct some of the world’s greatest orchestras and work with most of the legendary soloists of our time, he’s preparing for a new challenge.

Levi, who makes his home in Atlanta, has decided it is time to pay forward some of the valuable lessons he has learned.

Starting last July, Levi began auditioning students in Haifa, his hometown, where he is now the musical director of the symphony orchestra.

He was looking for only the best students, a young Zuckerman or Mintz perhaps, who, while still in their teens, could be part of a new kind of conservatory. This institution would have direct access to the musicians of the Haifa Symphony and to the famous soloists who pass through there. It would be a place where seasoned professionals and aspiring musicians would mingle freely and learn together. A place, Levi says, that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Israel.

“It is going to be unique, it doesn’t matter which instrument you play, if you are the best of the best you will have an opportunity to study with some of the greatest soloists when they come to play with the orchestra. There will be master classes for the students, and, in time, they will play with the orchestra, and develop professionally. They will learn early in their training what it means to be a professional musician. How one listens to your colleagues as they perform, how to watch the conductor. What does it take to be able to listen for so many different things and be performing as well. So, we are starting a great tradition now in Haifa. I’m very excited about it.”

World-class soloists like violinist Shlomo Mintz will be providing master classes at the new school.

The school began its first classes last October with ten students, all studying on full scholarships. In the last month, they have been joined by a talented 16-year-old Israeli Arab student violinist from the local community. Welcoming her to the school has given Levi a profound sense of satisfaction.

“I said, wow, I’m so happy. I have no words. I was hoping that this school would be open to everyone in Haifa. My experience is that music can bring people together. When the music starts, people forget, people behave differently. A lot of aggression melts away.”

The school has the support of the America-Israel Culture Foundation, which has been an important benefactor of the Haifa Symphony over its 70-year history and of talented young soloists in Israel.

For Levi, it’s been a long time coming. But when he returns to Haifa next month with his conductor’s baton to work with aspiring performers, he may finally fulfill the vision his father had for him when he was young: He will have become a builder, and he’ll have done it with his own two hands.

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