For Yoel Levi, whose success as the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra during the 1990s is legendary, the conductor of a great orchestra’s most difficult job is listening. Levi, who has achieved fame working with many of the greatest orchestras in the world, says it all comes down to the way a conductor hears an orchestra and uses that to guide the musicians, under his baton, to greatness.
“It’s all about this sound that you train yourself to hear from the musicians as you rehearse,” Levi says. “It’s about understanding the different nuances of certain instruments, how each creates something special and how you can create what you want them to create.”
Levi, who makes his home in Atlanta, says he first learned how to listen 45 years ago while working with the great Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He was assistant conductor to music director, Lorin Maazel. Later, he perfected the skill when he succeeded Robert Shaw at the Atlanta Symphony in 1988.
In his 12 years with the ASO, he strengthened the orchestra’s balance and quickly knit them into a highly disciplined organization with an international reputation. It was what he describes today as the ASO “Golden Years” when its catalogue of some 30 Telarc recordings regularly were awarded Grammys and it was named Best Classical Orchestra of the Year. In the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Levi conducted the ASO in the opening and closing ceremonies.
Since then, he’s become one of the modern masters of conducting, working with the great philharmonic orchestras in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, as well as most of the major orchestras in Europe. Earlier this year he spent two weeks in South Korea, where he was honored as the laureate conductor of the South Korean Broadcasting System Symphony.
He had been the orchestra’s conductor from 2014 to 2019 and he appears frequently as a guest conductor in the Asian nation. His recording of Mahler’s “Ninth Symphony” with the orchestra on Deutsche Gramophone has been critically acclaimed.
Levi, who was born in Romania but grew up in Haifa, was the first Israeli to serve as principal guest conductor with the Israel Philharmonic. He conducted them on their last tour of America in 2019.
After such an impressive record over so many decades it wouldn’t be surprising if Levi had decided to put on a few old recordings and spend his afternoons dozing in a comfortable easy chair.
But 2½ years ago he doubled down and took on the task of rebuilding the orchestra he had grown up on, the Haifa Symphony.
In 2021, he became the orchestra’s music and artistic director and the guiding hand behind a musical renaissance in the beautiful, old, cosmopolitan, port city.
“When they first asked me,” Levi said, “I seriously considered not doing it, but then I said to myself, ‘maybe it’s time to give back. Maybe it’s time to create something special.’”
As his good fortune would have it, the rebuilding process began at about the same time as Israel saw a growing number of world class musicians from Russia and Ukraine begin to emigrate. He hired a bassoon player from the Moscow Philharmonic, a veteran oboist from St. Petersburg. His first violinist is an earlier arrival from Ukraine. Altogether, 20 new musicians have been hired.
Slowly — what Levi describes as a new standard of quality performance — is starting to jell.
It was most apparent, according to the master, in a pair of concert performances in Haifa at the end of July of “La Traviata,” the beloved Italian opera, which featured an international cast. The performance in the 1,100-seat municipal concert hall in Mount Carmel brought critical acclaim and, according to Levi, enthusiastic, sold-out audiences.
“I enjoy bringing out the best in the musicians in the orchestra even if they don’t know how well they can play together and how much better they can be in a relatively short time. What we accomplished with ‘La Traviata’ was magical, really magical.”
American audiences will have a chance to judge for themselves as the orchestra develops its plans for a tour of the United States in 2024.
In the meantime, Levi is working on developing a classical music training program for young musicians under the age of 18. There are about 20 in The Young Reserve of the Haifa Symphony. The come from several communities in Northern Israel, both Jews and Israeli Arabs who work with professionals from the orchestra to raise their playing to a professional standard.
All instruction if free, financed by the orchestra and by a group of supporters in America. The goal is to develop a talent pool that doesn’t depend, as it does so often, now, on the winds of war.