In difficult times, it’s easier to sit in front of TV and do nothing – Israeli conductor Gaddiel Dombrowner

Ізраїльський диригент Гаддіель Домброунер під час репетиції з оркестром INSO Львівської філармонії. Фото Ірини Середи

French-Israeli Conductor Gaddiel Dombrowner has proved lately to be one of the most promising conductors.

He has won many prizes at conducting competitions such as the 1st prize at the 2nd Kussewitzky Conducting Competition (2022), 1st prize and orchestra prize at the 3rd Turchak Conducting Competition (2017), 3rd prize at the “Blue Danube Opera Conducting Competition” (2021) and the 1st prize at the Athens Masterclass and Competition (2021). Gaddiel is a principal guest conductor with the Kunming International Philharmonic and a resident faculty conductor in the Vivace! summer festival.

This December, he came to Ukraine to join the INSO-Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra to perform the program consisting of his favorite composers. We’ve talked to him about the conductor’s profession and his credos in it.

— A little throwback to the 2017, Stefan Turchak Conductor’s Competition in Kyiv. During your participation, the witnesses said that you always started working with the orchestra with some initial phrases that made musicians smile and respond to your gestures more lively. The more impressive it was since according to the rules you had 15 minutes to work with the orchestra. What were you saying?

Gaddiel Dombrowner:  It was just a phrase in Ukrainian. I think at the first round I told them “My name is Gaddiel, and I’m very happy to be here”. And every time it was a little phrase in Ukrainian, just to let them know that we need to stop taking ourselves too seriously and have fun. And I think they enjoyed it.

—  Could you share some secrets about your way of breaking the ice with musicians, and starting the rehearsal?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: I get right to work. Not only in competitions but also in a real orchestra rehearsal. The players are here to work and their time is important. Normally I have a day to visit their city, the city is always very nice and welcoming so I also mention that I like their city. I’ve seen a few conductors’ first rehearsals, and they sometimes talk for like five minutes. And I never talk for more than 15 seconds. There’s always a lot to do. And as soon as you do that, the orchestra immediately understands, “It’s not about his prestige, it’s about the work and the program”.

Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda
Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda

—  And what kind of work goes behind the stage? How do you work with the score, what are the stages of the process before you join the stage with musicians?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: It’s very personal. It depends because every conductor is a different instrument player. I am a wind instrumentalist. Because of my French background, I started solfège early, around 5 or 6 years. So for me, singing, and breathing are essential. But for example, if I were a string player, I would immediately start and look at the bowings, etc. If I was a pianist, maybe I would play the whole score… But I prefer to sing the score, firstly.

Then normally I analyze the score. I don’t play every note. For me, it’s not so important as to understand the harmony, some special chords, and the phrases. It’s all about the direction of the phrase, and knowing which orchestra group is important, and which is not.

I do like to give the players the opportunity to figure things out by themselves. Sometimes I will help if I have an idea of how the bowing should be and how to play. Or if they have a question, of course. But most of the time, 90% of the time, if you just play it once more, they will work it out, you don’t have to intervene in that much. So having every detail figured out for me is not so important as understanding the harmony, how the movement is built, and how the balance should be at some places. 

—  The generation of young promising conductors in Ukraine is growing up. So what we’re talking about now is kind of a list of rules for them.

Gaddiel Dombrowner: I’m not yet a “very old master”, I’m also learning every time. You learn from things you haven’t done. With every project, you get better at working with the score and you do it faster. It’s a long process.

—  Agree. What would you say about things that work the most effectively while studying as a conductor? Maybe you’d share your experience of studying in Cleveland? 

Gaddiel Dombrowner: The only way to study as a conductor is to have an orchestra. There is no other way. This is why conducting is very difficult to get the experience. And the orchestra doesn’t have to be a full philharmonic orchestra. It can be four strings players and five wind players. Like several people in front of you, playing only their parts. Two years in Cleveland gave me so much because we had lots of time with orchestra and from little string quintets to a chamber orchestra, very small chamber orchestra, to a full philharmonic, etc. Every week we had this experience of training our ears. 

Rehearsing is very important. You need to have a clear idea of how the sound should be, what to say to the players, and how to fix something which also connects to how you study a score. 

Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda
Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda

—  Was it your master’s degree?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: Yes, a master’s degree. I did my bachelor’s at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, first as a clarinet player and then as a conductor. Since then, I have been looking for a school that would give me much orchestra time. We did get some concerts at Jerusalem Academy, but it was maybe once a week or something like that, and only a few minutes.

—  Did you learn to conduct through classicist works or romantic, or there were also contemporary pieces you had to conduct with the orchestra in the academies?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: A little bit of everything. In Jerusalem, it was very didactic, so my teacher was clear that we start from the early period, to fix my technique, and to keep it as simple as possible. Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, then finally we get to Mahler, to Bartók. At the end of my bachelor’s degree, we finished with Debussy.

But in Cleveland, it was everything. I conducted very modern pieces from composers-students. Also, with my regular teacher, we did everything. 

— And now you work both as a symphonic and opera conductor?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: That’s right. My first conducting opera experience was in 2014. I already finished my Bachelor’s in Conducting, and never touched opera before. It happened in a very nice course in Orvieto, in Italy, with a fantastic teacher, Maurizio Arena, an amazing person. I came there just to know a little bit more about opera. And since then I enjoyed it so much. My path is a bit different. If you are a pianist, and you want to be a conductor, in Germany for example you will go and get a job in an opera house, and you will play all the operas day after day.

— And how does it differ into gestures, into conducting actually?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: When you conduct a symphony, there are normally no surprises. You can go from beginning to end, and that’s it. But opera depends on the project. Do you have a month of work with the whole company, or do you start from zero until the first concert; or they tell you, “Can you conduct tonight”? And you do “Traviata” in the same evening. 

Because of the drama and the direction, you have to be ready for everything. The singers can take it slower, or faster, this is a constant challenge for the conductor. And you have to learn how to stop at some point and to get back to the tempo. 

Also being inside the pit is quite different. The sound is different. It’s not like being with an orchestra on stage, where you can hear pretty much everybody the same. Opera is a great challenge but also very fun.

Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda
Gaddiel Dombrowner. Photo by Iryna Sereda

— Didn’t you think that you would do for example only opera conducting or only symphony?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: I don’t want to limit myself. I love Puccini, Verdi, even Dvořák, Mozart’s operas… But for me symphonic and accompanying soloists, piano, whatever, violin, cello, it’s also a lot of fun. I prefer to do both.

— And what about conducting contemporary pieces for small ensembles? Would that work for you?

Gaddiel Dombrowner: Right now, I am trying to finish learning Dvorak, Mahler, and all these kinds of things. I know there are a lot of works, and also in the contemporary works, there are a lot of works that I would be happy to work on. I’m not talking about Stravinsky or stuff like that, but much later, Lutoslawski and Ligeti, but I think this is part of the process, that you have to be patient. This kind of work requires much more attention and knowledge of what came before. And then I will feel that I can give my opinions about and have a better knowledge of how to face these kinds of works. Of course, I’ve done a lot of contemporary works before. “Notations” by Boulez was the latest thing I did. It’s a crazy piece.

Of course, I’m always happy if the orchestra has a commissioned work that they want to do for the concert. But for now, I focus more on the regular repertoire.

— As we come to the contemporary repertoire, it is time for those contemporary recordings I’ve sent you, by Ukrainian composers. 

Gaddiel Dombrowner: Let’s start from the oldest composer, Kosarenko, who, I understand, died not very long ago. He and Luniov are almost the same age. But this is amazing how these two composers are completely different in their attitude. His piece “Concerto Rutheno” is quite old.

It reminds me a lot of klezmer tango, from very simple melodies… It’s kind of a mix between it and modern music. Also, this is why it reminds me a little bit of a rustic concerto, something from the fields, that comes from music from the peasants. I like it very much. Very nice work. 

— The second one is Luniov, “Tutti” for symphony orchestra.

Gaddiel Dombrowner: This is a very different approach. He is just looking for sound, I think. Many composers do this kind of things, I would be very curious to see the score, but what I can imagine is just lines, it’s just about harmony, and the search for different colors, etc. 

This is very typical of the late 70s, and 80s works. And since it’s quite long (30 minutes), it’s very brave. This minimalism of sound, it’s brave. Well done to him. 

The third composition is by Kolomiiets, “Espenbaum”. Based on the poem by Paul Celan, it is about the poet’s mother and his memories of Ukraine. 

Gaddiel Dombrowner: Actually, the first time I heard it, I thought it was about the war in Ukraine. But then I saw it was written a little bit before the big war. I feel in his work that he tries to send some kind of message with the orchestra, something very tragic. It’s very striking, from the very start, it’s like an army entering. Also very different, but I think it’s almost prophetic of something that is going to happen.

It’s also very different. This is not about color anymore. This is more about creating the atmosphere that we have these days. I would need to listen to it another time. But I can understand where it comes from. We live in very, very difficult times. Not only in Ukraine, also in my country, in Israel, there are wars just everywhere, it’s just horrific. This 21st century is terrible. We opened it with two towers going down, with wars everywhere you can think of. It’s dark. We have to find some light and some happiness, but it’s difficult work. 

— How do you think music plays an important role in such events? In other words, should the muses be silent in those times? 

Gaddiel Dombrowner: No, that’s the way people can express themselves. So a comedian, for example, deals with it making jokes about the situation to help people de-stress from difficult times. If it’s a writer that he wants to give criticism about what’s happening, he writes a book about it. Difficult times are just times that you have to go through. Make music, make jokes, just deal with the situation in any way you can, because otherwise you go crazy.

When it’s difficult times, it’s very easy to just stay in your little cube in front of the TV and not do anything. No, on the contrary. You need to deal, to process, you need to get stuff out of your mind, of your fingers, of your mouth. It’s important to talk in any way you can or to play.

— Your new program with INSO-Lviv Philharmonic is also about that. Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák on December, 16, will add some bright feelings into our world.

Gaddiel Dombrowner: That was the main thing we wanted. So we do the “Egmont” Overture because December 16 is Beethoven’s birthday. And then I just wanted to have some great music. One of the biggest works and works that I love. Brahms and Dvořák, are definitely my two favorite composers, will be performed side by side. Dvořák was eventually some kind of student of Brahms. He loved to show him his works. And it all connects. Beethoven was basically the main idea of Brahms when he was writing his Piano Concerto and Brahms was considered as the Beethoven of the Romantic era. He was composing a little bit the same way as Beethoven, striking down and redoing it repeatedly. He was always very skeptical. And Beethoven was the same way. You can see in his handwriting, scratching, trying to write something different… 

Dvořák, especially his Seventh Symphony, is inspired by Brahms, (written after he heard Brahms’ 3rd Symphony). It was so complex with lots of counterpoints and lines, motifs… He was very impressed. Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony is very complicated, and detailed, you can actually feel some kind of Brahms inside this symphony. It’s a lot of fun to play this concerto and this symphony. And I hope the audience will like it too.

Read also:

Conductor and military officer Bohdan Ivakhiv. A big interview about life before and during the full-scale war

Gondwana Records: New Minimalism, or How Jazz Continues Its Transformation Through Time and Space

Valentyn Silvestrov: “But what role did the muses play during the war?”


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