November 25, 1999
Symphonic Globe Trotter
Gisele Ben Dor's 6th Season with the Santa Barbara Symphony
It says something about Gisele Ben-Dor's dedication to her profession that when she made her conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1983, she was nine months pregnant.
Her concluding piece was Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which, in view of her particular condition, was renamed by the orchestra as "The Rite of the Offspring."
"All during the performance he didn't move, but as soon as it was over, he did a mambo," recalls Ben-Dor. The musically attuned fetus was born two weeks later as the first of her three children, and named Roy.
These days, Ben-Dor leads a bi-coastal existence as musical director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, musical director of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and wife and mother of the Ben-Dor clan in Englewood Cliffs in New Jersey.
The conductor, an effervescent blue-eyed blonde, was born 43 years ago in Uruguay, the daughter of Leon and Selva Buka, who had emigrated from Poland in the early 1930s.
The Buka family made a permanent move to Israel in 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War, and settled in a small apartment in Ramat Gan.
Gisele studied at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and in 1980 enrolled at Yale's School of Conducting.
Shortly after her Yale graduation in 1982, her budding talent was recognized by Leonard Bernstein, who adopted her as one of his last protégés and sharpened her skills with the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra.
In 1994, in the best Hollywood a-star-is-born tradition, she stepped in at the last minute for the ailing Kurt Masur to conduct the New York Philharmonic without a rehearsal, score or baton. Of course, she was a smash.
Twice a year, she returns to Israel, where her parents still live, to conduct the Israel Philharmonic.
Ben-Dor is only one of three women conductors leading prominent orchestras, and her gender inevitably comes in for comment by audiences and critics.
"If I worried about (the audience's perception), I would become self-conscious," she says. "I have conducted since I was 12 years old. Being a woman conductor may not be normal to the outside world, but it's normal to me. I must say that since I came to the United States, I have been given every opportunity, and I hope I deserve it."
Some 60 percent of orchestra members live in Los Angeles and during the season make the 200-mile round trip to Santa Barbara four times a week.
Harking back to her birthplace, Ben-Dor is rapidly gaining a reputation as the premier interpreter of the works of Latin American composers.
Leading her orchestra, she recently recorded, for the first time, the ballet score from, "La Cornela" by Mexico's Silvestre Revueltas. Due out in the next few months is the world premiere recording of the "Amerindia" symphony by Heitor Villa Lobos.
"Maestra Ben-Dor," noted the Los Angeles Times music critic, "is just the conductor we have been looking for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers."