"I didn't save the orchestra," he said, though it didn't hurt when he agreed to become the orchestra's music director and principal conductor, and contributed his fee to the annual budget and musicians' pension fund. The players also agreed to take a 20 percent pay cut.
In a phone interview this week, Botstein alluded to an earlier, similar rescue: "Leonard Bernstein did it in the '50s," he said, "when the Israel Philharmonic hit hard times after the founding of the state."
This fall, Botstein will lead the 71-year-old Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO) on its second U.S. tour, with a stop at UCLA Live's Royce Hall on Oct. 28.
Created under the British mandate in the 1930s, the JSO faced yet another financial crisis in June 2007, when the budget of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which supplies most of the orchestra's funds, was cut by the Israeli government.
"Israel is a country with a long history of crisis with its government and funding of universities, schools and other cultural organizations," said Botstein, who underlined the need to raise private money both in Israel and abroad to keep the Jerusalem Symphony afloat.
"Unlike the Israel Philharmonic, the JSO, as a state agency, never had a friends organization for international support," he said. Now, under a new board and general manager, 15 percent of the orchestra's annual budget comes from private donations.
"The other thing is that it's a radio broadcast orchestra with a historic relationship to doing new music and Israeli music, so it has a larger, more varied repertoire than most orchestras," Botstein added.
The conductor said "a tremendous flexibility of style" gives the Jerusalem Symphony its unique sound. "It also has, in the strings especially, more of a Russian sound," which he credits to the large contingent of Russian players who immigrated to Israel in the '90s.
There's also darker-hued European colorings to the wind section, said Botstein, unlike the "very bright-sounding" American Symphony Orchestra, which he also conducts as its music director.
For the Royce Hall program, Botstein will conduct Erich Walter Sternberg's "The Twelve Tribes of Israel"; Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," with Robert McDuffie on violin; and Aaron Copland's Third Symphony.
"This wasn't totally intentional, but all the composers are Jews," he said. "They all use music to make a connection with dramatically changed circumstances in their lives. Bernstein, like Copland, was a first-generation American Jew who made a contribution to the creation of a 20th century idiom of what is American. Bernstein does it through 'West Side Story.'
"Copland was a homosexual Jewish man from Brooklyn who created the sound of the West -- the open spaces, 'Rodeo'-like rhythms, folksy aspects and the 'Fanfare of the Common Man,' which is in the Third Symphony. With that symphony, he created a musical image of our optimism, power and brashness. It's the greatest American symphony ever written."
Far less-known Sternberg, a German Jewish emigre to Palestine who fled the Nazis, wrote "The Twelve Tribes of Israel" using his considerable education in German music. "There's a long fugue in it, and moments that sound like Hindemith and Wagner," Botstein said. "Sternberg tries to use this in a fresh way that connects his European roots to a new sense of a new nation."
Born in Switzerland, Botstein came to America at age 2. He was part of a multilingual household, where his parents spoke Polish and Russian, and he spoke German.
"Because of the change in languages and the confusions, I never actually learned any language properly," he said. "I don't speak any language really well. So as a very young boy, music became the easiest language for me to express myself. I stuttered all my childhood and adolescence. So it was hard for me to speak any language without getting stuck. Music was my most intimate and natural means of expression."
As Botstein explains, music, particularly among European Jews, was a language from a secular non-Jewish world that was also compatible with Jewish identity. "Music was within the Jewish tradition from biblical times," he said. "The second tribes are the Levites, musicians of the temple. Already in the 19th century, it was a tremendously constructive medium of connection between assimilation, acculturation and the maintenance of Jewish identity. There's a long tradition of Jewish involvement in the classical tradition. Music is a kind of connection between the human and the divine."
A violinist by training, Botstein toyed with the idea of being a composer but was encouraged to turn to conducting.
"I was never a child prodigy," he said. "I was actually a late bloomer. Being a child prodigy is a curse as much as a blessing. It's like being tall when you're young -- if you're the tallest kid in your fifth-grade class, you get used to being the tallest kid. Then when you're 20, you discover people who were shorter than you are now taller, so it's psychologically very hard to adjust."
In 1970, at just 23, he became the youngest college president in American history when he was hired by Franconia Colleg. Introducing Botstein on the "Colbert Report" last year, host Stephen Colbert joked, "Some people will do anything to get out of graduating."
"Being a college president in my 20s was very difficult," said Botstein,who has been president of Bard College since 1975.
"I don't think I was particularly good at it early on, but I survived. The only quality that youth gave me was a kind of fearlessness -- ignorance allows you not to be aware of dangers, and therefore you become less risk averse. When you get to 50, you suddenly get nervous about how much you have to lose."
At 62, Botstein shows no signs of slowing down. Firmly in the tradition of scholar-intellectual-conductors, like Ernest Ansermet and Hermann Scherchen, he also edits Musical Quarterly and is co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival.
"Age is a function of attitude," he said. "I've met really old people who are in their 30s, and I've met very young people in their 70s. It's a matter of just keeping your energy, enthusiasm and curiosity alive -- and your willingness to learn new things."
Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, music director and conductor, Tues., Oct. 28, 8 p.m. UCLA Live at Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles, http://www.uclalive.org.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.