Meet Merrill Greenberg! The American raised musician has been with the Israel Philharmonic since 1973 and until recently held the post of Chairman of the IPO’s General Assembly. Learn more about why he chose to play the horn and what career he’d have if he wasn’t a musician in this interview and video.
What does the chairman of the general assembly of the IPO do and how did you get this post?
As chairman of the general assembly I am like the Chairman of the Knesset: I run the meetings, the agenda. I have been in this position for 12 years and do it because I grew up in the USA, where the democratic tradition is very strong. This is part of my American upbringing.
Why did you decide to play the English horn?
I began with piano but was not good enough at it, so I got kicked out. I switched to clarinet and a few months later I played in an orchestra. There were two older clarinetists there, who were constantly making remarks about me. I asked myself, “What do I need this for?” So I chose an instrument with an enchanting sound, which no one played – the English horn. The rest is history.
Who are the sources of your inspiration?
First of all, my father. In addition, I had a very supportive teacher in high school. He was a real leader and I owe him a lot. A few years ago I called him to tell him how important his roll was in my life and my opinion of him. I also had a distinguished oboe teacher, who played with the New York Philharmonic for 40 years – a Jewish guy named Harold Gomberg.
Do you remember your audition?
Or course I do. I wrote Zubin Mehta a few letters and he never replied. Suddenly I heard from a friend that he was in Montreal. I called the hotel and spoke with him. He said, “Yes, yes, yes, come play for me in two days.” I got on a plane and played for one man. He said that he wanted to listen to me again in a week’s time at Carnegie Hall. I arrived on a Wednesday, played a few minutes and we concluded things. On Friday, he gave me a airline ticket and on Tuesday I flew to Israel.
How was your aliya to Israel?
I don’t know if it is called aliya but I moved to Israel on September 27, 1973. I went to the synagogue on Yom Kippur and knew no one there. I could read Hebrew but did not understand a word. Suddenly, at noon, I saw from my balcony tens of hundreds of helicopters (I was staying at an IPO apartment in Ramat Aviv). I thought to myself that this is Yom Kippur… something must be wrong. And then the siren sounded. Wow, this was a shock, of course. I had no phone. My parents in the US went to the synagogue and the Rabbi told them that war had broken out in Israel. I knew no one, there were no buses. I was 23 years old, but the orchestra took care of me.
Do you remember a specific concert?
I think that as a native American my greatest personal experience was a few years ago, when Maestro Mehta received the Kennedy Center Honors award in Washington. I sat on stage 30 meters behind the President of the United States, George Bush and his wife, the Vice President and his wife, Condoleezza Rice and the Kennedy family. There were also the other laureates – Dolly Parton, Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. I could not believe that all of them were sitting in front of me. It was an amazing sensation.
Do you have unfulfilled musical dreams?
Yes. People might not like to hear it but someday I would like to play the Wagner opera – Tristan and Isolde. The most beautiful part ever written for English horn is in this opera, but this will probably remain a dream.
What would you do if you were not a musician?
A sports reporter or a lawyer dealing with sports issues.