Interview with Yossi Arnheim

The IPO’s Principal flutist talks with his teacher’s granddaughter.

AFIPO Patron Circle member Ilana Ransom Toeplitz recently met for an interview with Yossi Arnheim, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal flutist and a longtime student of Uri Toeplitz, Ilana’s grandfather and an original 1936 member of the orchestra. In addition to Arnheim’s decades in the IPO, he has performed with other Israeli orchestras and in recitals across Europe and in America, Brazil and Asia. The excitement of Ilana’s and Yossi’s connection seemed the perfect place to begin.


ILANA RANSOM TOEPLITZ: Thank you for joining me. I want to begin by asking if you remember how you met my grandfather?

YOSSI ARNHEIM: When I was almost 15, after two and a half years of study, my flute teacher said during one lesson, “Listen, I think it would be good for you to study with someone from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I spoke with Uri Toeplitz and he would be willing to accept you.” He made the arrangements for me and I just went for the lesson. Nothing special happened. And then it just went on for many years…


ILANA: There were no fireworks?

YOSSI: No fireworks. But I was a shy kid. Other students were afraid of him. I heard they thought he was angry at them for asking questions during the lesson. I never wanted to create problems, so I never asked him questions and he was never angry at me. I do remember asking one question, though. “You have so many books,” I said. “Did you read all of them?” And he said, “If you know where to look when you want to know something, you don’t have to read everything.” I always remember that.

At one point, when I was having trouble getting my sound and was experimenting on my own, I showed him exercises I was doing. He said, “I see that you know where you are heading. You have your own path. Let’s talk in a few months and see how it turned out: if you succeeded or not.” He saw that I was getting ahead on my own way and didn’t want to interfere. It was very wise, I would say. He also used to play the piano with me in the lessons, and though he was quite clumsy on the piano, he still played very well. It helped me so much to have him play with me. Not many people do. I don’t, because I never played the piano so well. But he did that. He was a great musician.


Flutist Uri Toepelitz


ILANA: How did you discover the flute? Or did it discover you?

YOSSI: It’s a strange story. My mother took me to a place where I could study music because my teacher at school suggested that I should. My father no longer lived with us by that time and my mother had little money. So she took me to a place where lessons were cheaper. They asked me what instrument I would like and I said I wanted to study the oboe. They said they had oboes but no oboe teacher, and so I would need to go to a private teacher from the Israel Philharmonic. My mother said, “This is not what we came here for,” and asked me for the next instrument I would like. So, I ended up with my second choice, and that is how I started to play flute.


ILANA: Any second thoughts about the oboe?

YOSSI: Because I do love its sound, at university I thought maybe I should play flute and oboe or even change to oboe. A good friend was an oboe player and I asked him to show me how to play it. He gave me some reeds, but I couldn’t get any sound from it. After one day I knew it wasn’t for me.

But, I couldn’t get any sound from the flute either when I started. That’s not unusual. Flute students usually have it or they don’t. I was one who didn’t. The first day I came home with my flute, my younger brother was there, and he asked to play it. It’s difficult to get a tone so I showed him, and he takes the instrument and makes a sound on the first shot. He had the talent, but I had it hard.


ILANA: I remember when I visited my grandfather he brought his flute with the high hopes that my sister and I would take to the instrument very quickly. And just as you were describing it: We did not have it. You now play alongside Guy Eshed, your student. What was it like mentoring him?

YOSSI: It was clear from the start that he was very talented: just naturally talented. I gave him a flute concerto by Malcolm Arnold to play. It’s a little bit jazzy and very virtuosic, and he played it very well, and its third movement was really opening doors for him. He would play it at auditions. Then he went abroad to study and play in orchestras in Sweden and England and Berlin, and we lost contact until he showed up for the IPO audition and got the job.


ILANA: What is some of the best advice you ever received?

YOSSI: Hm. I think it was some advice from my teacher in Germany. After studying in Israel I studied in Germany for two years. My teacher said, “You’re already a flute player. What do you want to study with me?” I said, “I want to study about sound.” After a few lessons, there was one thing he said that has really stayed with me. “Don’t ever forget to listen to how you sound. Sometimes when people play, they are unaware of the sounds they make.” This is important. So I’m always asking my students, “Did you hear how this note sounds?” “No.” “Aha!”


ILANA: How long have you been with the orchestra?

YOSSI: It’s been 34 years. The orchestra plays much better now. We have better skilled musicians, who studied at very good schools. I think they control their instruments much better than people in the orchestra when I joined. Next year I am going to follow your grandfather’s path of early retirement. I’ll be able to do other things, teach more, develop myself, and do projects that it’s been difficult to find time for all these years.


ILANA: Mazel tov!

YOSSI: [Laughs] Thanks.


ILANA: What are you looking forward to the most?

YOSSI: I’m going to begin studying sound engineering. I’ve been in so many outdoor concerts that sounded bad because – even though the orchestra plays very well – they have this huge number of microphones. Somebody sitting outside who never – or rarely – has heard an orchestra playing live, doesn’t know how it should sound, and it will never sound right. I’ve been interested in electronics for many years. So I want to study that and contribute to the orchestra so outdoor concerts sound how they should.


ILANA: I’m wondering if you have any observations about the audiences?

YOSSI: They have changed over the years. The new audiences are more enthusiastic – more excited – and react more to what they hear. Sometimes they whistle, sometimes they clap between the movements. They are much more active than they used to be. That’s good. Even though we don’t like that they applaud between the movements, it’s fine! If they enjoy it and they applaud, let them.


ILANA: Have you seen many young people in the audiences?

YOSSI: Some, but not too many: more here in the U.S. than in Israel. There, unlike here, the audience is not getting younger.


ILANA: How do you see classical music in Israel today and how is the landscape changing?

YOSSI: The previous generation of parents often wanted their kids to study music. The new generation of parents are not particularly keen on classical music and think their kids should study what makes them happy – Chinese, computers, whatever. Institutions that teach children to play instruments have a more difficult job and so they try to integrate it into the schools and then promote the more talented ones to give them better lessons. But I don’t think there’s enough support by our government. We are in a position where it could decline – especially with string instruments, but wind instruments as well.

For the past ten years I’ve worked with an organization that helps prepare the more excellent students for the world of professional music, and I think they do a great job. But there is not enough support from our leadership to really teach this type of music, or even jazz. I think the people, the culture of Israel, have such a great amount of talent that it’s possible to make fantastic achievements in music. But I think we are missing it. I hope that maybe in 30 or 40 years every member in the Parliament will be somebody who played in a youth orchestra as a kid. Then we are in a good position, because playing in a youth orchestra really remains in you. You have the best memories of your childhood – that you played and had friends that played with you – and this goes with you throughout your life. I wish we were there, but we’re not there yet.


ILANA: What advice do you have for young artists?

YOSSI: I think this is basically about how to play your instrument. I think there should be more love for the music. We are so specialized and getting so technically proficient at playing the instruments that there is a danger that people will just improve their technical work and only pay attention to that aspect. They can forget why they are actually there, that they are there because they like music. So, I would say, “Don’t forget, you do this out of love.”


ILANA: One last question: Flutist or flautist?

YOSSI: I’ve asked so many people. Nobody knows. Somebody told me that in England they used to say flautists, but then I asked people from England, and they said no. So there is no answer. When I’m asked what I would like to be called, sometimes I say flutist and sometimes flautist, just so they have an answer.


ILANA: You have no preference?

YOSSI: No. But when I write my CV, I write flutist.


ILANA: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s such an honor to talk to you.

YOSSI: It’s a pleasure.