Musicians who rise to the top of their field usually begin their ascent quite young, with a studious commitment to their instrument and the solid dream of a sustaining career. For Miriam Hartman of Philadelphia, childhood foresight was both broader and keener. Her developing musical talents were secondary to her sense of place.
“When I was ten, I knew I was going to come and live in Israel,” said Hartman, this month beginning her thirty-fourth year as Principal Violist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, from her home in Tel Aviv. “There was no question in my mind.”
Even before arriving to play in an Israeli chamber music program at that young age, she was fluent in Hebrew, thanks to years at Hebrew Day School, and “an ardent Zionist,” thanks to her great-grandfather.
“My grandfather used to carry around a copy of Theodor Herzl’s book, and kept it at his bedside,” she said of the man whose father, a leader of the Jewish community in his little town in Hungary, was murdered in 1920 while leaving synagogue. He had intended to bring his family to Palestine, however that brutal attack sent his children to America and “was what saved most of them from the Holocaust,” according to Hartman.
She returned to Israel in 1971 to play in the Israeli Army Gadna Youth Symphony Orchestra and again at age fourteen to take part in a chamber music program in Jerusalem. Her music coach that summer, Ze’ev Steinberg, asked his precocious teenage student what she planned to do with her life.
“When I turn eighteen I am going to come to Israel,” she told him. “I’m going to enlist in the army and I am going to be a paratrooper.”
Steinberg shook his head. “No, you’re not. You’re going to go to a decent university and get an education. You’re going to learn something useful and then you’re going to come back to Israel with some knowledge of something.”
Somewhat dubious, she replied, “Oh. Hmm.”
United States Adventures
But that was what she did, earning an undergraduate degree in American Literature at Yale University and a Master’s of Music at The Juilliard School. She earned the money to pay her Juilliard tuition by performing in the National Orchestral Association and as violist-in-residence with Bargemusic, the now-famous chamber music venue located under the Brooklyn Bridge. On weekends she was a paralegal.
She also met the man who would one day be her “Music Director for Life.”
“When I was about 21, I auditioned for the NY Philharmonic,” she said of the audition for Zubin Mehta. “He was also young – only forty-three. I remember at one point I had to play a scherzo from Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and, having under prepared, I turned to Zubin and said to him, ‘Maestro, your tempo or mine?’
She laughed at the memory. “At that point he must have been able to visualize me in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, after having had the chutzpah to ask a question like that in the middle of an audition.”
She was just as forthright with her own sense of timing: She told herself if she couldn’t get into the Marlboro Music Festival by the time she was 25, she would give up on a professional musical career.
“I was accepted when I was 22 and was very happy about that,” she said.
A couple of dispiriting auditions in which something other than performance swayed the judges, was the impetus for her to finally make her move.
“I was so disgusted that I sent a letter to the Jerusalem Symphony and said, ‘If you have a leadership position available, I would like to audition.'”
Her timing was perfect.
“I got a telegram back that said, ‘Can you come next week?'”
Back in the Holy Land
In her first season with the Jerusalem Symphony she met her future husband … and her future: the IPO was auditioning for assistant principal violist. This time the competition was on the level, and she won.
“Lo and behold, who was I replacing?” she said. “Ze’ev Steinberg! The person who told me what to do with my life was retiring, and I got his job. That’s how things go around and come around.”
Miriam’s husband was a clarinetist in the Jerusalem Symphony, and is now a Web Developer. They have raised two daughters. One is at the Berklee School of Music studying composition; she just spent the summer at a festival in Southern France where she had a new string quartet performed, and has an impending commission from the Jerusalem Symphony. Their elder daughter is at Start-up Nation Central in Tel Aviv, promoting Israeli medical-scientific start-ups. She also performs as pianist/singer with an eclectic trio.
Clearly, young Miriam knew where she belonged. Still, when she returns to the United States next month with the IPO’s 2017 Tour, she’ll be returning to family: three brothers, a sister, her parents, and aunts, uncles and cousins. She’ll also be returning to a hall with beautiful sound and memories.
“Even though Israel is my home and it’s my homeland and I belong here and I’ve raised my family here, there’s something about playing in Carnegie Hall,” she said. “I played many concerts there before I left for Israel and it was magical. It’s really like the home base of the musical universe for me. It just has some kind of spiritual, musical, emotional hold over me.”