Inside the IPO Percussion Section with Acting Principal Alexander Nemirovsky
At an Israel Philharmonic concert, there are movements we listen to and movements we watch. There is Maestro Zubin Mehta’s conducting and the string section’s graceful bowing. Look beyond the baton and bows, however, and you’ll see the silent choreography of percussionists moving among a countless array of instruments.
“Thousands,” offered Alexander Nemirovsky by phone from his home in Holon, Israel. “For starters, the standard percussion instruments in an orchestra are drums, sound effects percussion, and melody or keyboard percussion like xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and marimba. There are many more, maybe a thousand available.”
Nemirovsky, beginning his seventh season with the IPO, is his section’s Acting Principal, which means he assigns the section members their parts, effectively choreographing who moves where and when. He is a Zildjian Orchestral Artist, and holds the Israel Philharmonic’s Natalie and Murray S. Katz Endowed Chair.
During last year’s U.S. tour he was able to meet Mrs. Katz, whose late husband was a percussionist in his youth.
THE ROAD FROM MOLDOVA
Nemirovsky’s youth was spent in his hometown of Chisineu, Moldova. One day while shopping with his mother and younger brother, he was captivated by the rhythms walnuts made as they were dropped into a bag. Back home, he took the nuts to a table and began dropping them in ever-changing rhythms. A star was born.
In 1990, the family moved to Jerusalem and 17-year-old Alexander enrolled in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. His teachers included Jeffry Kovalsky and Pamela Jones, but his favorite learning center soon became the Academy’s cassette and videotape library.
“It had so much music,” he said. “The first video that I saw was Chick Corea’s Elektric Band from the 1980s with drummer Dave Weckl and I knew instantly that I also wanted to play jazz music.”
He graduated from the Academy in 1994 and quickly joined the Jerusalem Symphony. It was the first of many orchestras that hired him, including the Haifa Symphony.
On the side, he pursued his jazz interests in various trios, playing at hotels and bar mitzvahs. His jazz education got a big boost in New York, when he spent several months in 1999 studying privately with Latin percussionists Richie Flores and Robbie Ameen. At the end of his first day, sitting in the bar of the Blue Note jazz club, he got a valuable lesson in both American jazz and Americans.
“I turned and saw that drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts was standing near me,” he excitedly recalled. “With my limited English I introduced myself, and explained that it’s my first time in the Blue Note, but I had heard all his records and videos. He then took me around and showed me all the Greenwich Village clubs where I needed to go to hear music. And this was my first day! It was amazing.”
JOINING THE ISRAEL PHILHARMONIC
Nemirovsky’s wife Svetlana also studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, in its vocal department, which is where they met. Svetlana is a soprano, and after graduating from the Academy she began singing in the Israeli Opera Choir. In 2008, the Opera Choir participated with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert and Svetlana talked with one of the orchestra members, mentioning that her husband was a talented and much-in-demand drummer.
“He asked her why I didn’t audition for the IPO,” Alex said. “She came home and asked me the same question.”
Nemirovsky did audition for the Israel Philharmonic in 2011. For five years he worked under single-year contracts and was required to audition each year. In 2016 he became a full member.
Prior to and during his work with the IPO, Alex improved his skills. He studied in Berlin under the world-famous timpanists Wieland Wielzel, Thorsten Schonfeld, and Rainer Seegers and was also engaged in Israel with such famous musicians as Dan Moshayev, Mark Moshaev and Alon Bor.
Today he and Svetlana, who continues to sing with the Israeli Opera, are raising their 8-year-old son, Daniel. Alex’s father works in Israel’s aircraft manufacturing industry and his mother works in the nation’s financial sector, aiding the distribution of reparation funds from Germany to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Being in a position to watch Maestro Mehta conduct is very satisfying for Nemirovsky, who calls him “very interested in percussion.”
“I play most principal parts because Zubin wants me to,” he said. “He likes me, believes in me. So he asks me to play these parts.”
And what is Nemirovsky’s reply?
He laughed. “I can’t say no.”