Rachel Kam has been a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for over three decades. In the interview below she shares stories of performing with artists from Leonard Bernstein to her own extremely talented children and gives advice to the next generation of musicians joining this revered orchestra.
What made you want to become a classical musician?
I never actually decided to become a musician. I don’t come from a musical family and I didn’t hear any classical music at home. Nevertheless, I was very fortunate to have had a music teacher in fourth grade, who convinced my parents to allow me play the violin, and encouraged me to practice. After many years of hard work and tremendous joy, playing music became a second nature and I decided to pursue a career in it.
What made you chose the viola?
When I joined the Gadna youth orchestra in 1964, I was asked to replace a missing viola player and fell in love with the beautiful warm sound of this instrument. I never went back to playing violin.
Describe your audition in the IPO.
Auditions in the IPO do not happen very often and there are many candidates, so they are a very stressful experience. Mine, in 1980, was an unforgettable one. I played my program by heart and had a complete black-out 5 minutes into the audition. I stopped playing and was devastated because I thought I had failed. But then I heard Maestro Mehta calling my name. He asked me to go back-stage, have a drink of water and bring my music. I played again, with less anxiety, and won.
I will never forget Leonard Bernstein. Every musical note was a matter of life or death for him and he was always searching for the right interpretation and meaning. He was a passionate conductor and had incredible facial expressions, which brought the best out of every player in the orchestra. Bernstein was a one of a kind combination of an outstanding pianist, conductor, composer, educator and a generous human being.
Our tour to Japan with him in 1985 is an unforgettable memory for me. Not only because of his Mahler 9th symphony performance in Osaka, but also because of the special affection he had for my son Ori, who came with me on this tour .
Ori was ten years old at the time, and after listening to this concert he rushed backstage and told Maestro Bernstein: “I think that you are a wonderful conductor!” Bernstein was so amused and overwhelmed by it, that he asked Ori to come to all his concerts and spent quite a bit of time with him.
You have been with the IPO for many years now, what sort of changes have you seen during this time?
I am very pleased to say that the recent changes in the IPO are for the better in every aspect. The orchestra is being filled with brilliant young Israelis, who studied and worked abroad, but are happy to come back home. As a result, our musical level is higher than ever and the social atmosphere in the orchestra has become very pleasant. Our educational program has grown and improved too, and more children learn to appreciate and respect classical music. This may affect our future audiences.
What advice do you have for the new generation of musicians joining the orchestra?
I would advise them to cherish this outstanding institution and never let it fail. We are a world-class orchestra and a model for many youngsters who pursue a musical career. We bring great conductors and soloists who inspire Israeli musicians to improve and flourish. We tour a lot and show the cultural side of Israel to the world! I can’t imagine Israel without it.
What changes do you want for the IPO in the next 5 or 10 years?
When I started, in 1980, we performed only classical music. Now, due to financial needs, we play more and more popular concerts. I think that we need to be careful and make sure that classical music remains the essence of the orchestra. I wish for the orchestra to stop struggling for money, so that the best soloists and conductors can come and perform the programs of their choice.
I hope, also, that our KeyNote educational program will grow and cover as many children as possible. I have been watching children, of all ages, acquire more and more information about classical music and I hope that it goes on forever.
There are so many wonderful memories, but the highlight of my time with the orchestra is the six concerts that my children, Sharon and Ori Kam, performed with us in March 2015. They played Max Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet and Viola with Nikolaj Znaider, conducting. The orchestra and the audience loved them and Maestro Mehta sent them a huge bouquet of beautiful flowers with a loving note. It was much more than a dream come true.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
I don’t eat before a concert because I find it hard to concentrate when my stomach is full.
You have been with the IPO for decades now, is it hard to keep the enthusiasm for some of the music?
After so many years, I have performed most of the pieces we play, but they still move me every time! It is interesting to compare the same piece performed by different artists, and many times I am surprised to hear a line or detail that I didn’t notice before. Music is a constantly changing process and it is always exciting to take part in it.
Who are your favorite composers and why?
I love playing Mahler’s symphonies with my orchestra and Schubert’s chamber music with my colleagues.
Their compositions affect me with their deep warmth, passion, pain and hope. Both wrote for the human voice, which is the most natural mean of expression and their unique phrasing is affected by it, each composer in his own style of harmonic progression and orchestration.
What do you like to listen to when not performing or rehearsing?
I love listening to my children’s recordings and enjoy watching the Metropolitan Opera live broadcast in Jerusalem.
If you weren’t a musician what career would you want to have?
I would love to work with children. They are the future!