As their 26 year old son, Jonathan, left their New York City apartment to start his Fulbright Scholarship in music composition in Paris, his parents, Helene and Sheldon Schiffman had two worries: the first was that relations between France and United States were now at the lowest ebb in years and second was the fear of (mostly anti-Zionist) anti-Semitism in addition to anti-Americanism reports in the U.S. on an almost daily basis.
Schiffman’s first instrument was the cello, which he began playing at the age of five. Today, he is one of the most promising young conductors on the international scene. His career was launched in 2004 after he won first prize, out of 139 competitors, in the 8th Antonio Pedrotti International Conducting Competition in Italy. He is a Yale graduate in music, with honors. While at Yale from 1995 through 1999, he was appointed Music Director of the Yale Bach Society Orchestra & Chorus. By 2003, the 26 year old Schiffman had received a Master’s degree in conducting from Julliard and guest conducting engagements from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, the Eugene Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra.
In an event likened to Leonard Bernstein’s instant rise to fame, when he was called in 1943 to replace an ailing Bruno Walter on a few hours’ notice, Schiffman, an assistant conductor at the Orchestra National de France, years later, received an emergency call to replace Music Director Kurt Masur and conduct the European premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Dritter Doppelgesang for Solo Viola, Clarinet and Orchestra. Le Monde lauded Schiffman’s performance.
After a year of composition studies in Paris, two years of assistant conductor posts with the National Orchestra of France and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as well as a handful of guest conducting engagements in Italy, Schiffman in February of 2007, arrived in Avignon for an interview as Music Director of one of France’s most prominent orchestras, the Avignon Symphony, known in France as l’Orchestre Lyrique de Région Avignon-Provence, or ORLAP, a 44-piece group that had been without a permanent leader for more than two years. He was asked to conduct the orchestra and interviewed by a ten-person committee. Believing that he lacked both the experience and the age of his competitors, Schiffman returned to New York the next day to visit his family, not holding any high expectations for his chances for the post in Avignon. An e-mail awaited him: he had won the appointment - with an immediate start date.
Late last year, Schiffman made a triumphant subscription concert debut in Avignon in a program that included works by Gershwin, Ellington, Bernstein and Dvorak. The audience demanded five encores. At another recent concert, the program included three works by the American composer Charles Ives. Although Ives, who was born in 1874, was one of the first U.S. composers to be recognized by the European music community, this performance marked the first playing of Ives’ works at the Avignon Opera House. Schiffman is bi-lingual, but to hear him announce Ives’ piece “The Housatanic at Stockbridge,” there was no question of his U.S. origins.
The Avignon Opera house that is home to Schiffman’s orchestra is a tribute to France’s capability to preserve ancient structures. In 1700, the building was home to Molière whose large statue sits at the entrance. Several feet from the Opera House stands a beautiful, gold painted “Belle Époque” carousel. What many Vauclusiens and most tourists don’t know is that the Carousel was actually built in 1970, many years after the Belle Époque, which began at the start of the 20th Century and ended with the start of the First World War.
Schiffman sees a major difference between U.S. and European orchestras, and it all starts with funding. In a recent meeting, Schiffman said, “In Avignon, the majority of the orchestra’s budget comes from government sources - national, departmental and municipal. As a result, the orchestra remains dependent upon the support of politicians, and the outcome of even a local election can have a major impact on the orchestra’s financial well being. American orchestras must woo private donors who represent the biggest financial contributors, whereas a comparatively small amount comes from the federal and state governments. These differences affect the choice of conductors, the quality of the concert halls and the nature of the music that is played and for whom it is intended.
An imposing six feet four inches tall, Schiffman has a brilliant smile and abundant dark, silky hair (should this be a prerequisite for an orchestra leader?). When he conducts, the ORLAP follows him with conviction and concentration. For Schiffman, the Concert Master, Cordelia Palm, plays a crucial role. “More than simply tuning the orchestra, she actively assists in rehearsal and offers input and guidance when needed. She is a great violinist with a real sense of enthusiasm and energy. Off the podium we often trade stories about our Julliard days and I love to remind her of the fact that she studied there while I was still in a stroller.”
Jonathan is keen, after a performance, to show his appreciation of each instrumentalist, kissing the second violinist’s hand, asking the oboist or percussionist to stand and hugging the blushing cellist. Schiffman has clearly created a great rapport with his musicians, and that is reflected in the audience’s warm and positive response to his arrival as Music Director.
As for the Franco-American relationship, and French anti-Semitism: “I never encountered any problems because the French, and most Europeans as well, make the distinction between people and politics. I’ve met many French who don’t like George Bush, but fortunately they don’t seem to hold that against me.”
Joseph Nathanson © 2008