Omer Meir Wellber, a young Israeli from Be’er Sheva who is quickly emerging as one of the most acclaimed conductors in the world, will be making his United States debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall this weekend.
The program, which will run Oct. 10-12, includes Debussy’s “Petit Suite,” Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony, Opus 58,” and Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra” and will feature the Pittsburgh debut of classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas.
Wellber will replace Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who passed away in June.
“It’s a very unfortunate circumstance,” Wellber said of the late conductor’s death, but added that he was appreciative of the opportunity to work with the PSO.
“It was lucky, this was the only week I had free this season,” said Wellber, who has been highly sought after to conduct great orchestras all over Europe. Because of the holiday of Sukkot, Wellber previously had not booked any performances this week so that he could visit his family in Israel. But when the invitation came from the PSO, he changed plans.
Wellber, who lives now in Milano, Italy, was able to come to the United States a few days early to spend some time with his sister on Long Island, affording him some family time this holiday season after all.
The 32-year-old conductor, who has been the music director of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra since 2009, debuted this past May at the Glyndebourne Festival conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The LPO invited him back to make his Royal Festival debut with the orchestra in April 2015.
In recent seasons he also has debuted with a number of other orchestras, including the RAI National Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. He is a regular guest conductor at the Israeli Opera, the Semperoper Dresden and at La Fenice Venice.
He said he was particularly enthused to make his U.S. debut with the PSO — which he called a “Rolls-Royce orchestra” — because of its historical support of Jewish musicians.
“The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is a historical orchestra that embraced a lot of Jewish musicians who came after the [Second World] War,” he noted. “In Israel, I know many grandchildren and children of these musicians who played for years with the orchestra.”
Wellber referred to the Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a cultural federation of German/Jewish musicians and other artists established in 1933, which provided a Nazi-sanctioned institution for artists to practice their crafts. Ultimately, many of these artists immigrated to Israel, he said, “but some went directly to Pittsburgh.”
“Somehow, everything is connected,” he added.
After working with so many different “top-class” orchestras across Europe, he said he was curious to work with an American orchestra of the same caliber.
“It will be different,” he predicted. “Everyone knows that American orchestras are known for their good readings and their level of discipline. But I am also interested to see some things deeper, on a cultural level.”
It will be interesting to see, he explained, how an American orchestra is dealing with some of the contemporary issues facing many orchestras all over the world, including problems with financing and the promotion of their music.
“I’m curious to see how flexible they are,” Wellber said. “Some people close when dealing with a moment of crisis or try to be safe.”
But many European orchestras are inspired to be more creative in the face of contemporary crises, according to Wellber.
“In Europe, you see all kinds of orchestras in a renaissance, a crisis drives them to be more creative,” he said.
While Wellber has not been the target of any artistic boycotts in Europe because of his Israeli citizenship, he said he knew other Israeli musicians who suffered as a result of the anti-Israel wave of sentiment proliferating all over the world.
Still, he has nonetheless been affected by those hostile sentiments.
“Three weeks ago, in Dresden, I went home, and I heard noise from my kitchen,” he recounted. “I opened my window, and literally under my window, there was a huge demonstration against Israel. Right under my window. It was a surreal situation.”
While the demonstration was not aimed at him personally, it made an impact on the conductor, who works in Dresden three months a year.
He says the political situation in Israel is “complicated,” and the decisions the Israeli government makes affect Jews who live and work all over the world.
“In Israel, Jews are relatively safe,” he said. “But the responsibility Israel has to Jews all over the world is huge. We have to start to understand it. Every political decision affects all of us.”
Wellber has found that many Europeans do not differentiate between Israelis and diaspora Jews and opined that such non-differentiation “unites the rest of the Jewish people in a new way.”
“It’s very problematic,” he said. “We would all like to have a beautiful place called Israel, but the majority of Jews don’t live in Israel and probably don’t want to. Israel has to start to understand that.”
Wellber began his musical training at the age of 5, studying accordion and piano. At age 9, he began to study composing, and he graduated from the Be’er Sheva conservatoire in 1999 at the age of 17. His compositions have been performed both in Israel and abroad.
With a proclivity for opera, Wellber has already conducted 45 different titles, which “is really a lot,” he said.
The young conductor is committed to teaching other young musicians and is slated to work with the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestra — a youth orchestra program in residence at the Mary Pappert School of Music of Duquesne University — while in Pittsburgh.
He is also a goodwill ambassador for the nonprofit Save a Child’s Heart, the Israeli-based international organization that provides lifesaving cardiac surgery and treatment for children from developing areas, and a training program for doctors and nurses from those locales.
Being a spokesman for Save a Child’s Heart allows Wellber to highlight one of Israel’s many gifts to the world.
“I’m interviewed all over the world,” he said. “I decided I have to find something good to publish about Israel. This fit like a glove.”
Journalists now inevitably question him about Save a Child’s Heart, he said.
“I tell them we bring a child with heart problems from Gaza to Tel Aviv in 25 minutes for treatment,” he said. “There is no bureaucracy.”
“Even if Israel is [making] a lot of mistakes, it’s still doing a lot of great and beautiful things,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.