Israeli maestro to conduct compatriots piece here

What does a tennis racket have in common with a conductor's baton? The answer may be Stanley Sperber.

For the past 15 years the New York-born conductor has wielded the baton before the Haifa Symphony Orchestra in Israel. He recently left the post, remaining as conductor laureate, in part to pursue his other passion — tennis. Not only is Maestro Sperber an avid player, he is an internationally certified tennis "chair" umpire, frequently representing Israel at the U.S. Open, Davis Cup and other international tournaments.

He also wanted to make time for more music, he explained last week by telephone from Tel Aviv. "I'm a lot freer now," he said. "It's kind of nice after 15 years of babysitting 85 musicians."

A busy guest conductor with symphonies across the globe, he recently returned from his fourth stint on the podium for the Chicago "Do-It-Yourself Messiah." He will be in Oakland on Friday, Jan. 26, leading the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the music of Brahms, contemporary American composer Kenneth Lampl and Israeli compatriot Aharon Harlap in a "Cultural Exchanges" concert at the Paramount Theatre.

The gig originated when Michael Morgan, the Oakland East Bay Symphony's music director, did a guest stint with Sperber's orchestra in Haifa. "We had a mutual admiration society," Sperber said "and he returned the invitation."

Sperber made aliyah in 1972. The move seemed natural for a young man who attended a Hebrew day school in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and began speaking Hebrew at the age of 6. But it really was music that brought him to Israel.

"My first trip, in high school, I didn't like it too much," he related. "It was summer and so hot. And I'm not much of a tourist. My life is the music. But, later on, when I was working, it was different."

In 1960, at the age of 17, Sperber founded the Zamir Chorale, a mixed chorus of university students from the Greater New York area. The chorale eventually grew to a membership of 100 and performed annually at the 92nd Street Y, as well as at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, its conductor was completing his degree in music at Columbia University. By 1967, the chorale and Sperber, now an instructor of music history with an M.A. in musicology at Columbia, were invited to represent the United States at an international choral festival in Jerusalem.

They arrived just after the Six-Day War.

This time, Sperber was welcomed as a musician, not a tourist, and after completing work for another degree in conducting at Juilliard, he returned to Israel as music director of both the Philharmonic Choir of Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem Chamber Choir.

In the ensuing years he appeared regularly with the Jerusalem Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, as well as in Haifa. In 1987 he was awarded the Israeli Composers Association Order of Merit for his efforts in promoting the performance of new Israeli works.

"I feel that part of the job of a conductor is to promote the music of his country," he said. "I also believe it's the obligation of a conductor to educate the audience with regard to the work. It might not always sit right with the public, but if it is done in the right way, it works out. It's a thin line. You have to find the right proportions."

One of the composers championed by Sperber is Harlap; a Canadian native who immigrated to Israel in 1964, he was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for Composition in 1999. Sperber has conducted the premieres of 18 Harlap works. In Oakland, he will conduct Harlap's 1986 "A Child's World," a six-movement suite dedicated to the composer's own children.

"This is very accessible music," Sperber said. "It's not avant-garde."

The composer will be in attendance, along with Lampl, whose Piano Concerto No. 1 will have its world premiere, featuring the young virtuoso Evelyn Chen as soloist. Brahms' Second Symphony is also on the program.

The contemporary composers are not the only ones who will be at the concert. Sperber's 89-year-old mother is coming in from Florida and his sister from Los Angeles.

"I have a lot of family still in the U.S." the conductor said, "but I've got my roots here now."