As the Ann Arbor Symphony rehearsed for a children’s concert, conductor Arie Lipsky was about to give the downbeat for the song “Puppy Love.” Mary Steffek Blaske, the symphony’s executive director, handed Lipsky a large rawhide dog bone–and suggested he use it to conduct the piece.
Calmly, Lipsky laid his baton on the podium, took the bone, and, amid much laughter, began to conduct.
The moment nine years ago was emblematic of Lipsky’s willingness to go to any length to connect with musicians and audiences. He’s also very focused. After a minute of kidding around, all the music got covered, the straightforward parts getting a quick gloss, the difficult passages receiving the extra attention they needed.
Lipsky, fifty-nine, has been the A2SO’s music director since the 2000-2001 season. Born in Israel, Lipsky began playing flute at age six and just three years later was soloing with the Haifa Symphony. He added cello when he was twelve and began conducting at sixteen.
But it was never a foregone conclusion that he’d make music his life’s work. “I had a little detour,” he says.
His father was a talented amateur musician who earned his living as an electrical engineer. His mother wanted Lipsky also to pursue “an honorable profession.” So he went to college, studied aeronautical engineering, and was called up for army service during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After returning to civilian life and completing his undergraduate degree, he came back to music, emigrated to the U.S. in 1980, and got a master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then came a seventeen-year stint as principal cellist of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
For twelve of those years, he served as the orchestra’s resident conductor. He also guest conducted orchestras throughout North America, Europe, and Israel, and toured and recorded as cellist for the New Arts Trio. He now serves as music director of the Ashland Symphony in Ohio and maintains his summer post as chamber music director at the Chautauqua School of Music. Last year he was also appointed principal guest conductor of his hometown Haifa Symphony.
All this traveling has made him as adept at adjusting to different musicians and locales as he is at responding to the constantly shifting accents, rhythms, and tempos of classical music. He jokes that in Haifa “I conduct from right to left,” alluding to Hebrew, which is read from right to left.
But the constant traveling has its hazards. A few years ago, trying to pull a stuck suitcase off a luggage carousel, he injured his right shoulder and was temporarily forced to conduct with his left hand. The shoulder healed, but he found that holding the baton created too much tension in his right arm. “So I decided not to use it. In the orchestra nobody seemed to mind. They don’t watch me in any case,” he says with a boisterous laugh. Then he adds, more seriously, “I actually feel a little more expressive, and as long as I can communicate with the musicians, nobody asks me about that.”
And then there are the hotels. Lipsky has been living five to six months every year in hotel rooms, including nearly two months at the Sheraton Ann Arbor. Starting this year that will change. In August Lipsky and his wife, Rachel, moved from their home near Buffalo to a condo in Ann Arbor. “When I first got the conducting position here, I left the Buffalo Philharmonic. But Rachel was still teaching [Hebrew and yoga] at the University of Buffalo, and my daughter, Inbal, was still in grade school. It was only for them that we decided as a family to stay.”
Now that Inbal and her brother, Gilad, are grown, their parents are finally making the move. Says Lipsky, “Rachel and I have long been dreaming of making Ann Arbor our home.”
The two met while Lipsky was studying at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. Rachel recalls how “a mutual friend who was the librarian for the aeronautical engineering department at Technion told me there’s this guy who is a student there who will be playing solos on flute and cello in the same concert with the Haifa Youth Symphony. So, I asked her, ‘What else does he do?'” They went out for pizza after the concert and, as she says, “The rest is history.”
Lipsky has close-cropped hair and is strongly built and trim. He practices yoga daily and has been a vegetarian for about fifteen years. He has an easy laugh, a resonant bass voice, and a mild Israeli accent. In his free time, he reads thrillers, plays chess, and follows foreign affairs closely, particularly the news from the Middle East. Of the current violence in the region he says simply, “I listen all the time and pray.”
The A2SO has grown and branched out under Lipsky. The year before he came here, the orchestra played six main stage concerts for a total of 7,090 concertgoers and had 705 subscribers. Last season, 8,293 people attended seven main stage concerts, and there were 1,053 subscribers. The A2SO has also sponsored four or five afternoon chamber music concerts every year, primarily for seniors; has doubled its number of family concerts; and has added holiday pops concerts, which have drawn several thousand more people every year.
During his tenure, the orchestra has also expanded its offerings to include “KinderConcerts” for its youngest music lovers and, recently, “Taste of Music” events–concerts and “instrument petting zoos” at area farmers’ markets. And, for the first time in its history, the orchestra has made a recording for the Naxos label and has begun starting each season with a world-class soloist–this month with Andre Watts (see Events, September 13).
Before moving to Ann Arbor, Lipsky would typically arrive on the Monday of every main stage concert week, and his schedule would be crammed with rehearsals, school visits, perhaps a chamber music concert, and meetings with the symphony board. Living here, he says, “will mean that I will be able to do my job so much better now that it will be divided over the entire year, rather than into one-week blocks.
“I’ll continue traveling a lot,” he adds. “But at least when I’m here, after rehearsals and concerts, I can go home.”