I have had the great pleasure of seeing Jonathan Spandorf, a recent Master’s graduate in Juilliard’s Music Division, conduct the Juilliard Lab Orchestra in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. I have also been fascinated by his travel stories told to me in my office over cups of coffee. Captured below is his dynamic, charismatic, and adventurous spirit.
Why did you choose conducting?
I was always fascinated by the work of the conductor and the orchestra because I played in the orchestra. When I was a teenager I actually discovered what we call classical music. I really liked the interaction of the conductor and people and the way that he works with them. Eventually, I was pretty curious in my senior year in high school to try to experience myself a little bit so I had a few opportunities. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun because I didn’t have to play. I felt like I’m making music together with other people, so I loved it.
Tell us about your hometown just outside of Tel Aviv.
I was born in Haifa but I moved pretty quickly to my hometown of Givatayim – it was a pretty standard small city and I was there for public school and later high school. They have this joke that Givatayim is actually some sort of Florida in Israel, but besides that, it was pretty quiet with nice people. My high school was a high school of arts and therefore many people from many other places in Israel came there to study, so I was able to meet many different people. Eventually, most of the time when I wasn’t at home I spent in Tel Aviv or in other places in Israel.
A few years back, you backpacked across South America for nine months. What made you decide to take that trip?
After my army service, I had so many thoughts about what I’m going to study. I was afraid of choosing music as a path and I was confused. Then a friend of mine from childhood offered for me to join him for a trip to South America. At first, I decided to go for three months and he told me that perhaps he will extend his trip… eventually it was the opposite. He decided to spend three months in South America, and I met this one guy and we spent together nine months and so many other people joined us. I met so many interesting people there. During my trip to South America I just discovered in myself that there are other things besides music that I like to do and I want to do. This is when I started to do really challenging hikes and I had the opportunity to climb mountains – a thing that I wouldn’t imagine I could do. I started to rock climb, which I am doing since just recently with a little bit of break, and kayaking – just things I couldn’t imagine I can do somewhere else, so it was an experience for me. This is when I also decided that perhaps music is good for me. I remember that at the middle of my trip, I decided you know what, I want to study music.
It just came to you?
Yeah, just one day I decided this is what I want to do and I’m going to make this happen. I guess I tried to avoid it so many times because of the challenging path of music and eventually I just couldn’t avoid it. Not even with a trip to a far place like South America.
What countries did you visit while you were in South America?
My trip started at Ecuador and pretty quickly I went to the Galapagos Islands. It was just an amazing experience being in such a special place. This is also when I thought, “My God, can this trip be even better than that?” I spent five months in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia and this is where I had my first attempts to climb mountains, rock climb, and do really long hikes; one hike was like fourteen days in the Andes. It was amazing to be in special and different landscapes, such as the desert in Bolivia. I went to Argentina and Chile, especially to the Southern part of Patagonia which was also amazing. The terrain was pretty mountainous but was so different than Peru and Bolivia. At the end, I went to the Carnival in Brazil. This was like the grand finale of my trip. It was a pretty good one.
How did your experience shape you?
I became much more independent after this trip. Somehow the things that I did just opened my mind to other possibilities. All these experiences just affect you as a person and I think this is exactly what happened to me.
Eventually, I think that after this trip I became more confident than what I was before in what I want to achieve, what I want to do and how I am going to do it.
What do you feel is the main challenge of being an international student?
First of all, the living. The living in New York is intense and it is expensive. Some people are pretty much lonely here. I’m not sure lonely, but they’re alone. They don’t have family. Most of them don’t know anybody. I was lucky that I had a few friends in New York, musicians that were here a long time ago and so it was like a soft landing for me in the city. I think that perhaps the most difficult thing is the fact that you’re alone, and I guess that this is also a part of the job for musicians. They live by themselves most of the time. I think this is the toughest.
What was your transition like to the U.S.?
When I came to do my audition at Juilliard, it felt quite natural in New York. I just loved the place. I loved sucking in the vibe. I mean I knew it’s super intense and that everyone, they just go and go, and you don’t have time and you spend so many hours outside. But there are so many other benefits in the city that I just told myself, “My God, I have to move here. It’s so great. It’s crazy, but it’s great.” So I guess for me, I would say it was a fun transition – if I can define it like that.
What would you say is the main difference between the U.S. and Israel?
In Israel, we tend to be much more direct than people in the U.S. I guess that because Israel is kind of Americanized in the past 20 years, you don’t see so many differences. Besides that Israel is so multicultural itself, so we’re kind of used to everything.
What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
First of all, my family and friends. I really miss being with the people that I love and that love me. Just spending time with them, like going with friends to trips and having this great time together. Also, the food which is so fresh and good.
What do you think is the most common misconception of Israel?
This is kind of a tricky question. I guess that recently because Israel has so many domestic and international problems, people tend to see us as immoral most of the time. When I’m here I’ll obviously try to advocate for Israel all the time, but I can’t ignore the criticism that happens. I try to criticize what’s going on in my home country which most of the time really bothers me. Sometimes it makes me very sad to know about things that the society became, things that we don’t want to be we did. I always try to consider all the sides and all the aspects. I try to talk to as many people as I can about it and to understand. Especially when I visited Europe, I had the feeling of antagonism against Israel, and it was pretty hard to get free from the misconception. I guess the fact that people think people are immoral if they go to the army is not true. People are individuals. There are bad people and there are good people. I want to believe that there are more good people than bad people.
What are your plans after graduation?
I’m pursuing a job in conducting in an orchestra. I enjoyed teaching this year at school. It was really something great that happened to me – the fact that I was able to work with students from school to teach them and to learn from them how to teach better. I really hope this is something that I took to further my path and my career. I guess that most important for me is to keep pursuing opportunities to perform. Of course I would also like to develop some other skills as a musician – things that because of time limits I couldn’t do any more – like writing and arranging music that I like so much, and discovering other types of music which I was able to do here in NY with all this multiculturalism that we spoke about. The fact that one night you can go to a place like Village Vanguard, another night you can go to Guantanamera to hear Latin music, to the Met to hear opera or the Philharmonic. The fact that everything is so accessible for us. I want to keep doing it.
In reflecting on your experience here in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
Culture, Food, Weather.