DATE March 10, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Co-founders of Combatants for Peace, Bassam Aramin and
Zohar Shapira , on working to end the Israeli-Palestine feud
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guests are two former enemies who co-founded the group Combatants for
Peace. It's comprised of former Palestinian militants and former Israeli
soldiers who have come together to talk about a nonviolent approach to justice
and reconciliation. Zohar Shapira, who is joining us from Tel Aviv, served
for 15 years in the Israeli military and was a member of the army's top
commando unit. Bassam Aramin, who is joining us from Ramallah, was a fighter
in Fatah, a Palestinian group founded by Yasser Arafat. He served seven years
in an Israeli prison for helping to plan an attack on Israeli soldiers. He
says that at the time he was disappointed that none of the soldiers was hurt.
Aramin's 10-year-old daughter was shot and killed a year ago. He says it was
by an Israel soldier's rubber bullet, but the Israeli state prosecutor's
office closed the case in July, citing lack of evidence. More on that later.
Bassam Aramin, Zohar Shapira, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about what
you're doing now with Combatants for Peace, let's talk about how you
co-founded the group, and that leads us to an earlier part of the story.
Before you co-founded the group, I'd like to know what you each did as
fighters when you were fighters.
And Zohar, let's start with you.
Mr. ZOHAR SHAPIRA: OK. I went to the army more than 20 years ago in 1987.
I was enlisted to the elite units, one's called Sayeret Matkal. I was a
fighter and then a commander there for 16 years, I think. Three and a half
years as duty and 13 years in the reserve. During those years I made hundreds
of military missions, operations; dozens, maybe hundreds of them in the West
Bank and Gaza. I was told that I'm defending my country, my people. I
believed it in the beginning. But during the years when I get older and my
eyes were open, I saw that, instead of defending my country, I do two things.
One, I'm oppressing other people, the Palestinian people. Second, I am making
less security and less defense for Israeli people inside the Israeli state.
GROSS: Was there a moment where you realized that, or was that a gradual
Mr. SHAPIRA: I can mention one moment that was the stick that broke the back
of the camel, we say in Hebrew. I was in small village
around...(unintelligible). It was 3 AM, I think, in the night. We came to
arrest someone who was suspected as someone who send a suicide bomber
attackers, and we entered, I took my--I don't know, not a platoon, like 50, 60
people behind me and went into the village. And then we were in front of the
house and I took my squad, platoon, to the specific house where the guy was
living. I was quite proud of the military way I rolled the group, but then
there was shooting around everything. It was a small war, what can I say.
And first of all went out of the house, a young woman, I think in her 30s,
with two of her daughters, and one was so scared because she saw so many
Israeli soldiers firing from all over--Israeli and Palestinians were firing
around--and she started running toward me and my people, my soldiers, and
there was seconds that I have to decide, is she a threat over my soldiers,
maybe she could explode herself or what, you never know. And I was--she
didn't stop and I was shouting to stop and I was shooting above her head--I
think six, seven, eight meters--and she freezed, and there was small second
that--I don't know if there was eye contact, but it wasn't a soldier and his
enemy, it was just two human beings like in a capsule. And it was like a big
Hummer falling on my head and I felt, even though physically she wasn't hurt,
I knew that I did a crime and I wounded her spirit, her heart until her end of
And I asked myself, if I'm not stopping now, what would ever stop me of
continuing doing this immoral, injustice crimes, justifying that I'm defending
my people 50 kilometers away. That was the moment that I could say abled me
to open my eyes clearly.
GROSS: But, you know, it was your job to stay in the military, so what did
Mr. SHAPIRA: Me and others--you know, this unit I was serving is like one of
most glorious unit in Israel--Ehud Barak and all the prime ministers came from
there--and we gathered 13 officers and combatants from this unit, and together
we sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister, ex-prime minister, Ariel
Sharon, that we refused to do occupation missions or to humiliate Palestinians
or to defend the settlements, etc., and by that there was a big noise in
Israel, and by that we were accused of betrayers, or whatever you can call us.
We were thrown out of the unit from the Israeli intelligence forces.
GROSS: When you say you refused to humiliate Palestinians, did you feel that
humiliating Palestinians had become a regular part of your work in the
Mr. SHAPIRA: You know, it's like in the apartheid, you don't have to do
physical things, you just walk as a white guy in South Africa in the middle of
the street and everyone knows that you own everything and the black guys have
to obey. This is the same in the West Bank. The Israelis do everything and
take every part of land and can destroy every house they want to seize and
people and doesn't let them to eat. You don't have to beat them physically or
to shoot above the head of a girl. The fact that you are an occupier and
those people live without any citizenship, without any human--without basic
human rights, especially in democracies, this is the first step of
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Zohar Shapira and Bassam
Aramin. We've just been listening to Zohar Shapira. He's a former fighter in
Israel's top commando unit. He served more than 15 years. Then he co-founded
Combatants for Peace, a group of Israelis and Palestinians working together
for peace. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians in this group are former
Now, also with us is Bassam Aramin. He's a former fighter in Fatah. He spent
seven years in an Israeli prison. His 10-year-old daughter was killed about a
year ago. He says it was by an Israeli army bullet.
So, Bassam Aramin, I'm interested in your story. You had been in Fatah as a
fighter. Why did you become a militant?
Mr. BASSAM ARAMIN: Actually, I start--let us say my struggling against the
occupation--when I was 13 years by raising the Palestinian flag, something to
fight or to prevent those strange people to came to our village. We don't
understand their language. We don't understand why they are occupied us.
Then we start when we grow up, start to throw stones, to wrote on the walls.
Then, with the four or five young children, was 15 years when we found some
old weapons in a cave, it's belonged to 1968. And we start maybe a group,
they throw two grenades on Israeli patrols. And I found myself, all of us, in
the Israeli jail for a long time. I was for, as you mentioned, for seven
GROSS: So was there a turning point for you when you decided you no longer
wanted to be a fighter? Were you still in prison when you changed your mind
Mr. ARAMIN: Actually, no. In the prison you become more determined to
fight, and you don't see any possibility to make dialogue with the other side,
but after I released, I changed my mind.
GROSS: What changed your mind?
Mr. ARAMIN: All the time, I hear from the politician and the militant that
this conflict cannot be solved in the military solution. But when you think
about this by yourself, you are reach to, it's the fact, more than 60 years we
are fighting one each other and what's the result? More killing, more blood,
more civilians suffering, more detainees, more than 750,000 Palestinian people
into the Israeli jails. Israel is not safe. Palestine is not free. There is
no end to this bloody conflict, and the civilians is paying the price.
GROSS: There must have been pressure on each of you to keep fighting and not
drop out of the fighting that you were doing. Zohar, let me ask you. Was
there a lot of pressure from your friends in the military to change your mind,
to stop speaking out and to...
Mr. SHAPIRA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to support official Israel military policy?
Mr. SHAPIRA: Yes. My unit was like a family. I had weeks of a lot of
pressure and threats from friends...
GROSS: What kind of threats?
Mr. SHAPIRA: Words. Nothing--telephones, letters. Nobody hitted me or
beated me or something like that, but threats. `We know how to treat
betrayers' and so on.
Mr. SHAPIRA: I want to say that in those days I didn't understood the fact
that there is a nonviolent struggle. I just knew that I'm not going to do
those kind of missions, that it's not moral. I didn't think that there could
be partners for this kind of nonviolent struggle on the Palestinian side.
GROSS: So let's talk about how you both got together and co-founded
Combatants for Peace. Who approached who?
Mr. ARAMIN: Actually, we have a friend. He is ex-fighter. He was
ex-prisoner in Bethlehem named Suleiman Hamri. He was work with some Israeli
friends from...(unintelligible)...movement and he know some Israeli
ex-fighters, and actually they told him that if they can make a meeting with
ex-Palestinian fighters also. And by this way, we have this meeting in
Bethlehem in 2005.
GROSS: And, Bassam, why did you want to join the group?
Mr. ARAMIN: Why?
Mr. ARAMIN: Actually, before I joined the group I heared about the Israeli
ex-soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories, and I said to
myself, I wish that I can talk with them. I want to know their background,
why they are refused to came to the Palestinian territories to serve there.
Then when my friend asked me if I accept to join this meeting between
ex-Israeli soldiers who refused to serve the occupation, directly I said yes.
And I found myself in this group because I discovered that they are just like
me, they want the same peace. They are fighting for simple peace. We used to
kill one each other for the same thing. We found that we have many thing
common, more than difference, as a human being. Yeah, maybe from the second
meeting we discovered that we are going to work a long time together because
we are the same.
In the first meeting, if can speak about this, it was a very difficult meeting
in my life. You are, the first time, going to meet your real enemy. He's
torture you. He's arrest you. He kill you. He damage your home. He's
occupied you, and you must shake hand with him and start talking with him.
But after I hear them I said that we must be real partner for peace already,
you will have if you look for it. And it's not our goal to be friends,
personal friends, but after this, after many months working together as real
partners, we became more than friends, we became a family actually. Believe
in the same thing, not our enemy. We are working to end it.
GROSS: So what did you talk about when you started meeting?
Mr. SHAPIRA: Actually, the Israelis start everyone to said his name and from
any unit from the army and something personal, story we call it, where he
served, in the West Bank in Gaza and it was very difficult for me to hear
that. And I think that some of them, maybe them are crazy or maybe they are
very straight and very strong, and very honest people. And it was came to the
Palestinians. I told them I was officer for
the...(unintelligible)...checkpoint in Palestine for two years and he's a very
nice guy. Now we are very friends. I cannot accept that. And I just look at
him and thought he's crazy or maybe he's a criminal. And I told him that `you
know, you are just criminal.' He said, `Yes, I know.' I said to him that, `You
know that everything you do against the Palestinians is terrible.' He said,
`Absolutely, I agree with you and I am here because of that, because I realize
that I just create like more enemies. And actually I consider him, he
encouraged me to continue working with those strong and moral and courage
GROSS: Zohar, what did you find most valuable about the first discussions
that you had with the Palestinian fighters who co-founded Combatants for Peace
Mr. SHAPIRA: I think when it became personal stories I heard where they come
from, what have they done, how did they fight against the occupation, I
learned that, through personal contact, through knowing the guy, the man in
front of you--not the cliche, not the stereotypical Palestinian or terrorist,
just knowing the man in front of you, is the strongest way to fight against
fear, against stupidity, and step by step, the ice was broken and we could
start speaking the ideology and seeing that even our political goals are very,
very similar and the means that we will use to reach them are very, very the
GROSS: I'm wondering how difficult it is for you both to even meet, to even
get together, for the group to meet? Bassam, I know we were trying to arrange
for you to speak to us from a studio in Tel Aviv and, at the last minute, you
found you weren't able to get into Tel Aviv, although you've been able to get
in in the past. So you're speaking to us now from a studio in Ramallah. How
difficult is it for you guys to actually meet together?
Mr. ARAMIN: Actually, we are meeting in C areas, means that Israelis can
came there. It's not easy, but they can reach out to those areas, and also
the Palestinian maybe in part of Bethlehem and Iran and sometimes in my town
where I live in Anata, but it's not easy. But for peace, for our people, for
our children, we choose the difficult way. It's very easy even to fight or to
revenge, but it's difficult to go with our way.
Mr. SHAPIRA: I must say that since the construction of the separation wall,
Mr. ARAMIN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. SHAPIRA: It becomes more difficult and more difficult to meet because
every week another wall is closed, and suddenly a way that you were driving to
the meeting is now closed by this eight-meter concrete wall. So you go
backwards and you look somewhere else, and then the soldiers in the checkpoint
doesn't let you go from this place and you have to make a turnaround for 30
kilometers. And you never know where you could enter this prison--it's like a
prison, you know. Every Palestinian town is like a prison. And this is, I
think, part of the policy of preventing and not letting people to meet. They
will do everything so people won't be able to meet because it is dangerous for
them, for the Israeli government. Because when people meet, you can't tell
them afterwards that they are enemies, they want to kill you, or they want to
throw you again to the military and see.
GROSS: Bassam, you live very close to the separation wall, the concrete wall
the Israelis are erecting, and I'm wondering how it's changed your life and
your ability to travel any place.
Mr. SHAPIRA: As Zohar said, it's a big jail with one or two gates. They can
open it and they can close it. And they are trying to kill every Palestinian
dream to have any state. It's a big problem. Imagine that in one day, you
are cannot going to anywhere. You just look at the sky. For what?
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are two of the
founding members of the group Combatants for Peace. It's comprised of former
Palestinian militants and former Israeli soldiers who have come together to
talk about a nonviolent approach to justice and reconciliation.
Bassam Aramin is a former Palestinian militant who spent seven years in an
Israeli prison. Zohar Shapira is a former Israeli commando officer. Aramin's
commitment to peace was challenged when his 10-year-old daughter Abir was
killed just over a year ago. She was on her way home from school with her
sister when they got caught between Palestinian students throwing rocks and
Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets in the refugee camp of Anata on the
outskirts of Jerusalem. Abir died two days later in a hospital. An Israeli
police autopsy found that a blunt instrument, perhaps a stray rock thrown by
Palestinian demonstrators, killed her. But Aramin's family hired an Israeli
pathologist to re-examine the case. The pathologist concluded that Abir was
likely hit by a rubber bullet. The Israeli state prosecutor's office closed
the case in July, citing lack of evidence against the Israeli military. Last
month the office rejected an appeal, saying there was not enough evidence to
re-open the case, and that, quote, "the head wounds sustained by the deceased
were not caused by a bullet," unquote.
I asked Bassam Aramin about the death of his daughter.
Mr. ARAMIN: The 16th of January 2007 is a black day in my life, and maybe
the first friend who came into the hospital was Zohar Shapira. He spent with
me with the others three days at the Hadassah hospital in Israel. And in this
moment, honestly, I said that I feel that this daughter is their daughter and
just a part like them. This challenge to continue or not to continue, it was
a very difficult moment, but to revenge is not a solution. It's not the
personal problem to Bassam Aramin. More than 971 Palestinian kids have been
killed since 2000. And no guilty, no suspect, no trials. Abir Aramin is not
different. She's like them.
But what's different here is Abir Aramin is my daughter. She belonged to me
and belonged to my friends, Palestinian and Israeli, from Combatants for
Peace, they make everything possible. To open investigation and to bring the
media to focus on this issue, that Abir wasn't a fighter, she was a shy. And
some of them know Abir, who just ask for justice to bring this hero, this
soldier, this I don't know, to their justice. Maybe he's guilty, maybe not
he's not, but they killed Abir another time when they denied that they are
And this I decide that I am going to double my efforts with my friends to
protect my other five children and to protect...(unintelligible)...she's like
my daughter. She's my brother's daughter, Zorah. To protect those innocent
people who are paying the price of this dirty conflict. We don't ask them to
make peace. We want them to enjoy peace.
GROSS: Zohar, I'm interested in your perspective on this and what you've been
trying to do for Bassam as his friend and as his co-founder in Combatants for
Mr. SHAPIRA: It was so difficult to me to go through those days, more than a
year ago. As Bassam said, it was like killing my daughter. And I remember
those horrible days near the bed of Abir, praying that she would stay alive.
Also remember that emotions of revenge came out of me and I really wanted to
go to those military camp and to make a revenge with those soldiers who just
barbarically shoot over children--actually, as I did more or less a couple of
Ironically, the guy who could cool me and bring me back to the higher
emotions, to the understanding that revenge would just open a circle of
revenges was Bassam. I don't know from where he had the courage and the
wisdom, and after seeing this brotherhood that came from this tragedy, this
moment I could connect Abir's case to this reality that hundreds--I think 900
or more or less Palestinian children were killed. And I know how the Israeli
military system goes, everything to do that nobody would become accused or
become guilty. And then I saw this system of just--that I believe that
Israeli is a democracy, that there is just, that we have judges, we have a
tribunal--then I saw it's a fake because when the victim is Israeli, very fast
we find the guys who are suspected and we take them to trial and we believe
all the eyewitnesses. But when the victim is Palestinian, we don't believe
Palestinian eyewitnesses. And it's a black day also. It's not just--it's
above the killing, the horrible killing of Abir. For me, it's the killing of
the Israeli justice system. I can say I believe that there's no just here.
There's just for the superior, for the Jewish people.
GROSS: Zohar, from your perspective, how did Abir's death affect the group
Combatants for Peace?
Mr. SHAPIRA: First of all, even before the group was just the guys, the
soldiers, I think through that moment we became a family with my wife, my
children, all Bassam's children, and all the friends, you know? It was more
just than guys, men, speaking, it was families. And this is a human story. I
think I understood that this is the right time to take an action, that if we
don't--sorry to say--use this case to break the silent in the Israeli society,
more and more children would be killed and more and more revenge would be from
the Palestinian society over the Israeli society, and etc. And this was a
moment that maybe I understood it was not just speaking and talking, this is
life; and if we won't make an action, more and more lives will disappear, more
and more death will be here.
GROSS: How much faith do either of you have in the politicians to negotiate a
lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
Mr. ARAMIN: Actually, we don't believe in politician. To be politician,
unfortunately, is to be liar. For that we announce that we are totally not
politician. We have a political message. We must encourage those politician
to make this negotiation or to put pressure on them that we refuse to be
enemy. We must--we want to live together in peace and stability, both
Israelis and Palestinians. And give them the courage that they have the
majority on both sides, or to make a pressure on them and not to accept their
judgment about the Palestinians or the Israelis. All the time we hear that
the Israelis don't understand, just the language of power. And the
Palestinians don't understand, just the language of power. And it's failed.
More than 60 years this language, we used it; it's failed. There's nothing
happened, just more victims and more killing. It's our life, our children's
life, is more important than the land, than the border, than everything.
Mr. SHAPIRA: Israel has some peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan, so-called
with the Palestinian Authority in '93. But this peace didn't last because it
was peace of politicians, of papers and pencils and signatures. It wasn't
peace between human beings, between people. So the only peace that we can
reach is a peace between people.
GROSS: Well, Bassam, let me ask you--you both agree that a lasting peace has
to be a peace agreed on by a people, not just politicians, and that the
politicians might be the last to actually come to a meaningful agreement--but
Bassam, do you really believe that you can convince Hamas and Fatah not to
fight anymore and to live with Israelis?
Mr. ARAMIN: Before, to end the occupation, it's very difficult. I don't ask
anyone to agree with me or to give me the right to fight against the
occupation. We say that. In spite, it's our right to defense ourself by
power, but, our opinion, it's not work. It make us suffer more and more. The
Palestinians and also the Israelis, they throw this idea without speaking with
all the Palestinians and with all the Israelis. But I believe that if the
Palestinians see hope that there is a process will lead them to establish
their own state, to end the occupation, I believe that we, all of us, will be
winner and all of us will live in peace.
And I don't believe that there is any human being in Israel or Palestine, in
Hamas, or...(unintelligible)...want to kill all the humanity, want to kill all
the Jews or want to kill all the Palestinians. No, we want to live in peace,
but without occupation. But with the occupation, with this suffering, with
this torture, with this slavery, I don't believe that the Palestinian people
will stop fighting against the occupation. But now at least we are focusing
on `don't fight the civilians.' To kill civilians, it's not legal, it's not
moral. And the Palestinian, we are suffering from killing our civilians. We
cannot agree or encourage any Palestinians to kill any Israeli civilians.
Like the same child for two days who hid...(unintelligible)...from a
Palestinian rocket. We are against these rockets because its target civilians
also, like our civilians.
Mr. SHAPIRA: Bassam is always, always the optimistic one between us. I know
deeply the Israel society and also the Palestinian society, and I see how more
and more--how the extremists are stronger and louder in bigger quantities, and
there's more and more hate from everywhere--from the schools, from the media,
from the street. I wish I may still be alive when there would be peace, when
there would be no occupation. If I wouldn't work in Combatants for Peace to
reach this goal, then I would be broken. I'm just working because this is the
only choice for me, to work towards peace, but I am really doubtful if in my
years it will happen.
GROSS: But you feel it's the only thing you can do right now is to--yeah.
Mr. SHAPIRA: After seeing the immorality, after seeing people die because of
stupidity--Israelis and Palestinians--and just because I see this blood in the
streets, in the eyes of Israelis and Palestinians, I must work. But to say
that I'm looking for results, I would be naive.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much and I wish you both good
luck. And Bassam, I want to say again how sorry I am about your daughter.
Mr. ARAMIN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you both. Be well.
Mr. ARAMIN: Thank you.
Mr. SHAPIRA: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Bassam Aramin and Zohar Shapira are co-founders of Combatants for
Peace. It's comprised of former Palestinian fighters and former Israeli
soldiers committed to finding a nonviolent approach to justice and
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel on the
Philharmonic's recent performance in North Korea
TERRY GROSS, host:
A very closed country opened slightly and briefly last month when the New York
Philharmonic played at the invitation of North Korea's leaders. Conductor
Lorin Maazel hopes the concert helped pave the way to diplomacy.
Maazel has been the music director of the New York Philharmonic since 2002.
From 1972 to '82 he conducted the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a child prodigy
and began studying conducting at the age of seven.
One of the pieces he conducted in North Korea was George Gershwin's "An
American in Paris." Here's an excerpt.
(Soundbite of applause)
(Soundbite of "An American in Paris")
GROSS: Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in North Korea.
After finishing their Asian tour, Maazel returned briefly to the US. Last
Thursday we caught up with him in Milan, where he was preparing for another
concert, quite a schedule for a 78-year-old conductor. I spoke with Mazaal
about his experiences in North Korea.
Maestro Maazel, welcome to FRESH AIR. You opened the concert with both the
American and the North Korean national anthems. What do you think of the
American national anthem as a piece of music? Do you get any pleasure
musically out of playing it?
Mr. LORIN MAAZEL: You know, as an American, I've got a visceral response to
the tune. You know I've been singing it in school, you know, ever since I can
remember, and so...
GROSS: It's very hard to sing.
Mr. MAAZEL: It's hard to sing and the words are difficult, but of course one
masters them. And as I say, it's a visceral thing. You hear it, you get
goosebumps, and that's, you know, your national anthem. But what stupefied me
is that I knew perfectly well that this had been the first time ever in North
Korean history since the end of the Korean War that the American anthem had
been heard in Korea, and after we played the two anthems, OK, first the North
Korean anthem and then "The Star Spangled Banner," people actually applauded.
Applauded. North Koreans applauded, including government officials, and then
sat down. Applauding the American anthem, and that of course gave it away.
Apparently this event had long been talked about, was long awaited, and the
time had come, obviously, to forget the hate and try to move on. And
rightfully so, because what is the alternative?
GROSS: When you were in North Korea, did you have a minder who helped you get
around and negotiate your way and who also prevented you from seeing certain
Mr. MAAZEL: Well, they call them guides, not minders, and of course we had a
guide who stayed in the little guest house my son and I were lodged in. And I
have to laugh because I have been minded in so many communist countries in the
past. I was in the Soviet Union twice. The first time I conducted five
different orchestras and I had an interpreter/minder with me day and night,
from whom I would escape once in a while, much to the consternation of this
But I learned early on that these people are engaged to do that, and if they
lose you, they may not only lose their job, but they may also lose their
lives. I mean, I remember one translator in Russia bursting into tears. She
was a young woman. She said, `You just can't run away from me this way. You
have no idea what they would do to me.' And so you can't put your minder's
life at risk, can you? That's the world they live in, and if you go there you
have to accept the norms.
We did have a camera with us, and we asked whether we could take pictures any
place. They said `no problem,' which we did. You know, we got out of the
car, we took pictures. Not much to take pictures of because there are no
apartment houses and no stores and no cars and no skyscrapers, there's no
traffic. There's nothing. So what are you taking pictures of? But that in
itself is a documentation, though there's nothing there that we were seeing
that we didn't know we would see, especially those of us who are old enough to
remember the bad old times in other communist countries.
GROSS: There are so many instruments that, if you play them for a long period
of time, unless your posture is just absolutely perfect, it's going to create
like tendonitis or, you know, other kinds of like physical problems that will
give you aches and pains and maybe even result in not being able to play the
instrument after a certain age. Anything similar that you face as a
conductor? I mean, you've been doing it a long time. You started when you
were seven. So, like, what are some of the hazards of conducting?
Mr. MAAZEL: Hazards. Well, conductors get conductor's elbow. So many of my
colleagues have been operated on. You know, there are cramps, which result
from bad positioning. I've always been aware of that, I suppose, because a
good violinist trained in the Russian school where there are all kinds of
anti-tension exercises that you have to engage in if you're going to play that
instrument for hours on end without encountering difficulties. So that I'm
able, even at my fairly advanced age, to conduct six, seven hours without any
cramps, without any tension because I've given it a great deal of thought.
And if I'm known for my so-called conducting technique, it's because I've
given the attention that is required so that it is smooth and functional and
that there is no tension involved other than the intensity of one's musical
imperative, which finds its expression in that one sweep, or click of the
baton where you put all your energy for that split section into a motion which
will be efficacious and will have the desired effect.
So, yes, my advice to young people is to be sure that the schooling is right,
whatever you're playing, especially the wind instruments, you know, that
your...(unintelligible)...is set just right, and that if you're a string
player, that your hands are positioned in a way that will not do damage to
your spinal column.
GROSS: Can you share one good anti-tension exercise with us?
Mr. MAAZEL: Well, the first thing to do is learn how to breathe, very deep
breath, slow. Then you stand in one position if you're going to conduct or
sing or whatever for about a minute and you deliberately relax every muscle in
your body. You become aware of the fact that quite a few muscles are tense,
and so you relax them all the way down, you know, through the calves of your
legs. And then you take one more very slow breath and then you say to
yourself, what I do here is of no importance whatsoever. I am here as a
servant. If I'm nervous it means that I think what I'm doing is important,
and that is an egocentricity which no interpreter can allow himself the luxury
of. You're there to serve the music and you have to be in the best position,
psychological and physiological, to do so, which means no tension, no nerves.
Yes, exhilaration. Yes, enthusiasm. Yes, focused energy. But no
nervousness, because that's counterproductive.
GROSS: And do you go through these exercises backstage before walking onto
the stage, or are you thinking this for the first few seconds before you lift
your arms to begin conducting?
Mr. MAAZEL: Well, I go through none of this anymore. It's so part of my...
Mr. MAAZEL: So, I mean, I just take that breath as a matter of course and my
GROSS: Your muscles are already relaxed. You don't have to...
Mr. MAAZEL: They're already relaxed because I've been giving it...
GROSS: Good for you.
Mr. MAAZEL: ...so much thought for so long. It's so important.
GROSS: Uh-huh. And even in North Korea, you didn't have to tell your body to
relax. You were...
Mr. MAAZEL: No.
GROSS: ...in the zone.
Mr. MAAZEL: No. I was very, very focused; concentrated, but not nervous.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. All right. Maestro, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MAAZEL: A pleasure.
GROSS: Congratulations on your tour.
Mr. MAAZEL: Thank you.
GROSS: Good luck with your performance tonight.
Mr. MAAZEL: Thank you.
GROSS: Lorin Maazel is the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Last
month he conducted the orchestra in North Korea. The New York Philharmonic
North Korea concert premiered in February on PBS' "Great Performances." To
stream the full concert online, you can visit www.pbs.org/gperf.
We'll close with an excerpt of the concert, a Korean folk song.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.