Roni and Jim Ackerman
The Israel Philharmonic ended the year on a high note, celebrating its 85th anniversary with a birthday celebration complete with musical legends. To start an exciting new year, we got the chance to talk with AFIPO President Jim Ackerman about special moments from past galas and his vision for the future.
Thank you so much for carving out some time tonight, Jim. First off, tell us how your family and background are so intimately connected to the orchestra and the American Friends.
I learned and loved classical music as a child. I literally have been there since the very beginning. As a young boy, my parents would take me to all sorts of concerts. I started when I was three or four years old—very, very young. I got to go to a lot of the classical music concerts that the IPO did, and that’s how we got connected.
My father [Morty Ackerman] was an accountant, and his major client was Fredric R. Mann. My parents were there when he opened the Mann Auditorium. When it was time to formally form a group in the United States to organize the fundraising and touring efforts of the IPO, Fred formed it. He was the first president of the board, and my father was appointed as treasurer.
As I grew up, I was very much aware of the American Friends. I knew Suzanne Ponsot very well. Many of the people on the board I’ve known over 30 years, because of my involvement.
As I got older, I went to the main events in New York. When I was a young man, I was involved with the associates, and that was a lot of fun. They had a good strong group going in the New York area.
Last summer, the past president Irwin Field and Danielle Ames Spivak came to me and said, Jim, would you agree to be the next president of the board? I was really flattered because I was not expecting it. I said, “Well, it’s a big commitment and I got to talk it over with my wife first.” I talked it over with Roni, and we decided that it was something that we would really like to do. We thought that we could do it well, and so I said yes.
And here we are. For the people who may not be as in tune with the associates of the Israel Philharmonic, was that a separate group?
Associates were young people under 40. The Israel Philharmonic had always run a group trying to have young people get involved with the American Friends and with the orchestra. We carry on that tradition today, mainly in New York and Los Angeles.
I was at the LA gala and remember that was a part of your speech, talking about the importance of carrying this tradition through the generations. It’s interesting to hear that it’s not a new thing.
No, it’s not a new thing. The Los Angeles gala was terrific. It was great seeing all the young people there because that’s the future.
You want to make sure that you have new people who learn about the orchestra and the American Friends, and who really come to love the organization the way we do so they can carry on their traditions. That is very, very important.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the orchestra itself is not afraid to be on the cutting edge of things, as opposed to some other more traditional orchestras. I think that lends itself to be especially helpful in this new age when we need things to cut through the noise and to reach new audiences.
History is very important, but I like to look for the future as well. And to me, the future is very bright. If we do what we need to do, and we really help the orchestra, I think that the IPO will really help make friends for Israel, make friends for the Jewish people, and be the shining light around the world that truly is.
The marvelous thing about the IPO is it can continue to grow worldwide because they are one of the finest orchestras in the world. The quality and the warmth that they exude is a marvelous and unique combination. I think it appeals to many generations.
Do you have a favorite moment out of any of your gala trips?
One of my favorite parts of the whole trip was getting to know the musicians. In my position, that’s a benefit that I have. I had asked Avi Shoshani, Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic, if the quartet could play both the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah at each of the events.
Avi said, “Jim, are you sure? You know the Hatikvah is normally only played with the whole orchestra and with the prime minister or the President of Israel present.” I told him that everybody would remember the quartet playing Hatikvah. And that’s exactly what happened. When people stand up to listen to Hatikvah, it really touches their hearts.
In La Jolla, they’ve built a new performing arts center, where the acoustics are absolutely marvelous. They’re so marvelous that their quartet noticed. From the stage, they said, “This is one of the finest venues we’ve ever played at. And honestly, we’re having a great time.”
The people in Dallas were so happy to have the quartet there for the first time. We were extremely fortunate that Morton Meyerson, who endowed the symphony hall there, opened his personal home to the quartet. It was special to meet the people, and it was such a warm welcome.
We talk about the importance of unlocking the piece for people. It’s easy to listen to music that you’re unfamiliar with, but it’s way easier to engage with context.
I asked David Radzynski, who’s one of the youngest concertmasters of any major orchestra in the world, to talk about each of the pieces of music before the quartet played them.
Many people in the audience came up to me afterward and said, “Oh, my God, it was so nice that they talked about the music. We learned a little bit about why Tchaikovsky wrote this piece, or what this piece by Ravel meant.” I think it made a big difference.
Did the IPO come to the U.S. a lot in its earliest days, when your father worked with Fredric Mann? At that time, was there a lot of engagement with the orchestra?
Yes, there was a ton of engagement. Some of my parents’ fondest memories are when they went to Washington, D.C. for a gala. There, they would help do what I believe is part of the mission of the orchestra: Be the cultural ambassador of Israel. I mean, imagine the orchestra playing Hatikvah with congresspeople and ambassadors sitting in the audience. It’s just a marvelous thing.
Music is a great way to make friends. And it’s a great way to have a shared experience that you then can refer to. The concerts in Washington, D.C. were very moving.
I invited the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates to the New York gala. Somebody sent him a copy of a rehearsal of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra playing the national anthem of the UAE. He said it moved him to tears.
The ambassador even taped a tribute, saying “We would like to honor the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as our nations become friends.” And that will happen. If you remember the 85th anniversary, it’s one of Zubin Mehta’s dreams that one day the IPO will play in the capital of one of the Arab nations.
You spoke about what it was like hearing the music of the Israel Philharmonic String Quartet live acoustically, but how did you feel after? This was the first time in two-plus years that musicians of the Israel Philharmonic played in the U.S. What were you feeling emotionally, hearing that music?
It was really terrific. It was marvelous that we were able to have the live performance, and it was extremely moving.
First, they open with playing the U.S. national anthem, and then they play Hatikvah, and then David [Radzynski] goes into talking about the program. It was so nice to be able to sit with friends, and fellow board members, and colleagues, and associate members, and have that shared experience again.
I’m proud of the fact that I was the one who required proof of vaccination at all venues as it was our intent to make it enjoyable, moving and safe for everybody.
The last question that I like to ask everyone is a fun one. What have you been listening to recently? It doesn’t have to be Haydn or classical music—what’s in your earbuds?
I love all kinds of music. I mean, I listen to everything from Itzhak Perlman playing one of the violin concertos to Lynyrd Skynyrd. When it comes to rock, I’m a classic rock kind of guy. I still listen to a lot of Eagles and Rolling Stones. But then I also listen to a lot of classical music as well. My tastes and music really range the gamut.
I even love jazz too. I learned about Coltrane when I was in college. Roni and I will go down to New Orleans and spend the weekend. We fly in on a Thursday night, so we have time to do dinner and go out to hear jazz.
Do you have anything that I missed or didn’t ask that you want to say?
I don’t think so, except that it’s important to learn from the past, but it’s also really important to press forward for the future.
Since COVID, we’ve really ramped up the events that we’re doing online, and they’ve been well received. I think the more quality that we can put online, the better. I think it will make us friends, lead to donations, and just lead to more goodwill with the IPO.
Hungry for more great AFIPO and Israel Phil content? Check this out!