back to contents

Judith Liber '61 Performs for
Pope John Paul II in Jerusalem

by Linda Shockley


Conservatory Home

Oberlin Online Home

Previous Issues

E-mail Us

Staff Box

For 37 years, harpist Judith Liber has performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), the orchestra that boasts the largest subscription public per capita in the world. In September 2000, she will retire from her position as principal harpist with IPO. But before retiring, Liber experienced another career highlight in March when the President of Israel , Ezra Weitzman and his wife Rehuma, requested that she perform at the ceremony welcoming Pope John Paul II to the President's Mansion in Jerusalem. In this Conservatory News interview, Liber discusses her days at Oberlin, her long and rich career, inspiration, and the performance during the Pope's historic visit to Jerusalem.


You completed undergraduate work at Oberlin in 1961. With whom did you study? What is most memorable about your time at Oberlin?

I graduated from Oberlin in l961; I was a student of professor Lucy Lewis. I remember several important things about Oberlin as I look back: the sophisticated student body - so many were from Eastern schools and seemed so politically astute; their knowledge of literature and the arts surpassed anything I had previously experienced; they were already liberal thinkers. I was stimulated immediately. Miss Lucy Lewis, professor of harp, was a dedicated and inspiring task master. I chose Oberlin because I wanted to study with her and it is she who prepared me for my professional career. And finally, the Salzburg Program - all juniors in the Conservatory were sent to the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria for one year - was a priceless experience, a gift from Oberlin College! True, I perhaps didn't progress a lot technically on the harp that year but the enormous amount that I learned has served me well during my long career.

How did Oberlin prepare you to enter, with confidence, the professional world of classical music?

I cannot answer simply and directly. Oberlin was not simple! Lucy Lewis taught me how to play the harp. She taught me how to practice and how to learn. The incredible noise in the old Con taught me to concentrate. The endless piano and organ recitals gave me valuable exposure to the great baroque and classical repertoire so lacking for the harp. My years singing in the Oberlin Choir with Robert Fountain taught me the power of a phrase, the physical joy of harmonic sounds and the miracle of dynamic shading. The year in Salzburg made me fluent in the German language. What Oberlin did not give me then was orchestral experience. I was totally inexperienced when I joined one of the world's leading symphony orchestras. The confidence came from "knowing" how to make music on the instrument.

What happened next? Young harpist walks from a Conservatory education and finds...

From Oberlin I went to the University of Illinois to study for a Master of Music degree. In 1963, while spending the summer at the Salzedo School for Harp in Camden, Maine, I heard about the audition for solo first harp in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I played my prepared repertoire for Maestro Pierre Monteaux, who heard the audition alone. He then gave me Wagner's "Love Death" to sight read and began to ask: "Have you played this? Have you played that?" My replies of "No, Maestro" reverberated in his studio. Later, when he concluded the auditions, he told the Israel Philharmonic to "hire the girl from Ohio. She has no experience but she knows how to play the harp! She will learn the orchestra repertoire!"

You have been a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) in TelAviv for almost four decades. I'd love to know more about your life as a professional musician, living in the Middle East. Does the IPO have a signature repertoire? As a professional musician, what keeps you inspired?

I have been a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for 37 years. I shall retire in September 2000. In l967 I married here and I have two daughters.

My life in the IPO is very demanding. This orchestra travels about three months per year on extensive concert tours throughout the world. In Israel we have the largest subscription public per capita in the world: 35,000 subscribers in a country of about 3.5 million. It is exciting and stimulating to play to full houses but it means repeating every program many times so that every subscriber will hear it once!

By "signature repertoire" do you mean something we do best? If so, I can tell you that we are specialists at Mahler. The two conductors who, more than anyone else, molded the style and sound of the IPO in the past 40 years are Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta, both of them are emotional and scintillating artists who perform Mahler like no one else.

What keeps me inspired? The beauty of music; audiences that need and love music; working with the world's greatest conductors and soloists, and Zubin Mehta, musical director of the IPO.

Perhaps more personally - because North Americans often view the Middle East as a politically troubled area - I'm wondering if politics have had an impact on your work.

I was an American Field Service exchange student to Finland when I was a 16-year-old high school student. I was thrilled to hear languages I couldn't comprehend, talk with people of other lands and when I returned home I declared my intentions to drop music and go to college to study International Politics.

This past and fate dealt me a kind hand by shipping me off to the Middle East where the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is the cultural ambassador of Israel throughout the world.

Every concert is more than a symphony. It is followed by a dialogue at the reception with people who do not speak just about how beautifully you played and what a nice dress you are wearing.

Recently, in Sapporo, Japan, I was explaining why the peace process is so difficult. Politics have a great effect on our lives here. It has no effect on our professional work except for the moral/political fact that Wagner's music is not played in Israel. Too many Israelis who survived the Holocaust still hear that music in their nightmares and a younger generation holds it as a symbol of the theology of the Third Reich. The political realities of the Middle East become extremely important when we travel abroad.

Do you have advice for young musicians as they receive their degrees and leave Oberlin?

Musicians who leave Oberlin and seek employment on the concert stage need to be well equipped: Love music and need to make music! Without this you will not have the strength to continue practicing, (it never finishes) you will soon be bored and worst of all frustrated. If you do not yet control your instrument, continue studying before you audition. And then listen to sound, to style and to artistry. Technicians are everywhere but artists are few. I have concluded toward the end of my career that sometimes our ego gets in the way. We are, after all, servants of a God-given talent and interpreters of works composed by geniuses. Leave your ego out of music.

The Performance with Pope John Paul II in Jerusalem

On March 23, 2000, you performed in a short solo recital for Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Jerusalem. Tell me about that performance.

The President of Israel, Ezra Weitzman and his wife Rehuma, requested that I perform at the ceremony welcoming the Pope to the President's Mansion in Jerusalem on March 23 at 11:00 a.m. The setting was a tent on the terrace in the garden of the President's Mansion. (The largest reception room inside is not large enough for the guests, plus security, plus the press corp.) The streets of Jerusalem were deserted - the city was closed at 8:00 p.m. the night before. This is West Jerusalem, new Jerusalem - a Jewish city. The security banned traffic, access, and the people of Israel are curious, suspicious - they were not joyous to see him as in Christian countries.

The audience included cabinet ministers of the government, past Presidents or widows of Presidents of Israel, the entire diplomatic corp, the Cardinals and Catholic dignitaries and Christian dignitaries of Jerusalem. There was no general public and I would guess there were about 350 present. Those present were extremely excited. Tension mounted even more due to the delays. For some reason I felt a deep inner calm and peace.

What did you perform? How did you make the selection of what to perform? How did you prepare for the performance?

I was told that they particularly wanted to open the ceremony with harp music to demonstrate the ancient Biblical connection of the harp and King David. The ceremony was carefully timed, as was the entire Pilgrimage of the Pope, and they specifically asked me to play for three minutes and not to play any sacred music that could be controversial. They also asked me to play again for one minute after the President and before the Pope. I chose to play Prelude No.8 by Claude Debussy. Between the two speeches I played a short Pavanne in G minor without repeats!

Of course, we'd like to believe that a professional musician would serve the cause of music regardless of whether the audience totals five or 50,000, and whether that audience is comprised of high schoolers, other symphony members or Isaac Stern. You have performed for other world leaders? More specifically, how did it feel to perform for this religious leader who is a world icon?

Yes, I have performed many times as soloist in ceremonies here and in other parts of the world but nothing matched the significance of this performance. For me, a Protestant from Ohio, making music on the ancient instrument of the Bible to bridge a dialogue between the President of the State of Israel and the Pope of the Catholic Church was a humbling honor.

I have walked The Great Wall of China; I entered East Berlin in l970; I played the Israel National Anthem in Berlin in August l970 as an encore to Mahler's Symphony #1 when the IPO first performed in Germany and the German public stood on its feet! I performed in Berlin with the IPO in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall: I played the Mahler #5 Adagietto for Lennie's memorial; and with the IPO I have met Prime Ministers, Presidents, Kings and Queens. Playing for Pope John Paul II was different! As he said, "Silence. Silence speaks when there are no adequate words."