Symphony Stories: Featuring Maestro Gerardo Edelstein

Editor’s note:?This is the first installment of a monthly series. “Symphony Stories”?will feature a different member of the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra each month. For more information, contact the Showcase Department at 570-326-1551 or

The biggest concerns for most college students are things like doing homework, keeping the parents happy, wondering whether so-and-so wants to date, trying to limit drinking to the weekends and avoiding thinking about all those loans they’re eventually going to have to pay back. They’re big problems to each student, but, let’s face it, on a global scale, they’re pretty small.

But when Williamsport Symphony Orchestra Maestro Gerardo Edelstein was a music student at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music in Israel, he found himself amidst a struggle that was much bigger than passing the next exam.

The time was 1990 and Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait with the fourth largest military in the world, one that the United States had helped build for Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran. The United States was afraid that if Iraq then decided to take over neighboring Saudi Arabia, suddenly Hussein would control one-fifth of the world’s oil supply. Then president George H.W. Bush sent more than 500,000 troops to defend Saudi Arabia, giving Hussein an ultimatum: “Leave Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991, or face a full attack.” Hussein didn’t bite, and soon, the bombing began.

Hussein responded by launching missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel in an effort to force surrounding countries into submission so that they would support the Iraqis against the United States

It was at this time that Edelstein was trying to simultaneously further his musical education and raise a small family in Jerusalem, a city of more than half a million people who suddenly had to be ready for a bombing at any time. Since each missile had the potential of being a chemical weapon, everyone had to have at least one room in their living space that could be sealed off completely as soon as the alarm sounded.

The government sent out instructions for how to do this and with tape and towels and other odds and ends, Edelstein learned how to protect himself, his wife, Ruth, and their 6-month-old daughter from chemical warfare. For an entire month, every night, they sat up at night wearing gas masks in their saferoom listening for explosions as the alarms blared.

“The Americans came and put close to the place where we lived one of those anti-missile systems called The Patriot,” he said. “They would use it, if necessary, to try to intercept one of Saddam’s. So, every single night, usually at midnight was when he sent them, a siren would go off and we had to get in bed. We would hear booms and we were never sure whether it was The Patriot that went off or a missile that landed. That tension there, that stress that we endured during that month, it’s something that I don’t wish on anybody.”

Edelstein had come to Jerusalem to study music because his Jewish heritage allowed him to receive a tuition-free education. His parents were against the idea from the beginning, citing the unrest of the Middle East and the fanciful notion of making a living as a musician. They would’ve preferred him, instead, to stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina, his home city, and finish his engineering degree.

But he knew he wanted to study music and he knew that even if he got accepted into a school like Julliard, that his parents wouldn’t be able to pay for it. His father, as a man who owned his own electronics business, and his mother, who was an accountant, had done well for themselves and their family. But paying for his education was still out of reach. He knew that if he wanted to pursue his dream as a symphony conductor, that Israel was the Promised Land for his future career.

When Edelstein first arrived in Jerusalem, things were much simpler. As a new student, he lived in a Kibbutz (in Hebrew, it means “gathering”), which is essentially an agricultural commune where the community owns the land equally, children are raised collectively and members work voluntarily without pay, earning housing, clothing, healthcare and education.

“At these farms, the Kibbutzim, people live there in equality,” Edelstein said. “They all own the land, they build houses exactly the same for everyone, they have a common kitchen and everyone works on everything. So, one day you will work with the cows, milking cows, the next day you go and pick up oranges, and the next day you work in the kitchen.”

One time, Edelstein was sent to “work with turkeys,” and he was not a fan.

“I didn’t like that,” he said. “I had to feed them, clean the cages, things like that. I remember helping to carry them to the trucks that would take them for slaughter. That was not fun.”

Needless to say, he was more suited for conducting classical music than farm work, and he ended up winning the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Scholarship by the American/Israel Cultural Foundation during his time at the Rubin Academy of Music.

He also became the principal conductor of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and Orchestra, making many television and radio appearances throughout the country.

After studying temporarily in Stuttgart, Germany, Edelstein moved to the United States to finish his master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Rice University.

He has gone on to conduct orchestras in Europe, South America, Asia and the United States and now serves as director of orchestral studies at Penn State, as music director of the Music at Penn’s Woods summer festival and, of course, as the conductor of the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra.

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