Who The Folk?! Amir Kats

What’s it like to conduct one of the oldest community orchestras in the United States? Amir Kats is doing just that, as he is finishing his seventh season as conductor of the St. Paul JCC’s Symphony. Kats, who has won the Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Association Community Service Award is also in his fifth year as the orchestra and band teacher at Blake Middle School in Hopkins, and the first-year conductor of the Roseville String Ensemble. We talk about the importance of arts in schools, what it’s like to lead one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S., and how he juggles it all, on this week’s Who The Folk?! Podcast.

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What instruments did you play growing up?

I grew up hearing music as my mother is both a performer and teacher; her mother was as well. So I started tinkling away at the piano since I was probably like five or six years old, and then starting in elementary and middle school, I started studying with degrees of seriousness; Violin, clarinet, and I studied piano in more depth.

Is it a rarity that the Jewish Community Center – especially in a city the size of St. Paul – has a community orchestra?

I think it is a rarity. When the orchestra was founded – it’s now over 90 years old – I don’t believe it was specifically affiliated with the JCC. If I’m not mistaken, I believe it’s the only Jewish Community Center in the country that specifically has a community orchestra affiliated with it. It has some interesting impact on our programming because we do some more kind of traditional, Western European classical orchestra fare, but we’ve also had some different kinds of programs that featured more of a Jewish aspect.

When you’re trying to prepare the orchestra with guest singers, how hard is to prepare for something like that when you have time with just the orchestra and then the singer comes in?

It’s challenging. There was this curious moment I had was when we prepared for Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot to sing with us. All the music that we’re preparing with him was complicated music. It was music where were a lot of spots where you just kind of had to wait and see how fast or slow he would take something where he would change the speed and I kept reminding them that we’ll have to listen to see what he does. So we’re all kind of nervous, and the first time I met him was on the day of the performance. He walks in the door, five minutes before rehearsal starts, and says “So tell me again which tunes are we doing tonight.” At that moment, you know, time kind of stands still, but you just have to be very professional about it. It turned out to be a huge success, but on our side, the orchestra just has to be as well-prepared as possible and they have to know their parts cold, and they have to know how to listen for each other.

How do you take the lessons that you learned working with the any of this orchestra in St Paul and translate them to teaching here at Blake?

I think what you’re trying to do at any level is to create committed music-making, expressive music-making – just where the group knows how to function together. There’s just a lot of moving parts, and while the skill levels may vary between adults and younger people in a certain sense, the problems are the same in that sometimes the moving parts just aren’t lining up. Whether it’s literally that people aren’t playing at the exact microsecond that they’re supposed to, or that they don’t know who they’re supposed to listen for, or how they should adjust their sound accordingly whether they should be stronger than the other person blend in and be softer than the other person. All of those affect the final product and that’s true whether you’re talking about someone who’s only been playing for two years and is playing a simpler level of music, or whether you’re talking about an adult.

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