The music community and its extended family lost a faithful friend, a visionary leader, an innovative programmer, and a beloved conductor when Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman died Sept. 20 in Portland.
The high-energy, Israeli-born musician, who had a robust laugh and room for anyone who came into his life, was 78. He passed away from complications of cancer and a heart attack at the Siletz Bay Music Festival on the Oregon Coast, where, in his signature collaborative and inclusive style, he had brought together numerous musicians performing a range of music from Latin jazz to hip-hop to Indigenous works to classical and Broadway hits.
“Yaki simply emanated love, kindness, curiosity and enthusiasm,” said flutist Amelia Lukas, who played under his baton in the Portland Chamber Orchestra and at the Siletz Bay Music Festival this year when he commissioned a chamber quartet by Michiru Oshima for her. “He was always full of positive energy, driven by his clear passion for music, and this spirited approach was infectious. You couldn’t help but feel more alive and lit up in his presence.”
Though Bergman lived in New York City with his wife, Joan Behrens-Bergman, a pianist and teacher, he traveled frequently to the Northwest. He led the 76-year-old Portland Chamber Orchestra for 21 years, the Walla Walla Symphony for 36, and the two-week late-summer Siletz Bay Music Festival since 2009. In previous years, he directed the Colorado Springs Symphony, the New York Heritage Chamber Orchestra, and the 92nd St. Y Symphonic Workshop Orchestra in New York City.
He led orchestras throughout the world, including in Scandinavia, Japan, Europe, and the Philippines. As the first Israeli conductor to appear in an Arab republic, Bergman conducted symphonic concerts in Cairo, Egypt, in 1995 and 1996. An enthusiast and proponent of new music, he programmed many world premieres of American composers, including William Bolcom and Gwyneth Walker, and work from worldwide composers.
He was trained classically, first as a violinist in Israel, segueing into composing and conducting at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Later, he completed postgraduate studies at the Mannes College of Music in New York as a student of Richard Westenburg and at one point, took private lessons from Leonard Bernstein.
Shortly after his death, an outpouring of memories and fond feelings came from musicians of all sorts and from creative people in other disciplines whom he worked with in the Northwest. Though he loved many different kinds of music, he didn’t stop there. Even more, he loved combining diverse arts into mutlmedia projects. He incorporated spoken words, such as in the 2021 My Words Are My Sword into a composition by pianist and composer Jasman Daya Singh. He used photographs and poetry in the stunning 2022 collaboration Celilo Falls: We Were There with composer/cellist Nancy Ives, photographer Joe Cantrell (Cherokee) and poet/playwright Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock).
Both Cantrell and Ives said the three-year Celilo collaboration about the midcentury flooding of the Columbia River’s Celilo Falls that decimated Native fishing grounds was a highlight of their lives. “It was one of the most profound and meaningful things I will ever do in my artistic life,” Ives said.
Cantrell called it a “crowning achievement and one of the most important episodes of my life. … Yaki and I were brothers. We bonded.” Though their friendship began with the Celilo project, they shared artistic vision and military service. They communicated nonstop, always excited about future projects. They had a common goal, Cantrell said: “We both found that all people were equal in so many ways, and through our art, our most powerful tool, we wanted to show beauty and humanity.”
On Valentine’s Day of this year, Bergman presented a program on the connection of the brain, love, and music with Oregon Health Sciences University neuroscientist Larry Sherman. How Your Brain Responds to Music, Love and Chocolate sold out at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton.
“I can honestly say that I had never met anyone like him in the classical music world,” Sherman said. “He was so willing to think outside the box, to combine music, art, dance (and even neuroscience) into the programs that he conceived. He was also one of the most generous and kind humans to walk on this planet. He always had time for young artists and found ways to promote them.”
Lily Burton, PCO concertmaster and a 10-year musician in the group and a Siletz Bay Music Festival performer, added to the frequently noted admiration of Bergman’s outside-the-box thinking:
“I often marveled at his creative programming and collaborating, wondering, how did he come up with that? I think his programs evolved organically from conversations and relationships he had with different people, who like him, wanted to make the world kinder and more appreciative of nature and other cultures. He would say, ‘It’s important.’”
Bergman exerted similar positive influence in Walla Walla, Wash., after 36 years of conducting the symphony, said Leah Wilson-Velasco, Walla Walla Symphony CEO. He was unable to attend his farewell concert in June this year due to illness, though Wilson-Velasco was hoping he could come later. “Yaki was a passionate musician who was extremely committed to musicians and community members here in Walla Walla,” she wrote in an email. “He cared deeply for people and developed many long-lasting friendships in our community. Yaki provided a steady and encouraging hand during his tenure here, always believing in what was possible in Walla Walla. He had a tremendous impact on the musicians and patrons of the Walla Walla Symphony, and we will miss him terribly.”
“Wherever he was,” flutist Lukas said, “Yaki attracted wonderful people and was a connective force, building communities in which music thrives.”
Added composer/cellist Ives: “He led with his heart, and what a huge, open heart it was!”
A number of musicians and creative artists who made music with Bergman had much to say about his musicianship, leadership, warmth and joie de vivre. Here are a few comments, edited for clarity.
Nancy Ives, cellist and composer of Celilo Falls: We Were There:
“ I never played under Yaki’s baton, but he was so much more than a conductor, and I am in awe of the many ways I and so many others — whole communities! — have been blessed by his incredible warmth, generosity, vision and leadership. On the basis of hearing just one of my compositions, Yaki spoke to me about the commission that ultimately became Celilo Falls: We Were There, which has been one of the most profound and meaningful things I will ever do in my artistic life.
“This was a leap of faith on his part, illustrating his trust in his own artistic instincts. He was a dream collaborator, offering inspiration, guidance and support, but with a remarkably light touch for such an esteemed leader. He inspired so much loyalty in a legion of artists and supporters which, combined with his passion for justice and peace, inspired others to sign on to the ambitious project, and his honesty and deep sincerity earned the trust of members of the Native American community we endeavored to honor. I think this is so emblematic of the impact he has had beyond the concert stage. He led with his heart, and what a huge, open heart it was! “
Ameila Lukas, Portland flutist and Aligned Artistry public relations founder:
“It was only in the past year that we started working together, but we had been drawn to each other professionally since we first met five or six years ago. Yaki and I share a special appreciation for concert programming that highlights connections beyond the music, and we had a number of fascinating conversations about how traditional models can shift to better serve audiences. As someone with a rich personal history and a consummate humanitarian, Yaki was always most interested in the feelings generated by music, which is refreshing in the world of classical music.
“I performed as part of the Portland Chamber Orchestra under his direction, and this summer he invited me to take part in the chamber music component of the Siletz Bay Music Festival, which was a very special honor. Yaki was always very supportive of composers, and his legacy includes a number of important new works that he brought into being over the years. He commissioned a brand-new quartet, For Blue Promise, for me to premiere at the festival just a few weeks ago that features flute, alto flute and bass flute in combination with violin, cello and piano by the wonderful composer Michiru Oshima. The piece is incredibly evocative and beautiful, and a perfect fit for this coastal festival, given the work’s oceanic theme.
“Yaki was in the hospital during the premiere, but was able to watch and listen to the video recording that I heard brought him much joy. My experience at this festival was a testament to Yaki: The audiences were deeply invested in the music, the performers were incredibly talented and gracious, and the board and staff could not have been more welcoming and supportive. … Wherever he was, Yaki attracted wonderful people and was a connective force, building communities in which music thrives.”
The video of “For Blue Promise,” which premiered at the Siletz Bay Music Festival, Aug. 28, 2023: Amelia Lukas, flutes; James Stern, violin; Jason Duckles, cello; Michelle Chow, piano.
Larry Sherman, OHSU neuroscientist, author and collaborator with Bergman on the 2023 How Your Brain Responds to Music, Love and Chocolate:
“I have known Yaki for over 20 years. When we first met, and he found out that I was a neuroscientist and musician, his first question was if I’d be interested in collaborating with the Portland Chamber Orchestra to explore ways that neuroscience and music overlap. The PCO was about to do an all-Gershwin program and he asked if I’d do a pre-concert talk called “This is Your Brain on Gershwin.” It seemed like a crazy idea, but of course it was brilliant and fun, two words that perfectly describe Yaki.
“In part because of the opportunities that Yaki gave me, I co-wrote a book with local music professor Dennis Plies titled Every Brain Needs Music. Yaki generously offered to review an early draft and wrote a beautiful review that the publisher included on the jacket. Working with Yaki on various projects over the years, and as board member of the PCO, he always had time for young artists and found ways to promote them. He would always consider ways to enrich artistic programs that helped communities in need. Yaki’s passing is a loss for the world and a personal loss for me. I will miss him and will always think of him, and his wonderful smile, when I hear an orchestra play.”
Darius Wallace, spoken word artist and writer/performer of PCO production My Words Are My Sword:
“My dear friend Yaacov Bergman transitioned to the realm of angels. He was the conductor of my new spoken word show My Words Are My Sword. During the creation of My Words Are My Sword, I grew to know Yaki as a beautiful artist and mind. I met him through a mutual friend, John Jamison, out of Walla Walla, Wash. Yaki was looking for a performance piece at the same time I was writing one. After seeing we were kindred spirits in regard to inspiration and the impact it has on audiences through the arts, we made a decision to move forward. He connected the project with Vancouver composer Jasnam Daya Singh, an amazing composer.
“Just as we were getting into the spirit of things, Covid hit the world. We were at a standstill until Yaki had the idea of rehearsing through Zoom. We did this together for a year or so. During this time, an American tragedy hit the country – the killing of George Floyd. I was greatly impacted by this and my words turned into fury. Yaki used his influence and empathy with my anger to help me find my way through creativity. I had been studying Kabbalah – esoteric Jewish mysticism. Learning Hebrew, which Yaki spoke, opened me up to, is a world of magic.
“Through meditation I found the words that became My Words Are My Sword. His passion, humor and grace will be greatly missed. We had so much more to do and accomplish, Yaki. So much more music. So much more poetry. So many more metaphysical discussions of Kabbalah and the Hebrew language. We must continue in the realm above the stars when I see you next time in Glory. Rest well my friend. Rest well.”
Randy Porter, Portland jazz musician and composer, who played in the Siletz Bay Music Festival for three years:
“He brought joy to others with his musicianship, energy and love of people. And I think that he loved all music. He seemed very open-minded about different styles and cultures and loved to include variety in his events. Yaki was a creative positive force that will be greatly missed.”
Ed Edmo, poet, playwright and Native American historian and consultant:
“He was a good human and accepted me in the chamber music community. Will miss him!”
Lily Burton, Portland Chamber Orchestra concertmaster and Siletz Bay Music Festival violinist:
“I will miss the way he respected and cared about his musicians and their lives. He often asked how my 94-year-old mother was doing after meeting her at concerts. I will miss his robust laugh that seemed to come from his belly. I will miss the way he leaned into the orchestra, emotionally ready to conduct the next movement. It is certainly a huge loss for the music community and the world. Some unique experiences that I’ll always remember with Yaki were our PCO trio playing a Bach chorale with all notes elongated for an outdoor yoga class. And the program about the effect of music and love on our brain. And accompanying some rap composed and performed by young men from the Siletz tribe. There are so many, I can’t list them all.”
Duncan Neilson, composer:
“Indeed— according to the Aramaic Jesus, the world around us is shaped sound. Which opens perceptions beyond surfaces into inner dimensions and relationships — we are all resounding notes in an orchestra of life. Interconnected — tree, water, stone, bird, human. Yaki, to me, is a force of nature. What better way to illustrate and experience shaped sound than in music? And then—live those realizations in greater harmony with each other and the natural world?
“This was Yaki‘s mission it seems to me. Though he never really formalized it in words in print — he more than hinted at this in conversation. He lived this on the kibbutz. And also musically — opening new doors of understanding constantly. And in his art that chose to celebrate the diversity of the human and the deep importance of the natural world. I think this is the deep imprint that Yaki has left — that we are meant to live in deeper integrity and harmony with each other, in whatever way we can. His chosen vocation as orchestral maestro revealed time and again the shaped sound sensibilities that could lift hearts, inspire minds, get the pulse racing, and take you to the sublime. Very few art forms can do this like music. But with Yaki there was and is always something else — that music is revealing something already in the world around us, and which we need to be reminded of from time to time.
“We live in a world of wonder. Sheer, uncanny, almost unbelievable wonder. From tides, to butterfly migrations, to leaves opening, to the colors of sunset and sunrise, to life-bringing winds and rain sweeping cross our world. We are part of something incredible. We are all resounding notes in a fantastic, literally cosmic orchestra. Too big to comprehend in its entirety, but we can experience through particular doorways … in sound, and presence, and reverence, in relation with the magnificent world we are in, and with each other.
“Yaki left too soon. Though he’s gone he’s an artist I will always be speaking about in present tense. Yaki is here. Do you see what he was pointing to? The magic around us? The magic inside us? The interrelationships revealed in sound which are inextricably linked with our world? I already miss him dearly. And yet, looking forward, he is with us at every step. Every listen. Every breath. In love and gratitude.
Miriam Ward, Portland Chamber Orchestra and Siletz Bay Music Festival violist:
“Yaki was so unabashedly enthusiastic about music and musicians that this energy infused all of his projects, making them better. He loved bringing together high-quality performers and unexpected twists for audiences. He was doing mixed-media performances in the ‘90s where I first met him conducting in New York, long before that kind of collaboration became common. He brought spoken-word poets, world-class soloists, visual artists, dancers, indigenous creators and his signature joie de vivre to us all.
“The night this fall before he was hospitalized in Oregon, we sat around a fire pit with other musicians and he was still telling us about pieces he had in mind for future projects. He used all the Yaki words: fanTAStic, WONderful, completely NEW, truly SPECIAL, and finished with a little shrug and that way he had of raising his eyebrows to say, `Can you believe all these artists are here? Can’t wait to see what we come up with.’
“I would dearly have loved to play just a few more of these collaborations with him. He was the kind of supportive conductor who asked about my family first every time we spoke, and who loved the afterparty almost as much as the concerts. Anyone who spent time chatting with him will remember his explosive laugh and how easily he became interested in those around him. Sometimes musical leadership involves a certain professional distance even within the performance, but with him it was more collegial and nothing held back. We’ve lost one of us, and I’m so grateful to have played for him.”
Stacy Edgar, 30-year String Personnel Manager for the Portland Chamber Orchestra:
“What was amazing about Yaki was that we were part of a family that he took on amazing adventures together. It felt like he was my dad, and I’ve been on this amazing musical road trip with him for over 30 years. I have never known such a gifted and organic collaborator. Being part of his projects from the beginning was always an exhilarating and out-of-the-box adventure. However, what I will miss the most about Yaki is being part of his process – being a small piece of his musical long game. Yaki LOVED creating something unique and beautiful with friends, new and old, from a truly organic place. I am blessed to have been part of his circle, and to have felt and seen his love for the arts.”
Lauren Siess, musician, daughter of Stacy Edgar:
In a letter: “On behalf of Michael and me, I wanted to deeply thank you for the role you played in our musical lives. The opportunities you made possible for us as teenagers, performing Sinfonia Concertante and additionally, Schindler’s List, with the PCO were huge for our development as young performers. I feel you were always supportive of the two of us exploring unique paths, delving into lesser explored repertoire, and embracing our individual desires.
“We are both now so happy in our careers. Michael has developed his own ensemble, Astral Mixtape, fusing popular and classical music, and I am composing string quartets and orchestral works, while of course continuing to perform contemporary music in Germany. Witnessing your open-mindedness to new repertoire and ideas for the orchestra was so inspiring for us. Additionally, it was touching to witness your deep and constant support, on a musical and personal level, for the individual players in your orchestra. Thank you for everything you have done for our family!
“Much love, Lauren and Michael Siess”
John Jamison, Walla Walla Symphony former board president and composer
“We usually had lunch together when he was in town. I’d been president of the symphony board for a few years when we really struck up a friendship. When I started composing music in 2017 at age 69, Yaki was very encouraging, and I wrote a piece he performed with the symphony. This past year I wrote another piece to celebrate his long tenure, then ending at Walla Walla, and he put it onto the program for his final concert, which never happened.”
ArtsWatch Stories on Yaki Bergman and his projects:
- Siletz Bay Music Festival finale commemorates Oregon’s Trail of Tears.
- Cupid’s arrow to the brain: The neuroscience of music and love.
- Tapas in Siletz Bay.
- “A slight breeze pushing against my youthful cheeks”: A review of “elilo Falls: We Were There.”
- “Listen to the river. The river will tell you the sound.”
- There’s power in us that is greater than the world’s systems in power.
- The power of words: Darius Wallace and Jasnam Daya Singh with Portland Chamber Orchestra.
- Silitz Bay Music Festival returns with concert of resilience.
- It always works out: A joyful journey with David Krakauer and Portland Chamber Orchestra.
- Festival change with tide and time.
- Rich washes of color and sound: Amelia Lukas at Siletz Bay Music Festival.