Omar Farjoun Bishara has a lot to give. Okay, so he’s 15 years old, and what teenager doesn’t have so much to offer? But this young man encapsulates much of what this part of the world is about, and then some.
Farjoun Bishara plays double bass in the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (YIPO). The Jerusalem Music Center-based ensemble is the country’s leading junior classical music body. It comprises around 100 youngsters, aged 14-18, and performs several programs during the course of the year, including a run of Hanukkah-time concerts. It will play a wide-ranging repertoire of works, by Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Noam Sherrif, starting on Sunday (8 p.m.) at the Haifa Auditorium, followed by the Jerusalem Theater on the morrow (7 p.m.) and closing at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on December 12 (8 p.m.).
The bass was not the teenager’s first instrument and, even then, he didn’t exactly start making music from the cradle. “I began on piano,” he says. “I think I was around nine or 10.” I suggest that isn’t particularly early. “That’s true,” he says, “but you can start learning the piano at any time really, as long as you are still a child. The violin is something else. You really need to start on that when you are 5 or 6, certainly no later than 7.”
We chat in English, although Farjoun Bishara has a decent command of Hebrew. He was born in London to an Arab-Israeli father and Jewish-Israeli mother. The family relocated to Spain when he was still small, and he came here to live when he was 10. But, prior to that, he had a stint with his paternal grandparents in Nazareth. “At the time I wanted to improve my Arabic,” he explains. ”When I was a kid, my father spoke to me in Arabic, my mother spoke to me in Hebrew and I spoke English at school. But I didn’t agree to that. I said I only want English.” He had a change of heart when he was around nine, hence the Nazareth foray. However, that didn’t stick and he returned to Spain. “I don’t speak Arabic now,” he says. But he does play the double bass and, apparently, he does it well. You don’t get to join the YIPO just because you have a pretty face.
Considering the piano is basically a percussive instrument, of course with an abundance of melodic options, perhaps that was a natural continuum for Farjoun Bishara. “My parents told me that, when I was very young, I liked drumming on all kinds of things,” he observes. “I don’t know if that means anything,” he adds with a laugh.
And there may be some genes in the youngster’s talent mix. “My grandfather, on my father’s side, was a professional oud player. I never heard him because he died when I was a few months old. But I was told he was very good. I see his oud hanging up in his house.”
Still, had Farjoun Bishara not curtailed his language-oriented time here he may very well not have laid his nimble fingers on a double bass at all. “From a very young age I liked to listen to Mozart piano sonatas, on my headphones. The truth is I don’t listen to them anymore, because I have discovered so much other music – mainly orchestral music.” Mozart’s approach suited his emerging musical consciousness. “The most amazing thing about Mozart is his symphonies. He was actually very important for the line of the bass, and he gave some very hard parts for the bass.” Sonic envelope considerations also come into play here. “You can’t have more than three or four basses in Mozart. With Beethoven or Mahler you can have up to 12. With Mozart you can’t have more than three or four, but they have to be good bass players.”
The transition from piano to bass was the result of a chance encounter. After spending a few months in Nazareth, during which he not only worked on his Arabic, he also – happily – furthered his piano studies at the local music school, he went back home, to Spain. “There was a conservatory all my friends went to, and there was a [music] summer camp too. One day there I saw this kid – he was, maybe, eight, nine, 10 years old – playing the bass so beautifully. I thought, I want to play bass too.”
And so it came to be. When the new school year began he declared his new instrumental intent, and the rest is evolving history. “That small crazy kid got me to play the bass,” he laughs. “I wasn’t aware of all the great things that exist in orchestras, at the time, for the bass.”
A few months later and things got a little difficult on the Farjoun Bishara domestic, which prompted a longer term return here. “It wasn’t because I am a Zionist, or wanting to be a Jew,” he notes. After settling in with his maternal grandparents, in Jerusalem, he began attending the high school next to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. His teacher there, bassist Eran Borovich, helped move his young charge along in the requisite direction. “In Spain I used a French bow, but he changed me to a German bow.” That proved to be a decisive move. “The orchestra I fell in love, which my teacher told me about, and which I started watching, is the Berlin Philharmonic. I would see these bassists playing, and think how do they do that? I started seeing the orchestra playing symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. I had no idea that some bass line, which is so difficult in a crazy way, existed. I was amazed. They jumped with the bow. I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Three years into his bass studies, he found himself rubbing shoulders, and bowing, along with quite a few other talented youngsters. “The Jerusalem Music Center contacted my teacher and asked him if he had any students to suggest for the Young Philharmonic. Eran is a great player and a great teacher. He is so excited to teach. He experiments with me and he tells me what conductors told him.”
It was an incremental step forward for the budding bassist. “I was very happy. I was getting experience with an orchestra I had no idea existed. The first time I was shocked. I remember we played a Mendelssohn symphony. I couldn’t play half the notes,” he chuckles. “But it was great.”
It has been going swimmingly ever since. “The following summer we played Beethoven’s Seventh, and I was given the part of principal bassist. I was very happy.”
Things just got better and better. “Zvi Carmeli, who is our conductor now – he is a great conductor – was working on the Huberman Project, which took us to Switzerland and Italy, and he was looking for a bassist. He came to the [Beethoven] concert, and a few days later he called me and asked me to play on the project. I said I’d love to.”
Farjoun Bishara continues to tickle the ivories, in tandem with his bass endeavor, and says it is a fruitful cross-instrumental confluence. “The fact that you play the piano helps you to visualize chords. That’s why it’s obligatory to learn piano for a couple of years, at some point in your studies in a conservatory.”
While he immerses himself in his classical progression, the teenager is not averse to less structure sounds. “I like jazz,” he says. “I like different jazz bassists, like [81-year-old] Ron Carter, and [Israelis] Avishai Cohen and Adam Ben Ezra.” The latter is on the roster of next week’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival. Farjoun Bishara doesn’t eschew improvisational lines of individual expression, and is happy with the inclusion of the Sherrif piece in the YIPO’s current repertoire. “I like contemporary works, including atonal music, by composers like [85-year-old Krzysztof] Penderecki, Shostakovich – I like him although I’m not sure if he’s considered atonal.”
For now the teenager is keeping his options open. “I like to play jazz. I’d like to learn how to improvise.” He says there is no antithetical divide to be bridged here. “You know, as classical musicians we stick to the notes. But, in the Baroque era, everyone improvised all the time. Nobody stuck to the notes. Mozart, in his piano concertos, in the cadenzas – where the orchestra stops playing and the pianist can show off – he would improvise all the time.”
Farjoun Bishara is not only a talented musician, he is an engaging interlocutor. Our interview slot sped by and it was soon for him to rush back to the rehearsal room. “I am so glad to be with this orchestra,” he says. “You don’t find something like this anywhere in the world – not only in terms of the level. I’m sure there are many very high level youth orchestras around. They are very open, and are looking for new ways of expression. The fact that we are not always with the same conductor, I like that. And now we are with Zvi Carmeli, who is great. He looks at the bassists a lot. Everyone does.” For tickets and more information: (02) 509-0300.
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