High fluting

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem and its founder, Avner Biron, are set to celebrate 30 years with a spectacular concert.

Over the years, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem has toured across the globe (photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the years, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem has toured across the globe
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Avner Biron is a self-confessed dreamer, and he has been living his dream for three full decades. Thirty years ago, he founded the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, although under a different name and several miles away from the capital.
To mark this milestone anniversary, the Camerata will be holding a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Museum on March 30, with musical director Biron on the conductor’s podium.
The 60-something conductor’s odyssey to baton-wielding began in Rehovot – where he still lives – when he was a young flutist. His initial social and cultural milieu helped point him in the direction of his current role.
“I always played music, and the whole area was steeped in music,” he recalls. “Maybe it was because there were lots of olim who lived there – yekkes – who brought their musical instruments with them when they made aliya in the 1930s. And there were all sorts of people who worked at the Weizmann Institute, who never really made up their minds whether they wanted to be scientists or musicians. They had their daytime job and played music in the evenings and over the weekend.”
In fact, the burgeoning amateur music scene in Rehovot included people from all walks of life, who constantly sought opportunities to satiate their passion for playing.
“They were addicted to playing classical music,” he explains. “I remember there was an Egged bus driver who used to take part in those classical jam sessions. He was an excellent viola player, and there was a woman who had been first violinist of an orchestra in Vilna, and another was a doctor. These were people who simply could not live without playing music.”
Biron was in a similar quandary. He made good progress with his flute playing, studying with a flutist from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and taking part in the aforementioned informal musical get-togethers in Rehovot. He also played in the Gadna youth orchestra, which included another Rehovot-born flutist, Shem- Tov Levy – today a veteran star of the world music-pop sector, having found fame playing with Arik Einstein and Shlomo Gronich.
But Biron had a hankering for some non-musical endeavor, too. “I was told I was a good flutist but, somehow, I felt I needed something else besides music. It wasn't enough just to play music.”
He also had a penchant for the life sciences, and he duly took a degree in biology, progressing to a master’s in the same field at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center. He says these academic pursuits actually gave his musical evolution a push in the desired direction: “In retrospect, I can say that I made much faster progress with my music thanks to my biology studies, than if I’d only studied music.”
That may not sound scientifically verifiable, but the proof is in the flute-playing pudding. “When you talk about playing a wind instrument, you are talking, in physiological terms, about a respiratory system,” he explains.
“In terms of the instrument, there is the acoustic element, and you need to understand how it works, that there is something called resonance, and how an instrument works. No one explained that to me. If you understand how the flute works, you can appreciate that you need to introduce a certain amount of air into it at a certain speed in order to produce a certain resonance. That is essential understanding. And if you understand the physiology and anatomy of the human respiratory system, that helps you control that side of playing a wind instrument.”
In addition to his role as musical director of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, he shares some of his accrued wisdom and experience in the field with students of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“If you understand how processes work, you can shorten the learning process by years,” he continues. “No one teaches that at the [Rubin] academy. I teach it, and it helps my students a lot.”
Biron spent five years as a biology student, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle by maintaining a busy performance schedule with the IPO. One day, the manager of the Israel Chamber Orchestra approached him and told him that ICO founder and conductor Gary Bertini was on the lookout for a flutist for the ensemble. Biron went along for an audition and passed with flying colors.
“They wanted me to decide if I was going to join the ICO within 10 days,” he recalls, adding that eventually he let his heart rule his head and doesn't regret it for a moment. “I enjoyed biology, but music is my spiritual nutrition. I had always had a strong intellectual curiosity, and I am glad I studied biology, because otherwise, I might have spent my life wondering what might have been had I studied it.”
That was that. He was back in the music business full time. Throughout his student days, he had maintained links with several ensembles, and he gradually began to get the conductor’s itch.
“I’d play in the orchestras, and I’d sometimes get the feeling that I could do a better job than the conductor,” he says.
After a while, he decided to push his boat out.
“One day I approached the musical director of one of the ensembles I played in, and I told her I’d like to take on a soloist role and also conduct a musical program. I remember it was in June, and she said it was late in the season to make changes. So I went back to her in September and offered my services for the following season, and she said it was too early. So I understood she was politely giving me the cold shoulder.”
It was time to be proactive.
“I called all sorts of people in Rehovot who I knew played music – youngsters who didn't have full-time work, and the older ones I’d played with at those get-togethers back then – and I asked them if they’d be interested in playing in an orchestra,” he says. “There was a tremendous response, and we quickly started performing quite regularly – for families and that sort of thing. There was also a wonderful sense of family among the orchestra players.”
Within a short time, the ensemble began playing in auditoriums and had 200 subscribers, although it had a sobriquetical problem to sort out.
“We were called Naganei Rehovot, but someone told us it sounded like ‘street players’ [the direct translation of the Hebrew name],” he chuckles. “So we changed our name to the Rehovot Chamber Orchestra.”
The venture began to gain momentum, and the troupe started performing all over the country, as well as abroad. However, after 13 years, the Rehovot Municipality decided it could no longer maintain its funding of one-third of the orchestra’s expenses, and Biron moved the outfit to Jerusalem, where it took on its current title.
“[Then-Jerusalem mayor] Ehud Olmert welcomed us with open arms,” he recalls. “It was a good move.”
The musical director says the early ’90s in particular were a time of great growth for the ensemble, specifically due to the influx of high-quality players from the former Soviet Union.
“There were so many of them, and they were all of the highest standard,” he recalls, adding that the new Russian speaking orchestra members also attracted attention and admiration from a high-profile visitor: “In the early ’90s [internationally renowned American violinist] Isaac Stern [who headed the Jerusalem Music Center] decided he wanted to check out how the new Russian musician olim were faring, and he traveled around the country to listen to the various ensembles. He’d spend a few minutes at each place before moving on, but when he heard the Camerata, he stayed for over two-and-a-half hours.”
Over the years, the Camerata has gone touring across the globe, from Alaska to Beijing and much in between, as well as putting out several well-received recordings. Biron also takes pride in the fact that the orchestra does its bit to promote local compositional endeavor.
“I think we commission more works by Israeli composers than any other orchestra,” he notes proudly. “I think we have commissioned somewhere between 50 and 70 such works.”
Sunday’s gala concert repertoire includes one such work, from Georgiaborn Israeli composer Josef Bardanashvili. The program also includes works by Handel, Fauré, Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart, and the musician lineup for the occasion includes Camerata violinists Natasha Sher and Matan Dagan, oboist Muki Zohar and French horn player Alon Reuven, as well as celebrated vocalists countertenor Yaniv D’Or, soprano Keren Hadar and the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble.
Here’s looking at the next three decades.
For more information: 502-0503 or www.jcamerata.com/en.