Passing The Baton
Symphony in C strikes a new chord
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Noam Aviel once dreamed of jazz – a future with bass guitars and her singing the classics. But when a vocal teacher suggested she delve into opera and classical music, her talents were refined, and she set out on an entirely new path. 

“I felt like I discovered the best thing in the world and wanted to spend all of my time with it,” recalls Aviel, now settling into her inaugural season as the musical director of South Jersey-based Symphony in C. One of 5 finalists chosen to conduct as an audition, the Israeli native shined. She succeeds maestro Stilian Kirov, whose final season was cut short by the Covid shutdown.  

Aviel’s unconventional beginning – she was not anchored in classics like Bach, Mozart or Tchaikovsky – makes her ascent even more noteworthy. Her dive into the genre in her late teen years was a passionate plunge. “I had a big hunger for classical music but there were a lot of things I needed to learn since I didn’t grow up with it,” she says. “It wasn’t handed to me and I’m very grateful for that, but I also always felt I had a lot of catching up to do.”

Prior to her installation at Symphony in C this summer, Aviel held the baton as associate conductor of the San Antonio Symphony. She has also developed a worldwide presence, conducting orchestras in Iceland, Israel, Sweden and South Africa. And she marked her debut with Opera Orlando and Mobile Opera in Alabama this past year.

Still, her appointment with Symphony in C isn’t just another milestone. She describes her first musical directorship as a dream realized. “I cried tears of joy when I learned,” Aviel says, recalling both how well she got along with the musicians and how in tune she felt with the nonprofit’s mission as a vital training orchestra, one of only 3 in the nation. 

Aviel’s deep connection to music, she says, was kindled not just by the global giants of classical music, but by the storytelling embedded in the Israeli folk scene – the music she grew up with. “It’s like poetry. It connects you with deeper emotional places,” she says. “You can tell a story with a symphony. And I think that’s one of the deepest things about classical music – the storytelling aspect of it.”

Yet as a teenager, it was jazz that took center stage, as she embraced both singing and the bass guitar. Military service, which is mandatory for both men and women after high school in Israel, had her playing the bass for the Israel Defense Forces orchestra. Following this, her journey led to Tel Aviv University, where she majored in voice. However, an elective orchestral conducting course would once again redefine her direction. 

Reflecting on a pivotal moment, she can still hear her mentor’s challenge: “In 6 months, you will conduct my orchestra,” she recalls him saying. The intense study of Chopin’s second piano concerto during that time was a revelation. 

“I spent a full 6 months studying the same score – Chopin’s second piano concerto,” Aviel says. “And the thought of it makes me laugh because it is probably the most time I will ever get to study one score.”

This continuous learning curve, she says, molded her resilience, cementing her self-image as an underdog. A combination of hard work and some luck paved the way.

After graduating college with dual degrees in voice and conducting, Aviel honed in on conducting as a graduate student at Illinois State University. As the program wound down, she worked as hard looking for a job as she did studying music. It was a race against the clock, she says, as her student visa would soon be expiring, and a one-way ticket home was a less-than-desirable backup plan. 

“I realized that I had advantages with my vocal background, my work with singers, and that I really had a passion for opera,” she says. But still, finding a job proved difficult.

Just as things were looking grim, she scored an audition with OPERA San Antonio, a small but ambitious company where she landed for a year. This led to an even bigger break a year later. 

“I got a call from the San Antonio Symphony that their conductor couldn’t show up for the next performance,” she said. The invitation to conduct wasn’t as simple as just showing up. “I was told I would not be able to have any rehearsals with the orchestra. And I also needed to speak to the audience and interact with an actor on stage. Also, it was to take place the next day.”

“So basically, I had 24 hours or so to prepare, and of course that’s what I did,” she says. “I spent every minute of every hour preparing.”

Aviel parlayed that successful performance into a job as the assistant conductor, where she led the orchestra’s educational, community and outreach concerts, also stepping in as the substitute conductor throughout the orchestra’s main season.

Aviel and her wife Anat Gornshtein moved from Israel over the summer. She says she was thrilled to be involved in shaping Symphony in C’s 2023-24 season. “There are standard works people know and really, really love as well as works of lesser-known composers that are also amazing, including quite a few pieces by women composers,” she says. “It will be really exciting to showcase the orchestra from the first note. I was going for the wow effect.”

“For people who aren’t raised with music, the best way to discover it is to listen to it,” she says. “It can open your heart if you make space for it.” 

November 2023
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