Noam Aviel has ambitious plans as music director for Symphony in C

NOAM aviel interview



Symphony in C’s last season sounded like an intriguing reality TV show.

The Camden-based professional training orchestra invited five promising, young conductors to try out for the role of music director, which had been unfilled since 2020 due to pandemic postponements.

Each candidate during the 2022-23 “Season of Guest Conductors” led a symphonic concert — among them, Israeli conductor Noam Aviel.

“In my audition we did (Hector Berlioz’s) ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ ” Aviel says of her French-Belgian themed program from January 2023. “It’s a huge work. The musicians were so excited. They’re top-notch level. They waited for this moment to finally perform such a work and they gave everything, and this is what creates fresh, unique and energetic interpretations that we have to offer to our audiences.”

Berlioz won hearts and minds in Aviel’s stylish handling, and she assumed the role of the symphony’s music director beginning with the 2023-24 season, which began in November.

“I feel responsibility in general with this role because it’s a very meaningful role,” she says. “First of all, it’s a responsibility to produce the best concerts, month after month, and second of all, each time a concert is so successful, I feel even more responsibility that the next one will be just as good.”

The young Berlioz stepped into his artistic maturity with “Symphonie Fantastique.” One wonders if that will become a metaphor for Aviel’s new chapter with the symphony.


On Feb. 17, she will lead “Romantic Harp,” the fourth concert of her first full season, at Gordon Theater at Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts in Camden. The program pairs two early works by Felix Mendelssohn — The Hebrides, Op. 26, Symphony No.1, Op. 11, C minor — with Henriette Renié’s Harp Concerto, featuring soloist Daniel Benedict.

She discovered the concerto in 2022 during her Swedish debut as guest conductor with Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in an eclectic program that was chosen by the audience of their favorite works from the previous season. The concert only included the concerto’s first movement.

“I had never heard of Renié or this concerto before,” Aviel says, “but it was such great music that I thought to myself, the next time I have the chance to program something and this would fit, I definitely want to do the whole concerto.”

The French composer is a harp legend but a quiet celebrity. Her large body of work is seldom performed outside of the genre and Aviel unexpectedly puts it at the centerpiece of the program.

“Renié was a pioneer and a brilliant teacher who expanded the repertoire for the harp,” she says. “She brought up a whole generation of harpists who she inspired, and she wrote a method book on playing the harp that was very influential. She also helped bring the harp to the front of the stage as a solo instrument instead of just an instrument that beautifies the whole orchestral blend.”

She met Benedict, the symphony’s principal harpist, during her debut concert with them. “There was just something about him that was radiating joy as a musician that I could feel right away from the podium,” she says. “When I thought about this concerto, I said right away we should ask him if he’d like to solo it.”

While male harpists are not unusual overseas, in America they make up around 10 percent of musicians who play the instrument professionally.

The Mendelssohn works are from his early years and capture inspiring moments of innocence and grace. “The interpretation will have everything,” Aviel says, “and that’s what I love about Mendelssohn: delicate and lyrical in some movements and, in others, it’s like rock ’n’ roll for us!”



The “Hebrides” concert overture from 1830 was inspired by young Mendelssohn’s trip to the Scottish island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. “I think it’s always like opening the appetite to start a concert with an exploration piece,” Aviel says. “You really hear how Mendelssohn is seeing all this new scenery and feeling this new journey for the first time. We can all connect to that because when we go on trips and see and visit new places, we feel the most alive and the closest to living this kind of life.”

Symphony No. 1 was written in 1824 when Mendelssohn was 15 years old. It has a fantastic pulse and liveliness. “It’s a perfect match, in my eyes, because it’s an energetic and youthful symphonic work, which I think will connect greatly with our profile of being a young orchestra,” Aviel says.

Of the German-Romantic composer’s five symphonies, it is often overlooked. “I like the idea of performing a symphony that is not the most popular one,” Aviel says. “You hear the Third and Fourth symphonies all the time. But this symphony, because it’s not played so much, I thought it would be beautiful to bring to our musicians.”

She took a similar approach to a concert in January of Max Bruch and Jessie Montgomery with the inclusion of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth, the most placid and passed over of his nine symphonic masterworks.

Her creative vision is tailored to the identity of the orchestra, which began as the Haddonfield Symphony in 1952, a small community ensemble of amateur players. Seventy-two years later, it has transformed into a young professionals’ orchestra of emerging artists and recent college graduates from The Juilliard School, Curtis Institute of Music and other prestigious conservatories. Based in Camden since 2006, it serves southern New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic region.

“An important part of the symphony’s DNA is the training part, to prepare our musicians for the big successes of their careers,” Aviel says. “For many of our musicians, they are playing works for the first time that are important for them to play, including masterworks and pieces that are more contemporary. I’m always thinking, in a sense, of how to complete their circle of musicianship with everything else that they’re doing. I know in their education they come from top-notch schools so, of course, they must play at least some of the other symphonies, but I want to give them the extra experience and advantage.

“With a work like Beethoven’s Fourth or Mendelssohn’s First, honestly, many of our musicians go on to win positions in great orchestras and I couldn’t think about the idea that it would be the first time they’d meet these pieces. I want them to have the confidence to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve done this! I’ve played this beautiful symphony before!’

“Of course, we would love to play everything, but we have five orchestral subscriptions in the season, which is not a lot. In the end, the training part of what we do is also to go through these masterworks, and it’s the same for me because I’m a young conductor. I haven’t played Brahms or Mendelssohn or Beethoven’s symphonies a million times, so I also want to touch this music, and especially with them.”



Part of a music director’s job is to shape the orchestra’s overall sound, create an impression of a unified ensemble, and establish a singular musical interpretation. Aviel’s approach to orchestra-building is robust and adaptive because Symphony in C is not a standard orchestra. Most musicians play in the symphony for a couple years and then join prominent national orchestras. Others go into teaching.

“When we talk about building sound, you have to understand that part of our orchestra has an element of change,” she says. “That’s a very good thing. Our musicians change a lot because we are the pathway and the stepping stone for them to launch into successful careers. In this environment, how can we build a sense of team and a sense of creating things together in a way that also evolves and changes?

“I’m going after collaboration. … I come to the musicians with what I hear in my head of what something should sound like, but I’m also always open to receiving what comes from the musicians to me, and to dare to work with that, and experiment with what they bring to the table. Everyone feels much more invested and dedicated when they feel that their voice is heard, and they have an input in the final creation. This is the way we grow together, and develop our sound and our uniqueness.

“Sometimes they’re used to being like, ‘Okay, I have to play the music correct, and then the conductor will tell me how to play it and how to shape it.’ And I think the exact opposite! Come to me with your ideas, and if we need to shape it a little bit and change things, that’s fine, but starting with your own ideas.”

Symphony in C’s season selections seem to reflect the culture of change within the orchestral field over the last decade to include underrepresented composers and works. For example, the final concert in May will feature Dvořák’s “New World” symphony (notable for Native American and African American themes blended with melodies from the Czech composer’s homeland) alongside selections by Florence Price and Leonard Bernstein.

Is this by design?

“I listen to a variety of composers and I want to expand the repertoire as much as I can,” Aviel says. “I don’t say to myself, ‘OK, we have to program a female composer; OK, we have to program a composer of color.’ I choose music that I think excites the audience and music that I think is beautiful.

“People sometimes say, ‘OK, you’re a female conductor so you must conduct works by female composers.’ That’s not how I see it. I want to program really amazing music, and amazing music means all kinds of composers. I have just as much passion conducting Beethoven and Brahms as Florence Price and Henriette Renié. Sometimes, you can program a concert with just Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, and that’s perfectly OK!

“I chose ‘New World’ because anyone can interpret it in any way they want, but what’s for sure is that everyone will leave the hall elevated in some way. I wanted to end the season in the most uplifting way that I could, and the ‘New World’ creates that uplifting spirit. In the end, it’s more about the emotion that the music creates, and sometimes, of course, a message of unity is always helpful, because we always need that.”

She takes a similarly nuanced approach to controversial composers with tangled legacies.

“Sometimes composers were horrible people, but they created brilliant music,” she says. “So why not take the good out of what they did? I’m talking as an Israeli, and of course we have the Wagner-Israeli controversy, but I’ve had teachers who thought it was important that I conduct Wagner in our studies and to enjoy the music-making of this composer. That’s the winning part of it: That I, an Israeli conductor, can enjoy and take what is good out of this composer.”

Aviel is from a small town north of Tel Aviv in which she began her musical training as a jazz singer and bass player. After high school, encouraged by her private voice teacher, she enrolled in the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University to study vocal performance.


During a performance with the Israel Philharmonic Choir in Mahler’s Third with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, she was so awestruck by Mehta’s craftmanship on the podium that she added orchestral conducting to her studies and continued at Illinois State University. In 2017 she was appointed assistant conductor of San Antonio Symphony, which she later led for three seasons.

While the representation of female conductors and music directors has grown over the last decade, leadership roles are still male-dominated. According to a report by League of American Orchestras based on the 2022-23 season, women made up just 23.8% of conductors (including assistant conductors and music directors).

Aviel spoke over the phone from Israel between engagements. She had not previously been back since the Oct. 7 massacre, and things had changed greatly there. “First of all, it’s very tragic, yes?” she says. “I left Israel to start my position before Oct. 7, and now I’m visiting a country that’s very different, that’s very sad and traumatized.”

The artistic response has been strong. Some soloists have played the Israeli National Anthem “Hatikvah” or Max Bruchʼs “Kol Nidrei” during concerts and recitals in solidarity with Israel. Many orchestras have organized benefit concerts in response.

Aviel’s Israeli music director peers have taken divided views. On one end is Omer Meir Wellber, a young Israeli conductor of Aviel’s generation and incoming music director of Hamburg State Opera. He spoke to the German press about the importance of healing, but feels conflicted about seeking common ground with Hamas, and about the state of affairs in Israel. On the other end is Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, an octogenarian legend who has served as music director at top musical institutions in Chicago, Milan, Berlin and Paris. With his late friend Edward Said, he established an orchestra and academy dedicated to fostering peace between Israelis and Palestinians.


Shortly after the atrocities of Oct. 7, Barenboim wrote an op-ed published worldwide to send a message of understanding. “This may sound naïve,” he wrote in conclusion, “but it is not: We must, want and will continue to believe that music can bring us closer together in our humanity.”

What does Aviel make of all of this?

Four months after the massacre, it is still difficult for her to find words. There is a long pause. She takes her time responding to something so personal, and to answer a question that’s so delicate and painful.

“Of course, I’m a believer in the ideal of peace and that we live harmoniously,” she says. “And of course, I want to believe that this can happen. And of course, when I go and perform, I think about how I create music with people.

“I also think about how I’ve been re-invited to conduct two orchestras in South Africa, even though you would think after the Hague trial, no one in South Africa would want to work with an Israeli.” (Aviel performed as a guest conductor during pandemic seasons, which included appearances with Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.)

She continues: “The music community, in general … I think we understand that our shared values are of being unifying and spreading the message of music. I think that music is an incredible thing and, at the same time, music cannot bring the dead from being dead. The message of Barenboim is very heartfelt and, as musicians, we want to believe that music can save the world. But I don’t think music can save the world or else the world would already be different.

“I think music … has this therapeutic and healing aspect about it. Sometimes it’s a way to help take us from our thoughts and feelings to a better, brighter place. It can also help us deal with our emotions and bring us closer to them, especially if we don’t want to touch them if they are emotions of hurt. We can allow ourselves to feel it through music, and through a composer expressing their own pain.

“But I wish I could say that with music, we could end wars. And I wish I could say that if everyone heard beautiful music, we could make peace.”

The symphony will officially fête Aviel at its annual gala on April 14 in Haddonfield. She is looking forward to meeting more of the Camden community after a move from Israel to New Jersey late last summer.

Personal connections are a priority and come naturally. After each concert, she heads to the foyer area to mingle with the departing concertgoers. “I’m getting to know the audience so intimately, in a way, and it makes me feel even more responsible for them to come out of the hall feeling inspired from the music,” she says.

“The whole relationship started with inclusion and making people feel like they belong. I relocated with my wife, and they treat us like family. I felt right away how welcoming they were to me, and the warmth of the community already creates this feeling that you are a part of a very warm culture of people.”

Noam Aviel will conduct Symphony in C at the Gordon Theater at Rutgers University in Camden, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. Visit

Beyond subscription concerts, Symphony in C offers a Virtuosi Series and Concerts for Young People led by conductor Kenneth Bean.

For more on Aviel, visit

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