The qualities of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem Orchestra deserved a larger audience at its debut concert in Sydney on Sunday. Under the direction of conductor Avner Biron (who also founded the orchestra in 1983), they played with sonorous tone and tight rhythm, well attuned to the fine details of the repertoire that they presented. Their ensemble was excellent and their intonation reliable – apart from a few uncertain moments among the wind players, particularly in the opening work the Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvořák.

Zvi Plesser © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Zvi Plesser
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The solo part enabled a showcase of the polished and confident playing of Israeli cellist, Zvi Plesser. His smooth bowing technique and the poised comfort with which he conquered even the most difficult passages were enjoyable both for the ears and the eyes. Evidently, this extremely demanding work does not present any problems for him, as exemplified by the first solo entrance. Yet his reliable technical control did not always translate into musical effervescence. Few of the poignant moments felt genuinely heartfelt, for example, in the opening of the slow movement; at the same time, the ending of the same movement was much more successful. Furthermore, the powerful outbursts of the outer movements could also have been driven by more (at least seemingly) spontaneous emotions. Thus, much of the last movement felt more serviceable than whimsical.

Nor was Plesser challenged to conquer new heights by the conductor. Biron seemed to be satisfied with an accurate guidance of the tempos and how they changed; as much as I was hoping for some emotive initiative or hand gestures relating to artistic ideas, his leading stayed on the territory of safe and uninteresting. The orchestra around him played a reduced version of the score. The brass players were eliminated altogether and five solo wind instruments were left playing the musical material intended for two flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons and three horns. This arrangement generally worked well, although the fullness of Dvořák’s characteristic orchestral sound was undoubtedly diminished and, on a few occasions, some essential notes of the score were missing. While it would make sense for a chamber orchestra to accept certain compromises in order to keep a major and popular concerto on its repertoire, some of these compromises were made redundant by the orchestration of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 85 in B flat major "La Reine" (the final item on the concert), which required two players for each wind part (bar the flute). Therefore, the extra woodwind players were there and available, only not used.

Things improved considerably after the interval. The three times repeated, scale-like theme of Beyond All This by Russian/Jewish composer Mark Kopytman promised and delivered lush string sounds and provoked deep emotions. The evocative beginning of this single movement work later turned into a tormented second section, followed by a wild dance, reminiscent of the world of the early Stravinsky ballets. This composition is a regular item on the Camerata’s repertoire, and both the orchestra and its conductor performed it with gusto and palpable enjoyment.

Israel Camerata and Avner Biron © Galit Deutsch
Israel Camerata and Avner Biron
© Galit Deutsch

Biron’s conducting became increasingly more demonstrative as he led his players in Haydn’s "La Reine". I appreciated the energy of the performance, less so the orchestra’s old-fashioned concept of it which, admittedly, would probably have been adequate a generation or two earlier. However, our understanding of 18th-century performance practice has changed enormously in the interim, going, naturally, far beyond the often debated issues of the use (or lack) of vibrato and gut strings. Haydn’s brilliance and wit offers new surprises at practically every turn. In this performance, the royal pomp of the opening Adagio lacked glamour, though the second movement (unusually named: Romance) was elegant and serene. The off-beat accents of the Menuet sounded almost apologetically mild and, while the finale was taken at an admirably brisk tempo, its wonders were predictable rather than deliberately provocative.

The leading chamber orchestras of today are setting exceptional musical and technical standards around the world, partly by constantly revising the way they play and the use of imagination and artistic audacity. This can imply that even such an accomplished ensemble, as the Israel Camerata, might be disadvantaged in comparison, unless they re-examine their performing style.