Conductor Yariv Aloni lands, learns, and leads in Victoria.
THE CUSTOM-DESIGNED MUSIC SPACE Victoria conductor and violist Yariv Aloni and his cellist wife Pam have added to their cozy, mid-century home nestled at the foot of Mt Tolmie is a “wow,” but it isn’t fussy. After we descend a staircase and traverse a dim hallway, the spacious room, featuring vaulted ceilings and huge windows, seems to come from nowhere. Brilliant, warm, open, and full of unexpected treasures, it is much like Aloni himself, who inspires these same descriptors as a musician and leader. His unexpected journey—from a humble kibbutz in Israel, to where I encounter him now in this magnificent room—was, he says with a smile, “serendipitous.”
Aloni is perhaps best known here as the conductor of both the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra (GVYO) and the Victoria Chamber Orchestra (VCO). He’s had both of these gigs for over 30 years combined, which speaks volumes about his skill and strength in the role. High-level amateur groups can be very tricky to manage. Players who aren’t drawing a paycheque from rehearsals and performances are motivated solely by their love of music. If he fawns, flatters, or bores them, he’s sunk. If he overwhelms or paralyzes them with fear, likewise. Within realistic boundaries, he inspires them to push their edges and achieve excellence. At the end of every successful concert, he leaves them with the sense that they, not he, accomplished great things.
If this sounds simple, I can assure you: it is not. In the world of conducting, or any type of leadership, it is the stuff of genius. The brilliance Aloni brings to his role in this community came through fortuitous connections and opportunities at just the right moments. When happily and humbly articulating the highlights of his development and career as both an instrumentalist and a conductor, punctuating phrases with laughter and smiles in his enthusiastic, Hebrew-accented English, he gestures with his hands as if working marionettes from above—indicating that a larger force was at work, orchestrating every nuance of his musical path.
In the communal 1960s kibbutz Aloni called home during his childhood in a rural part of Israel, musical training was deemed a luxury, and not offered to everyone. Aloni’s parents were musicians, but they didn’t decide how and when he and his three musical siblings would be educated. Children were tested to ascertain what strengths they had; 8-year-old Yariv’s assessor decided he had “a good ear,” and gave him a violin instead of the coveted piano lessons he’d seen his older sister receive. “All I wanted was to play the piano…and I was devastated,” he says, chuckling heartily. “But then I got the violin, and I was very intrigued.” Still enormously upset about not being given piano lessons, the determined boy taught himself to play on one of the kibbutz’s communal instruments. “That showed them, a little,” Aloni says slyly.
As a teenager, Aloni was introduced to the viola, and says, “The moment I started playing it, I found my voice. Instead of playing notes, I started playing phrases, and started playing music. Instead of words, it was sentences.” As a player in the regional kibbutzim youth orchestra, he had the joyful new experience of performing music “that you can’t play alone.” From there, he discovered chamber music, “and then the world just opened, it was like an explosion.”
At 19, he and three other teenagers formed a string quartet at Isaac Stern’s newly-founded Jerusalem Music Center. “The quartet changed my life; we started doing concerts, we went abroad, we met many great players that came to give master classes…The Guarneri Quartet came to listen to us,” he says, and arranged for them to study at the University of Maryland. Like many successful young string players, they ended up amicably parting ways, and Aloni was immediately snapped up by Penderecki, a Wisconsin-based Polish quartet looking for a viola.
In 1991, they were invited to be quartet-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Far from his culture of origin, Aloni says he surprisingly felt more comfortable. “I was a bit like a fish out of water in Israel,” he admits, saying the tendency to “say exactly what you are thinking all the time” in that culture didn’t really jive with his sensibilities. Europe had its attractions, but he was always aware of being “other;” in Canada, he felt he belonged, even as a “foreigner.”
At a festival he organized in Waterloo, Aloni met his wife Pam, the cellist in the UVic-based Lafayette String Quartet. If they wanted to live together, one of them would have to bow out of their group. We all know which one did: the Lafayette has celebrated over three decades with continuous personnel, and Aloni sees his move west as another fortuitous decision. “Everyone I was meeting said, ‘Welcome to Victoria!’ It was kind of shocking to me, especially after the years in the US, and even Israel. There had been a sense of community there, but never as strong as I had felt it in Victoria…things just started to unfold for me.”
After relocating here in 1994, he was offered the opportunity to conduct the VCO, and gamely took on the challenge, even though he “hardly knew how to conduct.” After a year or so, he says, “I kind of ran out of knowledge.” He scanned the horizon and saw that acclaimed Hungarian conductor János Sándor had landed at UVic as Artist-in-Residence and Conductor of the University of Victoria Orchestra and Chorus. (Sandor subsequently was also appointed Music Director of the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra, where Aloni became the associate conductor, then successor after Sándor’s death in 2010).
Immediately after seeing Sándor conduct, he said, “That’s what I want.” He approached the maestro and requested instruction; Sándor said he had never taught conducting, but agreed to try.
What followed was over a decade of edification and mentorship. “He became really almost like my father,” Aloni recounts tenderly. “What this man gave me was everything I knew about conducting…Most people study for two years, and then you start conducting, and you learn as you go. But I had the privilege of working with him and conducting at the same time for more than ten years…It was a wonderful relationship.”
Sándor inspired Aloni to revel in the leadership and coaching role of working with youth and amateur adult players. “I get to know a lot of musicians, not just my colleagues in the symphony or at UVic. There’s a whole bunch of amazing musicians and players who don’t do that for a living…they’re as dedicated as professionals…they do it really because they love it, and that’s an incredible blessing, to work with people like that.”
In March and April, Aloni will be conducting two concerts with the GVYO, which features the best players in the region, ages 13 through university. “They’re an amazing orchestra. I think most people in town would be incredibly surprised. People who have never heard the orchestra, before they come to the hall, they may imagine a school orchestra,” but, at times, he says, “if you close your eyes, you don’t know who’s playing. They sound as good as anyone, at least to my ears,” Aloni says with a proud smile. “I may be a little biased.”
Aloni is able to achieve the highest levels of musicality with his players because he seems to have extracted every ounce of learning and compassion from his own challenges and triumphs as a person and as a musician. He has humility, but is not self-effacing; he is eager to take responsibility for his mistakes; and he can celebrate his achievements as his own, without excluding others and the roles they have played in facilitating them. Sitting in a comfortable chair, talking about his good fortune to do what he loves, he marvels at how every experience, in retrospect, fits together, as if it were all arranged just for him. After spending time here in this surprising, well-planned space on a sunny Victoria morning, it does seem meant to be.
Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra, conducted by Yariv Aloni, March 11 and April 29, 2:30pm, Farquhar Auditorium. $10 - $25, UVic Ticket Centre, 250-721-8480, www.tickets.uvic.ca, Victoria Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Yariv Aloni, April 27, 8:00pm, First Metropolitan United Church. $15-$20, Long & McQuade, Ivy’s Bookshop, or at the door. 250-598-1966 or victoriachamberorchestra.org.
Mollie Kaye was also raised in a musical family, and loves that Yariv Aloni remembers attending a workshop in the 1980s given by her violinist uncle, Tom Kornacker.