The world on a string

Anita Kamien doesn’t exactly see herself as a den mother, but she admits to an occasional maternal moment with members of the King David String Ensemble.

The Jerusalem-based ensemble, for which Kamien serves as conductor and music director, is composed entirely of Jewish musicians from the former Soviet Union. When they first immigrated to Israel, they needed all kinds of help, from Hebrew lessons to learning Jerusalem’s bus routes.

One thing they didn’t need was music lessons. Since its founding in 1992, the nine-member ensemble has enthralled audiences in Israel and abroad with its interpretations of new and established classical repertoire.

Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel will present the King David String Ensemble in concert at the Julia Morgan Theater on Aug. 17, as part of the group’s 2004 summer tour. Over the years, the group has played all over Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and South America.

“We serve as ambassadors,” says Kamien, who emigrated from New York to Israel in 1980. “We tour a month in summer and occasionally in the winter. In Jerusalem, our performances are limited, but abroad we pack ’em in.”

The ensemble includes five violins, one cello, one double bass and two violas. They play music as varied as the Mendelsohn string symphonies to the Bartok Romanian Dances, as well as new works by Israeli and American composers.

“When I started with them in 1997, the group only played baroque music,” says Kamien. “I thought they needed to include classical, romantic and modern music. Now it’s become looser.”

When Kamien first joined the ensemble, she spoke no Russian, and the musicians spoke little Hebrew. So they sometimes communicated in Yiddish. But with music as the universal language, everyone understood each other just fine.

Most of the King David musicians also perform with the Jerusalem Symphony, one of Israel’s leading orchestras, but one hard-hit in the recent economic downturn. In 2003, the Israeli government cut 40 percent from arts funding, which hammered the orchestra. Musicians worked for months without being paid, and the orchestra eventually went into receivership.

The King David Ensemble has never been a big moneymaker, but the world tours have helped keep it in the black.

It’s not easy to be a classical musician in Israel these days, considering the economy and the ongoing matsav, or “situation” (the term Israelis use to describe the ongoing Arab-Jewish violence), says Kamien. However, “musicians still feel it’s critically important to keep their skills up to a certain level of intensity.”

Kamien herself never lost her musical edge. An award-winning pianist, she gravitated toward conducting and choir direction later in her career. She currently conducts the Hebrew University Orchestra and Choir. Her husband, Roger, is also a renowned pianist, having studied with the late Claudio Arrau. He is currently the chair of the music department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Even with all her other professional duties, Kamien has a special place in her heart for the King David String Ensemble. Being an emigre herself, she understands what they’ve been through. And as a musician, she knows what keeps them going.

“They could have gone to America, New Zealand, Canada or Germany,” she says, “but something pulled them in the direction of Israel. Many couldn’t even take their instruments out of their former homes because they were considered national treasures of Russia. But they came and persevered. It just proves that people must make music.”

The King David String Ensemble will perform 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 17, at Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $15-$50. Information: (510) 843-5246 or (925) 798-1300.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.