Luis Biava joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1968 as a violinist and ended up staying more than three decades, but he never had a title that fully captured everything he meant to the ensemble and the organization.
He was a respected conductor and, sitting among the first-stand players near the podium, was ready to be called upon to lead a concert at the last minute. He was an unofficial diplomat, serving on the search committee that recommended Wolfgang Sawallisch as music director and once coaching then-Mayor Ed Rendell on baton technique for "The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal in Mexico City was stormed by hundreds of aggrieved government-worker union members, it was he who helped to restore order by asking them, in Spanish, to wait another 10 minutes for the players to finish up the Haydn.
Mr. Biava, 85, a longtime Cherry Hill resident, died Monday evening, March 25, at a senior living facility in Jupiter, Fla., his family said.
Those Mexico City union members ended up staying at the Palacio de Bellas Artes for the Haydn, applauding and yelling bravo at the finish.
“Thank you for your music,” one said. “You have given us an example of the harmony and artistic excellence that we are striving to achieve."
Harmony and artistic excellence were among Mr. Biava’s many calling cards. Born in Caracas, raised in Colombia — the son of a pianist-mother and a Roman-born father who was a clarinetist, conductor, and composer — the violinist was known for his gentlemanly mien and a calm warmth that belied how busy he was.
He founded a string quartet, played chamber music, was music director of the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia, and was heavily involved in Temple University's music school for decades.
After studies in Colombia, he attended the Manhattan School of Music and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He joined the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington in 1963, moved to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1968 as section first violinist, returned to Colombia in 1983, and rejoined the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1984-85 season as principal second violinist. He retired from that spot in 2000.
Mr. Biava made his Philadelphia Orchestra conducting debut in 1990, and eventually led about 135 subscription, family, and special-event concerts, according to a list provided by the orchestra. He was as trusted with a new score by Tina Davidson as he was in Bach or a Strauss waltz.
He had a tough act to follow. William Smith, the orchestra’s longtime and popular associate conductor to whom he had been an understudy, died in 1993. But Mr. Biava impressed his colleagues, and served as acting assistant conductor starting in 1993 before being named conductor-in-residence, a post he held from September 1994 to 2004.
That Mr. Biava both played and conducted in the same ensemble was unusual enough — the fact that his fellow orchestra members didn’t resent his ambition, more so.
It was the “grace and humility with which he led his colleague musicians that garnered their universal respect and admiration," said former orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger.
His repertoire ran the gamut. He conducted the orchestra with Lang Lang at the Mann, works of Stravinsky and Bernstein in education concerts in Verizon Hall, and Handel’s Messiah at the Academy of Music. He gave schoolchildren what was no doubt their first tastes of Carlos Surinach and Silvestre Revueltas, led a strike concert during the orchestra’s 64-day work stoppage in 1996, and took Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day concerts.
At one Valentine’s concert, he told the audience that he remembered playing duets with his wife, a pianist, purposely picking pieces with busy piano parts and less-busy violin parts.
"When she was busy playing, I would try to sneak kisses,'' he said.
He was an influential teacher, becoming artistic director and conductor of the Temple University Symphony Orchestra in 1986, the same year he founded and became music director of Temple Music Preparatory Division’s Youth Chamber Orchestra. With the Temple orchestra, he led the local premiere in 1995 of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, sometimes called the AIDS symphony.
“He had a remarkable ability to bring out the best in everyone, musically and otherwise,” said Temple emeritus faculty member Richard C. Brodhead. “He really became a revered and beloved figure in the college.”
He retired from Temple in 2014.
As a violinist, Mr. Biava’s “contributions and leadership were substantial,” said retired orchestra violinist Larry Grika. “Luis' beautiful singing sound always was illuminated with enthusiasm and fervor.”
As conductor, Mr. Biava certainly had his own interpretive ideas, but he liked to say that when stepping in for another conductor who might have already rehearsed the orchestra in a certain way he felt bound to realizing that other conductor’s vision.
He said: “You never know when the phone will ring at 5 o’clock to tell you to be ready.”
He is survived by his wife, Clara; sons Peter, Luis, and Paul; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Services will be held Tuesday, April 2, at 10 a.m. at Saint Peter Catholic Church, 1701 Indian Creek Parkway, Jupiter, Fla. Donations may be made to the Luis Biava Performance Fund at Temple University, P.O. Box 827651, Philadelphia, PA 19182-7651; or at giving.temple.edu/Biava.