Saturday 17 February 2018

Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire

Vadim Gluzman
Vadim Gluzman
The Ukrainian-born Israeli Violinist Vadim Gluzman was recently in the UK to perform Leonard Bernstein's Serenade with David Charles Abell and the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the Total Immersion event devoted to Leonard Bernstein at the Barbican on 27 January 2018. 

I was unfortunately unable to attend the concert, but was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Vadim a week or so later, when we talked about the Bernstein Serenade (a work he is performing a lot this year), the importance to him of contemporary repertoire, his training under both the Soviet and Western systems and being mentored by Isaac Stern.

In an article before the concert, Gluzman said that he thought it was one of the greatest 20th century violin concertos. When we spoke, he explained further saying that it comes down to a matter of taste, the Serenade is a work that he likes, he finds in it an enormous range of emotion and technical variety. But also he finds it brilliantly written, making it abundantly clear how important both soloist and orchestra are, so that it is a wonderfully conversational work. This is a quality that he appreciates in concertos, having little interest in those concertos with an overly exposed solo line and little orchestra contribution.

Bernstein rated the Serenade as his strongest serious classical work, yet for a long time it was rather neglected. Vadim feels the work is being played more than it was 20 years ago (he is playing it quite a number of times this centenary year), but it is still not being played enough though is slowly becoming part of the repertoire.

Mentored by Isaac Stern

Vadim Gluzman (Photo Marco Borgreve)
Vadim Gluzman (Photo Marco Borgreve)
As a young man Vadim was mentored by Isaac Stern, who premiered Bernstein's Serenade with the composer conducting, so inevitably one of the works they discussed was the Serenade. Like many other people, Vadim was interested in the connection (or lack of it) between the work and Plato's Symposium, but Stern's advice was to 'just think about love'. Vadim feels the connection is there, but it is not that literal, and he points out that Bernstein had been rather forgetful of the original commission and ended up putting the work together in a huge hurry.

For most of the time, whilst he was being mentored by Isaac Stern, Stern simply talked to Vadim, he was one of those people who made Vadim realise quite how much he did not know. Vadim was barely 16 when he first played for Stern, and each time he played Vadim would think 'this time I have got it, now I can show him'. But each time Stern showed Vadim doors which he never knew existed, and it was this which inspired the young Vadim.

Stern had an enormous desire for improvement, the idea that a phrase might be good enough did not exist in his vocabulary. No matter how good a phrase, it was just a step to the next phrase. Vadim describes Stern as being always in motion. So Stern was unrelenting at times, nothing was good enough, but now Vadim really appreciates what he learned and hopes he has a fraction of Stern's knowledge.

Contemporary music is important to him, it is something he needs to do

Besides the Bernstein Serenade, Vadim's recent performances have included the European premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's Triple Concerto in Zurich, and he will be playing Peteris Vasks concerto Distant Light with Hannu Linto and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Helsinki. Contemporary music is important to him, it is something he needs to do. He is very curious by nature and needs variety, just as he can't eat one sort of food. He adds that though it might sound pompous, he feels that if we do not play new music then how are we to find the next Beethoven? Not every premiere will stand the test of time but some will be great works of tomorrow, though we will not live long enough to find out.

Vadim played Sofia Gubaidulina's new Triple Concerto in Zurich with Elsbeth Moser (bayan), Johannes Moser (cello), Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and Otto Meir Wellber. Vadim is fascinated by Gubaidulina's music and loves it. He has played her violin concertos, and feels that between the Second Violin Concerto and the Triple Concerto something has happened to her music. It is very different, though she is still herself but there is a great sense that she has narrowed down her expression to the minimal, her writing though not Minimalism hearkens to it in the use of language, the way she re-uses the same means, and the music becomes very powerful.

The concerto is written for violin, cello and bayan, this latter is Gubaidulina's favourite instrument and Vadim found the combination of bayan and strings striking. He and the other soloists would love to play the concerto again, but it is not an easy project to find the dates for the three soloists but he hopes to.

The kindest, most inhumanely patient man

Vadim was born in the Ukraine in 1973, but started learning the violin as a boy in Latvia (then under Soviet Russia). He comments that he has had a nomadic kind of existence and that gypsies and Jews are very similar in this respect. His first violin teacher, in Riga, was Romāns Šnē and Vadim comments that Šnē is still there, teaching in the same room. Romāns Šnē came from the Germanic tradition of violin playing, and Vadim calls him the kindest, most inhumanely patient man, only he was able to deal with the young Vadim who was a horrible student. These are important years for learning to play, and Vadim credits Šnē with not making any mistakes, so that the mature Vadim is grateful for such a sure foundation to his technique. He then went on to study with Zakhar Bron in Novosibirsk for a year, which was a very exciting time.

Aged 19 he moved to Israel and to a new life. The difference in teaching was just the same as the differences between Western society and Soviet society. He compared it to someone who has never had access to oxygen and then does so at the age of 16. There was a startling freedom of choice, and freedom to decide. He could say, I don't want to play the Franck sonata I want to play the Faure instead, something that would never be possible for a Soviet student. In Soviet society, the student did as they were told, but the young Vadim would always ask questions and then get into trouble.

Not surprisingly, given Vadim's comments about the importance of dialogue in concertos, when I ask about chamber music he first comments that all music is chamber music, the sense of a conversation is important to him, and this even applies to solo Bach.

Chamber music is incredibly dear and important to him

Chamber music is incredibly dear and important to him, but he feels he does not play enough because of the way his life has been. He would like to have a more structured life but admits that this is never going to happen. He tries to do everything in his power to play chamber music. When we talk, he is planning to go to Naples, Florida to perform the Bernstein with the Naples Philharmonic and Andrey Boreyko, and will stay on for a few days more to perform Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat. And this is something he tries to do, combining a concerto engagement with another to play chamber music with members of the orchestra.

He and his wife, pianist Angela Yoffe, have a chamber music festival which they founded, the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Chicago. But he comments that he says that it is really his wife's festival. He describes himself as being like a child in a sweet shop picking things up, and it is she that makes things happen.

He also has an on-going relationship with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, and he feels that this is another manifestation of chamber music. For Vadim it is a very special group, most people fly into Columbus, Ohio specially to play in the concerts so it has a very high calibre personnel. He appears as leader and soloist, and directs the orchestra from the violin sitting in the concert-master's chair. Last month they did a fantastic programme with Peteris Vasks' violin concerto Distant Light, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. The Vasks is a huge challenge without a conductor, but he has done it before. It means that he has to learn the score, but thinks that this is helpful under any conditions.

When I ask what he would like to play, he says he would like to do more new music, but admits that he is becoming more picky and does not jump in as quickly as he used to. He also then mentions the Britten and Walton violin concertos, works he would love to perform but has never been asked to.

See Vadim's performance schedule at his website.

Vadim Gluzman on disc:
  • Brahms Violin Concerto, Violin Sonata Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffe, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, James Gaffigan on BIS - available from Amazon
  • Prokofiev Violin Concertos Vadim Gluzman, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi on BIS - available from Amazon
  • Prokofiev Violin Sonatas Vadim Gluzman, Angela Yoffe on BIS - available from Amazon
  • Partita Auerbach, Bach, Ysaye, Vadim Gluzman on BIS - available from Amazon
  • Sofia Gubaidulina In Tempus Prasens, Vadim Gluzman, Glorious Percussion, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Nott on BIS - available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Korngold's Die tote Stadti at the Semperoper in Dresden - Opera review (****)
  • Powerful stuff: Verdi's La forza del Destino in Cardiff - Opera review (****)
  • A Portrait: composer Dai Fujikura introduces the music at the forthcoming Wigmore Hall concert  - my interview
  • Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen - Willy Decker's production at the Semperoper, Dresden - opera review
  • A Heine songbook - Robin Tritschler and Christopher Glynn - concert review
  • Intimate and finely judged: Orlando Gibbons complete consort anthems   - CD review
  • Giovanni Croce revealed - motetti & cantiones sacrae - CD review
  • 'You still have to make the right line' - Michael Finnissy day at St John's College, Cambridge  - feature article
  • Home

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