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Israeli Violinist’s Ex Factor

January 23, 2014 By:
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Vadim Gluzman spends a lot of time with his ex — nights, weekends, on trips to the world’s great cities, sometimes for weeks at a time.

His wife tends to be understanding about the situation, though. That’s because the ex in question is the Stradivarius violin known as “Ex-Leopold Auer,” which Gluzman has been playing for the past 16 years with orchestras like the Israel Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

The 40-year-old Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist will be making his debut with the Phila­delphia Orchestra on Jan. 23 and 24, as part of the final week of its annual Tchaikovsky Celebration. Gluzman says that the reason he is just now getting around to playing in Philadelphia is simply a matter of “my schedule opening and the stars aligning.”

If the orchestra was going to bring in someone to play Tchai­kovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Gluzman is a logical choice. After all, he is playing the instrument that once belonged to the man for Auer, whom the great Russian composer wrote the 1879 piece, which is considered to be one of the best-known and most technically difficult of all violin concertos.

Tchaikovsky had already written one piece, the Sérénade Mélancolique, for Auer in 1875. He wrote the concerto as a further homage to the Hungarian violinist, who was widely acknowledged to be one of the late 19th and early 20th century’s greatest performers and teachers in Europe as well as in the United States, where he joined the faculty at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Some of Auer’s  more prominent students included Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and Efrem Zimbalist.

Auer acquired a legendary sort of notoriety for his refusal to play the concerto written for him, citing its technical limitations that would have required him to make some alterations. Ever since, his violin became known as the Ex-Auer. When asked about the history of the music, the violin and the man, Gluzman takes pains to point out that Auer did eventually play the piece, “after making some minor adjustments, and he made all of his students learn it and play it.”

Gluzman has been playing the violin since age 7, when he was selected by a committee in the Soviet Union to do so. As the child of a conductor father and a musicologist mother, his selection was as much bashert as Soviet planning. “I am not a fan of the Soviet Union — that is a real understatement — but the system of education in many areas was quite special,” he says.

Not special enough to keep the Gluzman family behind a fallen Iron Curtain, though. In 1990, when Gluzman was 16, they made aliyah, where, two weeks after their arrival, destiny once again took him by the hand.

Soon after settling into their new housing outside of Jeru­salem, Gluzman heard that Isaac Stern would be auditioning young violinists for instruction at the Jerusalem Music Center. Sensing an opportunity, Gluzman went to play for the man he had been listening to for most of his life. “Without knowing proper procedures, that things like this have to be arranged years in advance, I made my way to the center,” he recalls with a laugh.

“I told the lady at the front desk I wanted to play for Isaac Stern. She spoke Russian to me” — at that point, Gluzman, who now splits his time between residences in Tel Aviv and Chicago, spoke only Russian — “and said, ‘Welcome to the club, but you can’t really do this — you should have arranged this years ago!’ ”

But as he stood talking to the receptionist, Stern himself walked through the door. When the receptionist explained that the young immigrant was there to audition for him without an appointment, “he said for me to go and warm up for five minutes” and then the maestro would grant him an impromptu audition. “Three hours later, I had a new violin, a scholarship and I knew that everything I knew about music was three times nothing.”

Thus began Gluzman’s instruction by some of the best teachers in the world, including Yair Kless in Jerusalem and the late Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki at the Juilliard School in New York.

Gluzman is aware that it seems like some powerful force has been at work in his career. “I do not believe in coincidences. Everything has happened for a reason,” he says. “I am very wary of putting labels on something that no language can be proficient enough to explain, but I don’t believe in blind fate — fate is an endless tree with an endless amount of branches and leaves. The tree is predetermined, but it is up to us to determine which branch we are going to take.”

One of those branches took him to his beloved 1690 Stradivarius. In 1998, Gluzman was playing in Chicago, where the Stradivari Society, which provides long-term loans of the rare violins, is headquartered. He was living in New York at the time, and desperate to upgrade his instrument. By chance, he says, “they heard me play in Chicago, and they knew I was in need of an instrument. A month later, I came back to New York after a tour, and there was a message on my machine: ‘Come to Chicago if you want a fiddle.’ ” When he went to pick it up, he remembers having “the distinct feeling that someone was watching my back. I turned around, and behind me on the wall was a huge portrait of Auer looking at me. And it looks at me each and every time I come to Chicago.”

Even after so many years with his Ex, Gluzman still waxes rhapsodic about playing it. “You realize that there is no limit to your expression, to your imagination — you can no lon­ger say that you cannot dare because my violin won’t do it for me. Anything I can dream up, it will give me.”

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