An Interview With Alexander Barantschik: Playing Second Fiddle to None

Lisa Petrie on October 20, 2009
Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony for eight years, violinist Alexander Barantschik has won the hearts of patrons with his wide range of talent. As soloist, conductor, and section leader, “Sasha,” as his colleagues call him, has become something of a rock star at Davies Symphony Hall. Classical Voice recently asked him about his upcoming performances of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos (Nov. 18-20) and his life as a leader.

How is playing in the San Francisco Symphony different from playing with other orchestras you’ve been with?

The London Symphony gave an incredible number of concerts outside of London and did a lot of recording sessions. Sometimes the orchestra had two rehearsals in two different places across London, so lunchtime was dedicated to traveling from point A to point B. We’re lucky in San Francisco to have our own home, with a great audience. By playing four or five concerts a week in the same concert hall, we can polish our repertoire and focus more on music.

What inspires you about the upcoming performances of the “Brandenburg” Concertos?

The music of J.S. Bach will live forever. Sometimes you play pieces that were great 50 or 100 years ago and they can sound a bit dated, or like a musical curiosity. Bach’s music is incredibly modern and will never be old-fashioned. It’s amazing how this music transforms itself into the heart and soul of the 21st century. I also have fun with my colleagues. You can only play without a conductor [he will serve as leader/soloist for the program] with great musicians, people who are trained to use their ears and stay alert. Because we know each other so well, we breathe musical phrases together.

Tell us about some of the other projects you are doing with the orchestra.

I’ll be playing the Walton Violin Concerto in February with a great conductor, Charles Dutoit. It is a special piece for me because it was commissioned and dedicated to Jascha Heifetz, and he premiered it on the same violin that I’ll be playing [the famous 1742 “David” Guarnerius del Gesu]. That makes me nervous! Walton is a British composer but he lived at the time in Italy on the island of Ischia near Naples. The concerto has an unmistakable Italian flavor, more Italian than British. Heifetz commissioned it, so he edited it and made it more difficult, since he didn’t like easy things. So it’s a British/Italian/Russian piece, which is a wonderful combination. It’s emotional, very melodic and romantic, and I look forward to playing it.

How did you learn to be a leader? Is it a natural instinct?

I’m still learning and I’ll never stop. It’s a big, big thing. You need to be a communicator, as well as a player. I see the role of concertmaster as the bridge between the conductor and the section, or numerous sections. Everyone watches the conductor and tries to follow, but the leader must underline all of this with lots of little signs and body language — it’s pretty physical. Behind the curtain there are a lot of things: rehearsals, preparations, bowings, auditions, and discussing new ideas with the orchestra members.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

I became serious at age 14 or 15 when I actually started to enjoy my own playing. I wasn’t really a child prodigy. It took time to develop a beautiful sound and be comfortable with the violin. When the pieces to this huge puzzle started coming together and I started to hear nice noise coming out of the violin, I started to think this might be it, what I want to do with the rest of my life.

What citizenship do you hold?

I was stripped of my Russian citizenship in 1979 when I immigrated, and for a number of years I didn’t have any. Since I lived in Holland for 21 years, the whole family became Dutch citizens. We all have green cards and would consider becoming American.

What about your Russian roots?

I left Russia 30 years ago and I haven’t been back. We speak Russian at home [with his violinist wife, Alena, and 12-year-old son, Benjamin], and I speak Dutch, German, and English, but none as well as Russian, and I can’t enjoy literature and poetry as well as I can in Russian. Music by Russian composers — not that I love it more, but I have more history with it. I see more pictures of life when I hear this music, especially music by Shostakovich. From that point of view, my Russian roots are strong. However, since I lived in five different countries, learned languages, and traveled the world, I feel I’m a citizen of the world.

I hear you like soccer. Which is your favorite team?

I have to say Ajax Amsterdam. Their stadium was across the road from one apartment I had. I could almost see the game from my window. You open any paper there, and even if there are wars or earthquakes, if there is a match between Amsterdam and Rotterdam it will be on the front page. Nothing is more important.

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