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Vadim Gluzman: Have Fiddle, Will Travel

January 26, 2010

Few concertgoers who heard it will forget violinist Vadim Gluzman’s San Francisco Symphony debut in May 2008. Performing Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Gluzman delivered a performance that elicited critical superlatives, with SFCV’s critic praising his “dark tone and sinewy strength” and “deep, concentrated sound and the powerful evenness of his bowing.” Gluzman’s performance of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Marin Symphony, in January that year, also garnered accolades.

This year, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, the Chicago-based Gluzman returns to the Marin Symphony to perform Brahms’ Violin Concerto. As he was preparing to fly from one engagement to the next, he spoke with SFCV about Brahms and his career.

How is life?

Life is crazy, exciting, and I love it. “Crazy” is when one has to play five different concerti in five consecutive weeks in five different places geographically, be prepared, and still manage to see my family in Chicago in between and have some sort of family life. But other than that, I couldn’t be more thankful for what I have.

How did you end up with such a schedule?

When, two years ago, my manager calls and says, “Would you like to play Bruch on such and such day,” I say, “Oh of course, I would like to.” Two months later I’m asked if I’d like to play Tchaikovsky, then about Brahms, and Barber, and Bernstein. And I say yes to all of them because I love all of them. Then I look at my schedule, which I should have done in the first place, and realize that I put myself in such a position that I literally cannot put down the violin during this period.

What does it mean to you play the Brahms Violin Concerto?

The first thing that comes to my mind, and I will never forget this: When I first played Brahms quite many years ago — I do not recall where it was — I remember standing onstage. The orchestra began the introduction, and I’m thinking to myself, “I am playing Brahms? I actually have a right to play Brahms?”

This feeling of climbing Mt. Everest, of having an honor of passage, is always something that is with me when I approach this piece. I’m in awe before it, as I’m sure everyone else is. It is one of the greatest concertos written for violin.

Every time I play this same piece, it is so different. The music is so objective, yet so personal, or you could say it vice versa: that each and every time you listen to it, you perceive it emotionally very, very differently. It happens to me while I play Bach or Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart. These are the four composers who have achieved the level of objectivity — by that I do not mean emotional distancing, quite the opposite — but the combination of personal and objective is of such stature that you basically play a different piece each and every time. This is for me the most challenging, of course, and at the same time the most dear.

Then there is something else that for me, as a fiddler, is interesting and important to remember. It is the debt that we all have to [Joseph] Joachim. If not for him, God knows if we would even have the violin concerto. His impact on Brahms’ life was absolutely immeasurable. Every piece that involved the violin, be it solo music or a chamber work, was revised by Joachim.

I actually own a facsimile of the score. You can see how the score was going back and forth between Brahms and Joachim in their respective cities [Vienna and Berlin]. Joachim would mark his comments in one color, then Brahms would correct following Joachim’s comments and send the score back. Then Joachim would mark it in yet another color. You can actually see the process of how the work was born.

Let me tell you, Joachim’s suggestions were often not only limited to just violinistic comfort. He dared to stick his nose, I would say, into higher spheres, and Brahms gladly accepted it, as far as I can see.

You’ve played with Alasdair Neale [Marin Symphony’s music director] before?

Yes. Two years ago, we played the Tchaikovsky. And I have played a number of other times with Alasdair. Last year, we played with the New World Symphony, in Miami, and I went to his summer festival in Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s one of the most breathtaking places I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen a few. The three days that I spent there were so wonderful that the thing that kept going through my mind was how sorry I was not to bring my family. It was such a wonderful experience personally. And onstage it was fantastic. I really look forward to returning.

Do you two have a good rapport?

We have a wonderful rapport. That’s why we perform together so often. He is an incredibly sensitive musician, and one who actually cares for the well-being of the soloist. I’ve noticed how, in our rehearsals, there is always this element of such detailed work, which results in concerts with a more global picture. He gives me as much attention as he gives his symphony, and it’s really not always the case. Quite often, conductors’ egos get into the way, unfortunately. But Alasdair is such a giving person that it shows in his work.

You are a top-tier violinist who I think is not sufficiently recognized in this country, in part because you don’t have Deutsche Grammophon or Sony’s PR machine behind you. Is that a fair assessment?

It’s not for me to judge what tier violinist I am. I do know who I am. I know my weaknesses, and my strengths. Of course; BIS definitely does not have the PR means of DG or Sony. But I have this strange quality called loyalty. Please understand, I have an incredibly fulfilling relationship with them. I basically have carte blanche as to what I’m recording. That’s practically unheard of these days. Within reason, they let me record what I’m able, and with groups that I like and enjoy.

My next recording will combine [Sofia] Gubaidulina’s Offertorium with the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2. I’ll also record her second violin concerto, In tempus praesens. And I have just completed what, for me, was a very dear project: a whole CD of [Max] Bruch. Of course, I did the G-minor [concerto], which every violinist does to satisfy his ego. And I love the piece. But I also recorded an absolutely unknown string quintet for two violins, two violas, and cello, with hand-picked musicians — we’ll call it Gluzman and Friends.

We had this incredible four days in the middle of this gorgeous castle in Germany. And then I added the Viola Romance in Bruch’s own arrangement for violin. It is such a gorgeous piece, and it has never been recorded before. When they [BIS] let me run free with my ideas, should I complain? Tell me.

I suppose you perform as much as you can with your wife, pianist Angela Yoffe?

Exclusively, except for single recitals in Europe. Then it’s not convenient, considering that we have a 6-year-old daughter. In that case, a very close friend of both of us, who is fantastic, plays with me. But other than that, my recitals are with Angela, as it was yesterday in Chicago.

How’s your daughter?

I have to break the very bad news to you. She began to play violin.

I have a feeling this is a line you’ve used before.

I have to admit that I have. Nonetheless, I mean it. She does of course have a lot of talent. This is genetics. She’s a third-generation musician. She has perfect pitch, a perfect sense of rhythm, etc. She of course sounds like a baby, because she just began to play violin two and a half months ago. But at the same time, I do see and hear that when she plays, she has a sense of sound, which is something you cannot really teach.

It’s a little premature to write the first review of her performances.

That’s right, although she did appear yesterday in the concert.

What did she play?


Immersed in classical music as you are, do you have time to listen to other music, as well?

Yeah, of course. Will I be killed if I tell you I love Broadway?

I don’t have an axe on my desktop. So I think you’re safe.

I love jazz. It does not mean that I perform it, although on my recording, you will find an excerpt of Fiddler on the Roof. I am a Jew, after all.

And there is one more thing that I absolutely love listening to, and it is silence. That’s why I [recently took a] vacation in Finland. Just standing there, in the middle of the forest and hearing nothing, was one of the most amazing moments.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.