interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall
On stage at Davies Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik seems to epitomize the intense and mysterious Russian. The virtuoso always looks quite serious as he juggles his orchestra leadership role with that of first violinist who plays “The David,” the illustrious 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú violin, famed for its rich dark sound. I’ve always wondered what makes Barantschik tick and about the particulars of his Russian musical upbringing. When I had the chance to interview him in conjunction with “Barantschik and Friends“—his upcoming performance at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this Thursday (and on Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun at Davies as “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn“)—I jumped. We chatted on the phone last Friday and he couldn’t have been warmer as he shared his amazing story.
Google Barantschik. You’ll learn that he’s nicknamed “Sasha” and that this former concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras has served under Music Director MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) for 14 years through acclaimed cycles of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and that he has premiered important works by André Previn and Viktor Kissine. He’s played exquisite instruments throughout his career too. The fact that Barantschik’s first auditions in the West—for a seat and then for the concertmaster position at Germany’s Bamburg Symphony—were performed with a violin he bought in a department store as he was leaving Russia, is a little known detail I nudged out of him that makes his story all the more fascinating. As we were talking, I got the impression that he’s a bit private but that didn’t stop me from asking for “a bit more detail.”
On Thursday, Barantschik returns to Green Music Center to lead the Orchestra in an irresistible program he’s put together showcasing strings. Following a lovely early Mozart “Divertimento in F major for Strings,” Barantschik takes center stage to play Mendelssohn’s “D minor Violin Concerto,” one of the Romantic master’s finest creations and a delightful surprise for concertgoers who only know its more famous sibling, the E Minor. He’ll be playing “The David,” the 1742 Heifetz Guarnerius del Gesù violin owned for many years by his idol, Jascha Heifetz. The violin, valued at over $6 million, was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in 1989 by Heifetz and offered as an extended loan to SFS in 2002, where it has been cared for and played by Barantschik. Barantschik insists that the dollar value on the instrument is “completely irrelevant” as it’s priceless and could “never be replaced.” Of course there are a few restrictions. This will be “The David’s” second appearance at Weill Hall—1 of 2 locations outside of San Francisco where he is allowed to take it, the other being the Mondavi Centerfor the Performing Arts at UC Davis. Aside from these two exceptions, the instrument never travels outside of Davies. Also on the program is Britten’s winsome “Simple Symphony,” a salute to the composer’s centenary and “Melodia-Libertango,” the sultry music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, the king of nuevo tango, with guest performer Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon.
Where did you grow up in Russia and what was your first experience with the violin?
Alexander Barantschik: I was born in 1953 in St. Petersburg, Russia (then ‘Leningrad’), which was and still is the cultural capital of the country. My family wasn’t musical, no musicians except for a very distant relative, Yefrem Zimbalist, who lived in the States but I never met him because he’d emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century. It was pure coincidence that my mother tried to get me some lessons at the music school which was just across the road from our home. I could walk there by myself every day and my parents thought this would keep me busy and off the streets, which was just what happened. I was almost six when I was admitted. My first instrument was an accordion because there was no space for another violin student in the school. I don’t remember anything about that accordion but a violin spot opened up and the teacher thought I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and pitch and so I started playing the violin. After a few years, I made some progress. I can’t say I was completely dedicated to practicing or spent many hours at it but I loved music. It took quite a few years before I truly understood the importance of practice and of the violin itself. I was probably 12 or 13 when I started thinking this might be forever, this might be my life, and then I started practicing and then I started making real progress.
Historically, was there a “Russian style” of music playing and was that around when you were studying and is it still around today? Who were there big mentors that you looked up to, or, perhaps, wanted to topple?
Alexander Barantschik: When we think of a Russian school of violin, we should think about Leopold Auer, basically the first teacher who could claim that he was important for the whole process of teaching great players. His students, apart from Heifetz, were phenomenal violinists. He wasn’t Russian but a Hungarian Jew who came to Russia (in 1868) and his Russian wasn’t perfect but he was teaching his students in a unique way—they all had something special in common. That tradition of playing was very deeply appreciated after he left and went to live in New York for the last part of his life. I cannot say there is a Russian tradition of violin playing that exists right now. The world is smaller, faster, and within one week, you can be in three different continents, so things are not as personalized. There are great players of the past who are impossible to imitate…Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin—great players who were absolutely unique.
How do you feel about David Oistrakh’s playing and did you ever happen to meet him?
Alexander Barantschik: I loved his playing and heard him play much more than any other violinist as he was in Russia and played regularly with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. I was dreaming of becoming his student at the Moscow Conservatory and was able to audition with him when he was performing in St. Petersburg. I met with him in his hotel room and I played for him for about 20 minutes and he was extremely nice and accommodating and sympathetic. He listened and made some corrections and tried to see how I reacted to his comments. His last question after I had played was simple—’Do you think you really love violin?’—and he looked straight into my eyes as he asked me that. I think I said, ‘I dearly love violin.’ After a second, he said, ‘Ok… I will accept you into my class.’ I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. As I was preparing to take other exams at the conservatory, I heard the tragic news that he been on tour to the Netherlands and had died in Amsterdam after his concert. I never became his student and that was the end of my training but I’m so glad I have this wonderful memory of playing for him.
What were the circumstances that brought you to the West?
Alexander Barantschik: By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and toured regularly. I had visited Western Europe and Japan but I felt that, for my musical development, I needed to absorb different cultures and traditions and that the only way to achieve this was to emigrate from Russia, which I did at 26. My first country was Germany, where I was concertmaster with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. This was my first job and I spent three years there learning all about German traditions—Beethoven, Bückner, Haydn—and I broadened my view and I’m still learning from different traditions today.
How difficult was it to get out of Russia to Germany?
Alexander Barantschik: It was not easy and, let’s say, it was made difficult. I left Russia with one suitcase—no money, no job, no references and almost no violin. My violin was not a Guarneri but it was a nice little violin from Tirol, Austria, and at the last minute, I was not allowed to take it with me. I ended up going to a department store, to the music section and buying a simple violin that had been made in a furniture factory. It looked horrible and sounded accordingly. I played my first audition, for the section, on that. Afterwards, the committee came to me and said they were happy to offer me a job with the orchestra but that in one week they would have another audition for concertmaster and they asked me if I’d like to participate. I didn’t think about it and just said yes. They then asked me about my violin which was very bright red and said they’d never seen anything like it before. One week later, I returned for the concertmaster audition and played all the solos and concerti and I got that position. That was when they presented me with a very beautiful Guadagnini violin made in Cremona and the legend was that it has belonged to a famous German violinist Joseph Joachim who was a close friend of Brahms and who wrote cadenzas to almost every important classical violin concerto.
Do you still have that red violin?
Alexander Barantschik: No. I lent it to someone and this person never returned it and for that I am very sorry. I would love to frame it and hang it on the wall for my students at the conservatory to see what my beginnings were.
What did it feel like the first time you had Jascha Heifetz’s fiddle in your hands? How long has it taken you to become truly comfortable with the fact that this is now your violin?
Alexander Barantschik: Of course, the very first time I held it, I was speechless because the sound of Heifetz had been with me in my ear since I was a child…I’ve listened to his recordings all of my life. The violin is legendary, with a very special history of ownership and craftsmanship but it is not easy to play. Players need to find the way to produce the sound it’s capable of and that requires a special technique. It took me many months, perhaps a year, to meet its demands and to make it my friend so it started to like me as well.
Do you think that Guarneri has a unique voice? One of your SFS colleagues mentioned that he thought he heard a familiar voice from the Heifetz recordings when he heard you play it.
Alexander Barantschik: I never tried to imitate Heifetz’s sound. First of all that’s impossible as there was only one Heifetz and there will never be another. So it’s not my intention but it does have a unique dark-colored sound and maybe some low notes sound a little familiar for those who are familiar with his recordings.
You were MTT’s concertmaster in London Symphony Orchestra right? You obviously have a special rapport. What clicks? Do you and MTT ever share a vodka before or after a performance?
Alexander Barantschik: We met in London. I joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the same year he started as principal conductor. We met in the recording studio when the orchestra was recording Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which has a huge important violin solo. We had just one rehearsal and we didn’t have time to discuss things or work out the details—it was spontaneous—we both just trusted each other as musicians. After this very important and stressful recording session, we immediately became friends. I still have the cd and it’s one of the best I ever made. Our collaboration has continued for a little over 30 years now.
As for the vodka, usually, we are both pretty exhausted after a performance and we don’t have any vodka with us. Maybe, on a couple of occasions, when it was the end of the season, we shared a drink.
What’s the most stressful aspect of being the concertmaster?
Alexander Barantschik: It is a stressful job but maybe a better word is complex. The most stressful period was when I first started my career as a concertmaster and I had to basically learn the entire orchestral repertoire, an endless body of work. I’m still learning new pieces and relearning old pieces and forced to make important decisions. It’s not only about playing—it’s about preparing sheet music, working with guest conductors, auditioning musicians and all of that is very complex in this huge organization.
Historically, the SFS concertmaster has been the only musician not to have tenure. In the last SFS contract, you were given tenured status and all concertmasters, hereafter, were given the chance to be tenured. Was that important to you?
Alexander Barantschik: I think the most important aspect was the recognition of me being an integral part of the orchestra, not as being slightly different from the others.
Why did you select the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor and what sets it apart from his Concerto in E Minor, one of the five great violin concertos?
Alexander Barantschik: The D Minor that I will be playing is written for violin and strings whereas the E Minor is written for the whole orchestra with wind and brass. This program is dedicated to SFO strings and that was my main reason. It is also rarely played and, in fact, was completely ignored until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1970’s and edited the score and performed it for the first time in a couple of hundred years. So, this is not so popular but it was a master work when Mendelssohn wrote it as a 13 year old and it has all the qualities of the works he composed in his advanced age. You can hear from hear very first few bars that it is Mendelssohn—it is youthful, beautiful, dramatic and it speaks to my heart.
Any contemporary music for violin that you find intriguing?
Alexander Barantschik: Of course, it depends what we’re talking about…in terms of the 20th century, which is already the last century, I love Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich the most. If we are talking later, and more avant-garde, then there are very interesting pieces that have a new language. The only way to encourage young composers to write is to perform their works. Without performing, we’ll never know where music is going. On two occasions (2003 and 2012), I played the “Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra” (written in 1984 as a commission for the Berlin Festival) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). I was a little nervous about how the audience would react as it’s a very complicated piece, not easy listening, but he’s one of my favorite composers and this is one of my favorite concertos. The audience and the orchestra loved it in 2003 and when I played it nine or ten years later, it was the same story…successful. Now, I am learning and I hope to play a concerto by John Adams.
Where else aside from Russia, London and CA have you lived and which place do you consider “home”?
Alexander Barantschik: Without any doubt, home is where my family is— my wife Alena and son Benjamin—and we’ve been here since 2001, 13 years already. I am very happy to call CA, the Bay Area, specifically San Mateo, where I live, my home. After I left Russia, I lived in Germany for three years and then in Amsterdam for 22 years where, for 16 years, I combined my job as concertmaster with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with my concertmaster position at LSO. I then moved to California and started my job here at SFS.
Does your son have any interest in pursuing music?
Alexander Barantschik: He’s a high school junior now. He loves math, science, and computer science and he plays piano for his pleasure and loves classical music but he has no desire to pursue music professionally.
Russians have a marvelous and highly creative form of cursing. What’s your favorite Russian curse?
Alexander Barantschik: Honestly, I don’t curse so much. We do have a saying, ‘Ni puha ni pera,’ which is something like ‘break a leg,’ which is what you say to every musician or performer about to go on stage. The reply to that is always ‘K chortu,’ which is ‘Go to hell,’ a good omen for Russians.
How do you feel about performing at Weill Hall?
Alexander Barantschik: We are used to our hall, Davies, where we perform and rehearse every day and it’s challenging to leave that. Weill Hall is much smaller than Davies, has a completely different shape, and is very different acoustically from Davies. Since we don’t have any rehearsals at Weill Hall, or at the Mondavi Center, it’s always challenging to get the sound just right. We don’t have any experience just sitting in the hall and listening either. On stage, we are hearing things that are so different from what you’re hearing and we have to adjust immediately without even hardly having a chance to play. This time, we’ve got a small ensemble. I will come a bit early and check out the acoustics to make sure I remember what it’s like there.
Details: Alexander Barantschik and SFS perform “Barantschik and Friends” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. AND “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn” at Davies Symphony Hall on Wed (Jan 22, 8 p.m.), Fri (Jan 24, 6:30 p.m.), Sat (Jan 25, 8 p.m.) and Sun (Jan 26, 2 p.m.). Tickets at Green Music Center are $20 to $156 (click here to purchase) and are $15 to $109 at Davies (click here to purchase.) For more information, call (415) 864-6000. For more information about San Francisco Symphony’s four concerts this season at Weill Hall, click here.
No comments yet.