An Interview with Concert Violinist Vadim Gluzman

gluzman-intvw-fig-2.jpgWhen my editor at American Record Guide learned that I was about to interview Vadim Gluzman, he was jealous beyond belief. Having just listened to Gluzman’s latest recording, an acoustically superior hybrid SACD on the BIS label of violin concertos by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, he was astounded by Gluzman’s virtuosity and musicianship.

I was equally astounded when, some weeks later, I heard Gluzman perform the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. Virtually the entire packed house stood and cheered. When I went backstage afterwards to meet Gluzman in person, it was as if I was talking with an old friend.

The following interview took place toward the end of February, 2008, a few months before Gluzman was scheduled to perform chamber music with Yehuda Hanani’s Close Encounters With Music in the Berkshires and the Shostakovich with the San Francisco Symphony.


Jason Victor Serinus: You have a very exciting schedule this year. You just subbed for Nicolai Znaider in a performance with the Israel Philharmonic, Itzhak Perlman conducting, and you’re scheduled to sub for Vadim Repin in a performance of the Shostakovich first Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, James Gaffigan conducting. Have you been doing a lot of subbing of late?

Vadim Gluzman: Quite honestly not. This was probably a coincidence. Normally I rarely have an opening to substitute for someone due to my schedule. This season, for some reason, these two times worked out.

JVS: How do you pronounce Vadim Repin’s last name, by the way?

VG: Re’pin. Vadim was my classmate in Siberia, so I’d better know how to pronounce his name.

JVS: You’ve performed with Yehuda Hanani and Close Encounters With Music twice before. What is the meeting of minds like when four different players unaccustomed to frequent collaboration come together with four different ideas of a piece?

VG: It’s a bit like a festival situation. Imagine people coming together with one common goal. Our common ground is that we all want to make it happen. If you have people who are sensitive enough and prepared enough for the event, I think it can very well turn out to be a success.

I haven’t worked with all these musicians before. I’m sure that Yehuda has played with some of them, but I have only played with Yehuda.

Yehuda and I have known each other for four years. We’ve had very good chemistry from the very beginning. We started our relationship with arguably one of the most difficult pieces in the literature, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. We had a very good understanding of each other, and we felt each other right away. This is why we decided that we should continue. But difficult as it is with my schedule, we have managed one concert this year. I’m looking forward to it.

JVS: I believe you’re doing the Haydn Trio and the Brahms Piano Quartet.

VG: Yes, the whole program is built around a gypsy theme. We’ll play Haydn’s so-called “Gypsy Trio, ” Brahms’ famous “Gypsy Quartet. ” Then the pianist and I will play Ravel’s Tzigane.

JVS: What do you feel about these pieces?

VG: All of these works show the influence of a folk element in music. It’s quite spectacular. You take these three composers who come from three different epochs of western music history, yet they’re influenced by this same element of gypsy fiddling or gypsy Hungarian or whatever one likes to call it. This musical structure has been so strong because it never had any geographic borders. Gypsies as we know migrated from place to place, as they still do. They were able to touch so many people. This is the result. We find their influence in every culture of Western and Eastern Europe. It’s fascinating to see how, at different geographic points at different times, different people reacted and made the gypsy element their own.

For example, take Ravel, whom I think was the greatest orchestrator of all time. When you listen to the orchestral version of Tzigane, it’s absolutely fascinating how, by choosing the correct combinations of instruments, he made the symphony orchestra sound like a gypsy band. It’s not because they play any different; it’s just how he combines the instruments. It’s fascinating.

JVS: It’s interesting to hear you call Ravel the greatest orchestrator of all time…

VG: In my humble opinion…

JVS: [laughing] I don’t have an opinion about this, so I’m not challenging you. But I’m curious on what you base your assessment. Is it because of his specific choice of instrumentation?

VG: It’s not only his choice of instrumentation, but also his feel for color, which basically has to do with the same thing, of course – that’s what orchestration is, basically. If you listen to his own works, it’s clear. But if you listen to his orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, this is where his skill is most vivid. The amount of color palette that he uses is breathtaking to me. I would really like to emphasize that this is only my opinion.

JVS: The composer I always think about in terms of color is Mahler – certainly when conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

VG: Not to take away from Mahler, we did hear Mahler re-orchestrating a few works of earlier times. But what Ravel was able to do was really unique in history.

JVS: Tell me about your musical background.

VG: Both of my parents were musicians. They’re both teachers. My mother is a musicologist, my father a conductor and clarinetist.

I think it was just a matter of time until I began studying, although they did not insist on anything. In fact, they did not want me to be a musician in the beginning. I asked to study music, I think out of jealousy because they were teaching other people and I felt neglected in a way. All my life they were teaching other people at the conservatory in the Soviet Union. I didn’t see any kids, but I felt I wanted to study and asked for it.

Slowly, a violin entered my life and stayed. I got my first fiddle on my seventh birthday, very late. If you play the Paganini Concerto by the time you’re five, me you might become rather tired, I think. But I’m glad I did have a bit of childhood.

JVS: Once you started studying violin, did you make your own choice to practice hours a day, or did they foist that on you?

VG: I had to because they insisted on it. The moment I started, there was no going back. Because they saw I had a talent, I guess they thought that as long as I was studying, I had might as well do it well. They practiced with me for some years until I was able to do it myself. They didn’t make me practice – I’m yet to meet a child that wants to practice by himself. As unpleasant as it might have been back then, I’m very grateful today.

JVS: There are some people who start instruments or singing early on, but because of all the pressure, they lose the joy. Did you ever go through that kind of experience?

VG: No. Luckily, I love it too much. I’m afraid that if you took the violin away from me, I wouldn’t be able to breathe.

JVS: Did playing the violin in some ways lead you into your marriage?

VG: [chuckling] In every way. My wife, Angela Yoffe and I went to school together in the Soviet Union. Right before my family emigrated to Israel, I played my farewell in Riga. My regular accompanist by that time was already in Israel. So we called Angela and asked her to play the concert with me, and that was it. When her family came to Israel a half year later, little by little we started dating. By now, we’re parents of a four-year old daughter.

JVS: Oh great. How old were you when you played your first concert with Angela in Israel?

VG: I must have been 16 or 17.

JVS: How wonderful.

Are you two often of one musical mind, or do differences sometimes strain the relationship?

VG: You must realize that it is almost 20 years that we have been playing together. I’ve never really thought about it, but we must have developed a common sense and taste between us. There are often times when we argue, and we argue very loudly, but we just know not to carry it onto the dinner table.

JVS: Because of your schedule, are you often apart? How do you work that all out?

VG: We try to travel as much as possible together. Since our daughter was born, things have changed a bit, of course. We just came back from quite a long road trip, almost four weeks. We were in Latvia, then in Italy, and Israel. We were all together. In Riga, our daughter came onstage with us at the gala event.

JVS: Has she expressed a desire to play music yet?

VG: I’m very much like my parents in this question. I’ll try to postpone it as long as possible. I’m afraid she’s starting to put pressure on us, but I don’t know for sure just yet.

JVS: It’s very interesting me to encounter a large number of classical musicians who have an iPod and spend most of their time to listening to other than classical music. What are you and your daughter listening to?

VG: Well, she’s four years old, so she does not have an iPod. By the way, neither do I, and I’m not intending to. First I tried to stay in the 19th century, at which I failed miserably. And now I’m trying to stay in the 20th at least.

JVS: The only music I can listen to in the background is a certain kind of new age music that I find very elevated and spiritual. Most of it has me screaming because it’s just middle-of-the-road shlock.

VG: [laughs]

JVS: My reviews for Massage Magazine were very different than others, because I wasn’t afraid to say that a particular CD was created by someone wanting to make a fast buck from unwitting massage practitioners, and contained nothing more than middle-of-the road nothingness with catchy New Age slogans for titles. Regardless, I could never imagine playing the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 that you’re playing in San Francisco in the background while trying to do something else.

VG: It would be a crime. I can’t receive music as a background. Either I listen to it or I don’t.

JVS: Have you worked with James Gaffigan before?

VG: No, we’ve never met. I have heard a lot about him; the world is very, very small. I’ve heard many, many good things.

JVS: There’s that famous meeting of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould…

VG: Oh yes, you’re referring to the Brahms.

JVS: Yes, where Lenny issued a disclaimer. Have you been in situations where you’ve been in a big tug-of-war with a conductor?

VG: You’ve got me thinking. I’ve met people who were not sympathetic. I’ve met people who were not capable of doing what needed to be done. But I don’t think I ever had a real war of completely polarized opinions.

JVS: When a conductor is not capable of translating into feeling and music what you are capable of doing, what do you do?

VG: I conduct. Believe me, there are ways to conduct without actually waving hands and a baton in front of you. You might call it leading, you might call it inspiring, you might call it urging – whatever is necessary. It does happen from time to time for one reason or another.

I don’t wish to speak badly of anybody, but you meet musicians of different stature. Some are very inspiring, some are contributing are to your performance a great deal. For example, I had this experience a couple of months ago with the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. It was in Vienna at the Musikverein. We played Shostakovich with Michail Jurowski, with whom I’ve played a couple of times now. This was probably one of the most touching experiences of my life. It was my first performance in Musikverein, so just the sheer fact of standing on that stage was great. But what he was able and willing to contribute to this concerto was for me not only a pleasure but also an incredible lesson. Then are other times when you have to be both, the soloist and conductor. It doesn’t happen too often, so I shouldn’t complain.

JVS: What did Jurowski contribute that other conductors weren’t able to?

VG: To begin with, he knew Shostakovich himself. He grew up in the same apartment building, visiting him on a weekly basis. So he had first-hand knowledge of the man and of his music. He attended his lectures until Shostakovich passed away.

He also has this incredibly deep emotional connection to this music. In many ways it was, I dare say, very similar to mine. Our antennas met in metaphysical space. It’s very difficult to describe emotion in words, especially when words come in a language that is not your own and you talk about music.

JVS: I just sit here smiling when you talk about antennas meeting in metaphysical space. I’m so with you. That’s very, very beautiful. Thank you.

I’ve been very involved in metaphysical matters in my own life, and I’m also a musician and a performer.

VG: I’ve heard. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone like you.

JVS: [laughing] Well, my mother always said, there’s no other son like you.

VG: Well, I guess she was right.

JVS: I guess she was. It’s very interesting, the different parts of me. There’s even the part that whistles Mozart and Schubert.

VG: Speaking of whistling, I’m now learning a piece that I’ll play in a couple of weeks in New York. It’s called Mozart à la Haydn for two violins. I’m playing the violin part that has to whistle. There are three bars and then another four bars. I have to whistle in rhythm and in tune. I was practicing yesterday. It’s difficult.

JVS: How is the range, large or small?

VG: It’s very high, but it’s a small range.

JVS: You know, Elisabeth Schumann used to intersperse birdcalls in the middle of singing. I know I need water frequently when I whistle, and I keep water onstage, but that has a lot to do with the fact that the specific tone I try to create is a very fluid and wet tone. I’ve modeled the sound of whistling, not on the violin, not on other instruments, but on the sound of singers.

VG: Well, that’s what we should all model ourselves after. That’s good advice for every instrumentalist. I don’t know if we should consider you a singer or an instrumentalist. I think it’s a bit of both.

JVS: There’s a big debate going on about this. What we should consider me for a union job is a vocalist, because it pays a lot more.

VG: [Laughs heartily]. This is very good.

JVS: And perhaps you can now talk about yourself as a vocalist if you’re doing a commercial and can get some whistling in there.

VG: I see. I’ll make a note of it.

JVS: [Laughing] There’s a big debate about whistlers who see themselves as instrumentalists and those who see themselves as vocalists. I kind of chuckle at the whole thing, and keep doing what I love to do. It gets down more to a question of technique, with some people saying you should be judged by how fast you can whistle and how many trills you can do and whether you can do this skill or that skill. But my response is that I’ve always modeled myself after lyric sopranos, and I’m not a rapid coloratura. I’ve never developed that technique because I’ve worked in other directions. But let’s not get caught up in that.

I’d love your comments on the Shostakovich. What does it feel like to play it? What do you suggest people listen for, or how to approach it.

VG: The reason I pause is because I have about 4560 words, and I’m trying to reduce them.

JVS: The tape won’t run out. Just start.

VG: There are many sides to it. For me, it is very much my concerto. And I daresay that I feel incredibly connected to Shostakovich in general. His music gives me sleepless nights time after time. There is not one concert where I have played his music after which I have slept. It continues for years, no matter what piece of his music I am playing.

It’s one of the darkest, one the most painful pieces of music I have ever played. It was written at a time when Shostakovich was basically stabbed in the back by everybody he thought was his friend. It was during this infamous period when he once again beaten and mixed with dirt at the Congress of Soviet Composers. He would come back from this torture and write a concerto. That was his immediate reaction.

It’s music written by someone who is in a great deal of pain. Great deal of pain for himself, great deal of pain for a country that he loved very much despite all the horror that was going on at the time. Consider that he was writing it knowing for fact that it was not going to be performed. He was writing it, as it was called in Russian, ‘into the desk. ‘ He knew it was not going to be played, and it was not played until after Stalin passed away.

It was completed in 1948, and first played in 1955. Many people point fingers at Oistrakh, saying that he didn’t dare to play. Yes, he didn’t dare to play, because he would have been simply killed. And then, what would he be good for?

Then, at the same time, it’s one of the most uplifting pieces of music. There is no happy moment in the concerto. But when you get through it, you feel full of light. How to explain this, I’m lost. I’ve known this concerto for all my life – not that I’ve played it all my life – and I have always thought this. I became even more convinced of it once I started to perform it. It tears your heart apart, your guts, all your insides. And then you come out of it full of life. I don’t know how.

JVS: Do we have hope of a recording from you?

VG: Give me a few more years. I’m recording No. 2 in two or three years for BIS. Who I’m recording it with has yet to be decided, but most likely with one of my most favorite collaborators, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. It will probably be combined with Gubaidulina’s Offertorium.

JVS: Oh wonderful. I don’t know it, but she is going to be San Francisco Symphony’s first Phyllis Wattis Composer-in-Residence.

VG: Oh my God. You’re going to be so lucky.

JVS: I only know a bit of her music. But some of it, when we talk about metaphysical experiences, has just blown me away.

VG: Yes. Absolutely. I had the luck of meeting her and working with her on the Offertorium. To say this was a life-changing experience would be saying nothing. This woman – I feel like I can talk to you in terms I cannot talk with other people – when we met, she opened the door, we shook hands, and she looked at me. All I said was hello. Really, I didn’t say another word.

In five seconds, I had a distinct feeling that she knows me inside and out and I really don’t have to tell her who I am and what I am about. This was really surreal. It was almost a physical feeling. I don’t know how else to explain it. The power of this woman is just surreal.

JVS: It reminds me of the first meeting between Robert Hall, who founded the Lomi School and the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, and Fritz Perls, the father of gestalt therapy. They looked at each other, and Robert experienced a time warp. Soon he was invited down to Esalen, where Fritz Perls introduced him as the genius who would lead the open gestalt therapy training that evening.

We have only a few more minutes to talk because I have Marilyn Horne on the other side of the tape and I haven’t transcribed it yet. This has just been a joy. I love it when musicians and artists start talking about spiritual matters.

VG: Frankly, what is music if not a spiritual matter? Because if it’s not, it’s very sad.

JVS: And that gets us into what a lot of people play on their iPods.

VG: Ah. Now you see why I don’t have one.

JVS: [laughing] Of course, you could be playing Lera Auerbach, whose music you have recorded several times, on your iPod.

I’d love to conclude with you saying something about Brahms, who is one of the composers who most touches my heart. Could you say something about Brahms’ spirituality in terms of the piano quartet?

VG: Speaking in more general terms about Brahms, because the piano quartet is simply not enough, Brahms was one person that we know was able to have a love affair without having one. He was able to have it all of his life and remain faithful to the love of his life without ever achieving the relationship.

For me, composers come and go. There are phases. I went through phases of a number of composers that appear in my life. They leave me, they come back. With Brahms, I never noticed when he arrived. But when he arrived, I knew that he would never leave. He never did, and I know for sure he never will. He’s one composer that you come back to time after time to the same piece, and the bottom is endless. There is absolutely endless amount of information to connect to, to fulfill. Brahms is one of probably two or three musical miracles I think, probably Mozart and Bach being the other two.

JVS: I will definitely be there at one of the concerts and come backstage to say hello.

VG: Please do. It has been a pleasure.