|Cheryl North :: Interviews|
Cheryl North Interviews with Alexander Barantschik
ANG Newspapers: September 7, 2001; September 6, 2002; February 16, 2007, San Francisco Examiner, February 13, 2007 (below in reverse chronological order)
ANG Newspaper Preview Section, February 16, under title: Concerts in San Francisco, Cupertino Celebrate J.S. Bach's Legendary Music
One of the nicer coincidences in this world is that the first day of spring coincides with the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. The great man, considered by the vast majority of accomplished classical musicians and tens of thousands of ordinary folk, to be the greatest composer of all time, was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany.
Few other composers in the world have been either as prolific or as profound as the amazing Bach. According to several music historians, it took the Bach Gesellschaft group of scholars 46 years to gather and publish into 60 huge volumes what we now have of Bach's music. But if a copyist were to write out all this music as Bach did himself, experts estimate that it would take said copyist 70 years.
When asked to describe and evaluate the quality of Bach's music, most writers and musicians tend to lapse into superlatives. Even the egotistical, irascible Richard Wagner wrote that Bach was "the most stupendous miracle in all music."
But perhaps most notable of all is the fact that modest old Bach's music is so mind-bogglingly good that it can be captivating whether played on a pennywhistle, steel drums, harpsichord, a mighty organ or an entire orchestra with full chorus.
Fortunately for us, a couple of occasions scheduled in the Bay Area this week will bring a little musical springtime into our lives with Bach's music.
The first of these, already in progress, is the current set of San Francisco Symphony concerts at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and at Flint Center in Cupertino.
The unusual aspect of these concerts is that they will be conducted not by Maestro Tilson Thomas but by the symphony's illustrious concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik.
The program will feature Barantschik as violin soloist, first-chair violinist and conductor in two of Bach's loveliest works: his Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, with Barantschik and flutist Timothy Day, oboist William Bennett and trumpet William M. Williams Jr. all playing solos. The second Bach selection will be the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, with Barantschik and Bennett once again as soloists.
Another magnetic attraction will be the instrument that Barantschik will play during the concerts the famous 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesu violin, famed for its rich, almost viola-like tone. This is the same instrument once played by the late Jascha Heifitz.
Other works will be Mozart's Divertimento in F Major, Shostakovich's Octet, followed by Britten's Simple Symphony; and two Tangos by Astor Piazzolla arranged for violin and orchestra by Oakland-based jazz violinist and tango specialist Jeremy Cohen.
Barantschik was born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Russia, in the dismal year 1953, when Russia was under the repressive Soviet regime. Since 2001, he has been happily ensconced in a lovely San Mateo house with a garden containing a treasured lemon tree. With him are his musician wife, Alena, and their 9-year-old son, Benjamin, also musical.
There are two more concerts remaining in the series of four. The first is at 8 tonight in Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. The second is at 8 p.m. Saturday in Flint Center on the DeAnza College campus in Cupertino.
San Francisco Examiner, February 13, under title: Alexander Barantschik Conducts San Francisco Symphony in Concerts This Week
The San Francisco Symphony's versatile concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, will move from his usual role as the orchestra's first officer to act as its commander-in-chief during concerts this week at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and Flint Center in Cupertino.
Barantschik, a native of St. Petersberg, Russia, was appointed to the position of San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster in 2001. His job description usually limits him to the task of being the leader of the first violin section of the orchestra and requires him to precede the conductor on stage, bow and accept audience applause on behalf of the already-seated colleague musicians, and to be responsible for tuning the orchestra. In addition, he is expected to perform any violin solo written into the evening's orchestral works and to make decisions regarding uniform bowing among the string players.
But SF music director Michael Tilson Thomas has given Barantschik's extensive musical skills a much wider berth. During this week's concerts, Barantschik will be featured as soloist, concertmaster, and conductor in a wonderfully varied program spanning music of four centuries. Moreover, he will play on the famed 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesu violin, noted for its rich, almost viola-like, tone. This is the same instrument once played by the late Jascha Heifitz.
The music programmed is J.S. Bach's glorious Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, with violinist Barantschik, flutist, Timothy Day; oboist, William Bennett; and trumpet, William M. Williams Jr., all playing solos. Next will be Mozart's Divertimento in F Major, followed by Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe, with Barantschik and Bennett once again as soloists.
The second half will begin with Shostakovich's Octet, followed by Britten's Simple Symphony; and two Tangos by Astor Piazzolla arranged for violin and orchestra by Oakland-based jazz violinist and tango specialist Jeremy Cohen.
During a phone conversation Sunday, Barantschik explained, "I wanted to have two distinct halves to the program -- the first is cheerful, optimistic music which is clearly articulated, transparent, and played with very little vibrato."
"The second half," he continued, "will be darker, more dramatic and emotional, and will be played with lots of vibrato."
The Shostakovich piece is one of his earlier works and betrays the composer's bitterness with the mounting artistic difficulties under the Soviet regime. "It is filled with swoops and shouts," said Barantschik.
He described the Britten Simple Symphony, as sharing similarities with Prokofiev's witty Classical Symphony, and noted that it is made up of melodies that Britten claimed to have written between the ages of nine and 12.
The Piazzolla pieces, on the other hand, the congenial concertmaster-cum-conductor described, as being full of "dark, melancholy blues" and "juicy reds."
Concertmaster Barantschik and Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at San Francisco Symphony Concert in Cologne, Germany
Back in 1979, when aspiring violinist Alexander Barantschik played through his first audition outside the Soviet Union, he did so on a banged-up, borrowed instrument. The performance won him the post of concertmaster with Germany's esteemed Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Now, 23 years later, he strolled onstage to his concertmaster's seat in front of the San Francisco Symphony musicians and the glittering 2002-2003 opening night audience assembled last Wednesday. And, once again, he carried an old violin.
However, this time around, the instrument was not banged up, but rather, one of the finest, rarest violins in the world -- the 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesu. This particular multi-million dollar violin was one of the coveted masterpieces of Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, the most illustrious member of the violin-making Guarneri family of Cremona Italy. It was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his legendary violin concerto. The famous fiddle was purchased by the great Jascha Heifetz in 1922 and became his favorite instrument. He willed it to the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, with the stipulation that it be played only by ``worthy performers.'' Following his death in 1987, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few worthy performers who have been fortunate enough to pass bows over its venerable strings.
During a recent chat, I asked Barantschik if he would try to summon up some words to describe the "David" and how he would contrast its timbre with that of a Stradivarius violin. (Antonio Stradivari, who lived from 1644 to 1737, is the other equally acclaimed Cremona violin-maker). He noted that the David is in wonderful condition, looks very beautiful, and has much of its original varnish still intact.
Then, after a good-natured sigh, and an admonishment that it is indeed difficult to characterize tonal quality in mere words, he tried to explain. "I was trying a Stradivarius for almost three months last year. It was a very late one, finished in 1737, the year Antonio died. It was a beautiful instrument, but with quite a different sound from the Guarneri."
"Let me use some comparisons to the world of the Cinema," he earnestly continued in Russian-accented English. "Imagine someone like, say, Gwynneth Paltrow. She is like the Strad. The Guarneri is more like Claudia Cardinale."
"The Strad has a brightness, a pristine clarity. It seems to feature more treble (high) frequencies. A Guarneri, on the other hand, has a very rich lower register and can sound rich and dark, almost like a viola. It has a very strong, dramatic tone. Whereas the Strad sound a little cool and northern, the Guarneri is hot and southern."
I asked him if a layman could tell the difference between the two if he were to play each in succession. "I think so," he replied. "Of course, you need to play each differently to enhance its song qualities and this can change your attitude to the particular piece you are playing. You could certainly tell that they were both great instruments. But, even so, the way each sounds still rests mostly in the hands and skills of the violinist doing the playing."
But, after a few seconds, he further qualified his statements with, "Great instruments can help artists a lot -- playing one can be inspiring. Some technical things can certainly be affected by a poor instrument, but you can still hear real talent through it all."
Barantschik, affectionately called "Sasha" by his friends and colleagues, is certainly among the worthiest of the number chosen to play the "David" Guarneri. Born in 1953 in Leningrad in the former Soviet Union, his youth was difficult and austere. His childhood home was in one of the scores of cell-like apartments crowded into rows of cold concrete/cinderblock high-rise boxes jutting like weeds in the Leningrad skyline.
According to Barantschik, the best part about his particular building was that it just happened to be right across the street from a fine music school. Although neither his mother nor father were particularly musical, both sensed their only child's profound musical ability and had him studying violin in the nearby school before he was six years old. "Music became one of the ways for me to escape from this grim world," he reminisced. "I felt that my life would be wonderful if I could someday play with a real orchestra."
Ultimately admitted to the prestigious Moscow Conservatory of Music, he auditioned and was accepted as a student by the revered David Oistrakh. However, since Oistrakh died the following year while conducting in Amsterdam, Barantschik perfected his prodigious technical skills and musicianship with Michael Waiman, a splendid teacher hidden away from the Western world behind the Iron Curtain.
By the time he was 20, he finally had the opportunity to realize his youthful dream and played with the Leningrad Philharmonic and a number of other major musical ensembles in the Soviet Union. Then, in 1979, during a temporary thaw in cold war, Sasha and his mother left the Soviet Union for good and his life as one of the premiere violinists in the Western World began. (His father had passed away when he was 13).
Now happily ensconced in a home with a garden in San Mateo with his violinist wife Alena, Benjamin, their four-year-old son, and his mother, Sasha is happy to call the San Francisco Bay Area his home -- and to be privy to playing the prized Guarneri as the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony.
When asked what the high point of his first year as San Francisco's concertmaster, he replied with nary a pause, "The first concert we played after September 11th (Mahler's Symphony No. 6, on Sept. 12, 2001). It was the most deeply touching event of my life ... there was a feeling of such unity ... we were all making that music and those feelings together -- the Maestro, Michael Tilson Thomas, the musicians, and the audience. That day and that concert I will always remember -- even though I was playing my old violin."
Alexander Barantschik and his 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesu violin
One of the many things Alexander Barantschik likes best about his new job is the fact that he can dash out into the backyard of his current Peninsula home and pick a fresh lemon for his tea. Barantchik, the new Concertmaster for the San Francisco Symphony, was born in the city of Leningrad in the former Soviet Union in 1953 - a time and a place in which fresh lemons, as well as a lot of other things, were scarce.
Already familiarly referred to as "Sasha," by his Symphony colleagues, he, his violinist wife Alena, their three-year-old son Benjamin, and his mother, are delighted to be able to call the San Francisco Bay Area home after spending so much of their lives in cold northern climes. "San Francisco is one of the most beautiful places in the world," said Barantschik during an interview last week. "My family and I are very happy to be in a place with such warmth and hospitality."
Tanned and fit, the amiable Barantschik looks more like a ski instructor than the accomplished concertmaster of some of the world's greatest orchestras. And indeed, skiing, biking, swimming and roller-blading, along with art and architecture, are among his passions. These pursuits, however, were not available to him during his austere youth.
His childhood home was in one of the scores of minimal cell-like apartments crowded into a forest of identical concrete/cinder block high rise boxes jutting like weeds through the Leningrad skyline. The best part about his particular building was that it stood right across the street from a music school. Although neither Sasha's mother nor father was particularly musical, they sensed their only child's musical ability.
Barantschik remembers being deeply moved by a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony by the Leningrad Philharmonic even before he was six years old, the age at which his parents started him on violin study and enrolled him in the nearby music school. "Music became one of the ways for me to escape from the grim world around me," he reminisced. "I felt that my life would be wonderful if I could someday play Tchaikovsky's Fifth with an orchestra." The competition at the music school was fierce. "We always felt like we were on a kind of probation, since we had to re-audition every year," he said. "We were taught to work very hard, and I did not have as much free time as other children my age."
Music however, worked its magic on him and he progressed rapidly and was ultimately admitted to the prestigious Moscow Conservatory of Music. He auditioned and was accepted as a student by the legendary David Oistrakh. Oistrakh, however, died the following year while conducting in Amsterdam, so Barantschik perfected his prodigious technical skills and musicianship with Michael Waiman, a splendid teacher hidden away from the Western world behind the Iron Curtain.
By the time he was 20, he finally had the opportunity to realize his youthful dream -- to play the Tchaikovsky Fifth, as well as scores of other musical master works, with the Leningrad Philharmonic and a number of other major musical ensembles in the Soviet Union. Hoping to broaden his horizons, Sasha and his mother (his father had passed away when he was 13) left the Soviet Union in 1979 during a temporary thaw in the Cold War. They headed for Vienna. Soviet authorities did not allow him to take his violin, bow, or much money out of the country. Nevertheless, he soon landed an audition with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in Germany. He was given the job of concertmaster, even though he had had only a banged-up borrowed violin to play for his audition!
He was soon acclaimed throughout Europe and in 1982, was named to the concertmaster position of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and in 1989, to the same position with the London Symphony Orchestra. He distinguished himself as a concertmaster, soloist, chamber musician and performed with such musical masters as Mstislav Rostropovich, Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Vengerov, Andre Previn, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Georg Solti, Kent Nagano, Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, and many more. It was during his London Symphony tenure that he met Michael Tilson Thomas, then the LSO's principal conductor.
"I formed a very special relationship with Michael," he said. "When he conducts, the audience and the orchestra can sense the love of what he's doing. It's a wonderful kind of musical sharing that I too believe in and try to do, either from the concertmaster's chair or when I conduct an orchestra myself."
"A performance needs to have LIFE," he stressed. "I hope to be not only on stage and play my violin, but to be in a real contact with the audience. When it happens, you can feel it immediately. It's like an electricity that goes from heart to heart."
And, certainly, Sasha's ability to communicate -- either via violin, his slightly accented, but fluent English, his penetrating eyes, or his expressive body language -- is remarkable. Whether in a one-to-one verbal exchange or before a legion of musicians and a vast audience, he manages to transmit a compelling intensity.
He recounted a colorful incident that occurred when he was serving as Concertmaster for a London Philharmonic performance under the baton of the late Leonard Bernstein at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. "It was a tremendous performance, with Bernstein at his best. The audience was huge and even the Emperor of Japan was there," Barantschik remembered. "The clapping just went on and on after its close. Bernstein came back for repeated bows, and with his usual intensity, motioned for various orchestra members to bow along with him. After a while, he leaned down to me and gasped that he was exhausted and told me to get the orchestra off the stage."
"After what Bernstein hoped was his final exit, I looked up towards the Emperor's box, and saw why the standing audience was so unusually persistent. The Emperor himself was still standing and clapping -- and no one else would leave until he did."
"I eventually caught his eye and made a hand motion toward the wings that I hoped would signal `That's enough!'" Barantschik continued. "He immediately understood, smiled at me, and made his exit. The audience instantly stopped clapping. It was as though someone had switched a radio off."
"Afterwards, the Emperor and his entourage came backstage to greet the Maestro and members of the Orchestra. One of the security men came up to me and whispered, `You are a very brave man!'" Barantschik said.