interview with Vadim Gluzman

November 25, 2009, 1:44 PM ·

Vadim Gluzman believes the violin has a living soul – and from the pile of performance reviews on my desk as well as from my own ears, I believe he knows something about how to give it breath.

This week he offers us a new recording, of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, Ernest Bloch's "Baal Shem," and Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," all 20th century music, together offering a wide range of aesthetic and emotional content.

Vadim Gluzman. Image courtesy artist

Born in the Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine, Gluzman was a part of that powerhouse studio of Zakhar Bron that also helped produced violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin. At age 16, Gluzman moved to Israel, where he met Isaac Stern, who became an influential friend and mentor. He went on to study in the United States with Arkady Fomin and at Juilliard with Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki. In 1994 he received the Henryk Szeryng Foundation Career Award.

Gluzman, 36, also is the living steward of one of the more precious artifacts in our instrument's history: the Stradivarius once owned by the great Hungarian violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer (1845-1930). Auer's editions of the major violin works – with his cadenzas – remain in regular use today. Then of course, is his teaching legacy. Auer taught Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Oscar Shumsky, and Shinichi Suzuki, among others. Gluzman has the instrument on extended loan through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. I asked him when he spoke with me over phone from Chicago last month, how does it feel to play on Auer's violin?

Vadim Gluzman: It's been eleven years now, and still, sometimes I open my case and I take the fiddle in my hands and I say to myself, 'Wow.' I am amazed. The instrument is absolutely tremendous – of course, Mr. Auer must have known something about instruments. It's funny, he had two fiddles, both Strads. One from 1689 and one from 1690, the one I play. He must have liked that period, I don't know. This violin – it explains many things to me about pieces that were written for Auer. It has this unbelievable G string, it sounds like a del Gesu or a viola, dark dark dark, and huge. If you think about both Glazunov and Tchaikovsky concerti, they both start on the same note, A, in first position on G string. Both were written for this violin. The Glazunov (concerto) was premiered on this violin. I'm sure both Glazunov and Tchaikovsky had heard Auer play, and they knew the sound of the instrument, and they had this sound in mind.

Laurie: How amazing, then, to play the Tchaikovsky and the Glazunov on that instrument!

Vadim Gluzman: It's incredible. And then when I had the chutzpah to say that I'm going to record both on one CD... it was the most amazing material, to actually put it on record, on the original instrument.

Laurie: Do you feel the instrument has changed you, and have you changed it, left your stamp on it?

Vadim Gluzman: It's both, absolutely both. I do believe that the instrument is a living thing, and I do say this literally. I think there is a soul, and that there are feelings; it's like a relationship with a human being. We leave stamps on each other, as I'm sure you know.

Laurie: I feel that way about my violin as well, even though I don't have a legendary violin.

Vadim Gluzman: I don't think it has to do with how provenant the instrument is. An instrument is an instrument, it has its own character, its own life, and it relates to us just as much as we relate to it. It's not for nothing that in many languages, instruments are female or male, and not "it."

Laurie: I feel like they leave an imprint of whatever has been played on them.

Vadim Gluzman: I remember that not that long ago I was at Bein and Fushi in Chicago and they showed me the General Kyd Strad, it's the Strad Itzhak Perlman played for a big part of his career, at the beginning. Ever since it has been with a collector, so it has not really been played on stage. When I tried to play it, and I heard a different sound, and it wasn't me. That was not me playing, it was his sound.

So we do, of course, imprint our personalities into the violin. Whoever played this fiddle before me, since Auer – Kavakos, and Dylana Jensen as well -- all the people leave part of their soul behind.

Laurie: Tell me about your beginnings with the violin – I understand that they measured your hands to see which instrument best suited you...

Vadim Gluzman: They examined them. It was a specialized school for musically gifted children in the Soviet Union. At the time, I lived in Riga, which is the capitol of Latvia. At the end of examinations they said that I sounded strong, I had passed my exams, and then they asked me to give my hands to the jury, which I did. I thought they were checking if my nails were clean, I was absolutely convinced. Then the next day, they put on the board the list of those that made it through. I was one of them, and next to my name, it said "Skripka" – Violin." I had a fit! In Russian, violin is a female, and piano is male. My father had told me piano was king of instruments and violin was a queen. What do you expect a six-year-old boy would want play, a queen? Of course not, he wants to play king! I keep reminding myself that the next time I go back to Riga, I have to ask these people, how do they judge 6-year-old hands? How do they see the progression, that it will be a good hand for violin? Because indeed my hands are good for violin, they are not good for piano at all. My first teacher still teaches there at that school, he's almost 80 now.

Laurie: I understand you also studied with Zakhar Bron, were you in the same class with Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin?

Vadim Gluzman: Yes, we were all in the same class.

Laurie: It must have been an exciting time to be in his studio.

Vadim Gluzman: It was incredibly exciting, to be there, looking back at it. Of course at the time I couldn't really appreciate it, I was a teenager, but what an atmosphere, to be growing up, all together. Basically it was an international competition every day. Not only were Maxim and Vadim there, but also there was Natalia Prischpenko – she is the first violinist of the Artemis String Quartet...It was really an incredibly nurturing environment, and (Bron) of course was a great inspiration. He managed to inspire us in very different ways – either through demonstrating or screaming at you -- and each of us received a really individualized treatment.

Laurie: So how did he inspire you?

Vadim Gluzman: By screaming, mostly. (He laughs)

Laurie: That can be very effective!

Vadim Gluzman: In the Soviet Union, it used to work. I can't say I enjoyed it. Nor do I do it; I remember how much I hated it, so when I teach I try not to do it, although sometimes I have urges. (He laughs)

Laurie: Do you like to teach, do you do it much?

Vadim Gluzman: I love teaching, but with my schedule it's next to impossible. One place where I teach is very dear to me, Keshet Eilon in Israel. This is a violin master course, we do nothing but fiddle. There are really great people – this year we had Shmuel Ashkenasi, Schlomo Mintz, Ida Haendel – it's quite something. I was there as a student, the very first year of it, and then I've been teaching there for the last 10 years. This is really a part of my skin and blood, I can't imagine being with out Keshet Eilon.

Laurie: How is it different than other kinds of summer programs?

Vadim Gluzman: For one, it's only violin. And second, it's located in this gorgeous kibbutz in the north of Israel, in western Galilee – nature, to die for. I think what really stands out there -- and it's always been like this -- is that there is no feeling of competitiveness. Somehow the atmosphere is always so relaxed, so friendly, so nurturing. I see kids come back, from year to year. There also is a policy of open doors. Every teacher has his own studio, but then the kids are encouraged to go take lessons with everyone they can. (For example) this summer with Shmuel Ashkenasi we had a sort of team effort: I would send him Schubert, and he would send me Prokofieff.

Laurie: I think it's a wonderful way to do it.

Vadim Gluzman: You have to bring together a group of teachers who have their egos under control. But then you can see how the students blossom, it's amazing.

Laurie: It sounds like you are very busy with the soloing. How do you handle that kind of life, with a wife (Angela Yoffe) and a daughter who is five?

Vadim Gluzman: It's not easy. I do have a wife who is a partner, not only in crime but also in music. She is my pianist. So I don't have to explain many things to her: Why do I need a half-hour to be alone, or why suddenly at two in the morning I have to take my mute, violin and practice? There are things she does just the same way, so this makes it easier. Of course being away is very difficult, having a daughter who is growing up sometimes without me is not fun. But we do some things together, for instance we play recitals we go to Puerto Rico then to South Carolina then to Russia and to Europe...

Laurie: Your daughter gets to see the world!

Vadim Gluzman: Pretty soon we'll have to change her passport, because it's almost full. She's been traveling since she was three months old, she made her first cross-Atlantic when she was three months.

Laurie: Is she interested in music?

Vadim Gluzman: Unfortunately, she just began violin.

Laurie: I'm terribly sorry.

Vadim Gluzman: I am! (laughing) I was hoping this could be avoided...I honestly did not have anything to do with it, I really tried to avoid it. But she insisted and insisted and insisted. She was making a hole in my head. I'm just as stubborn as she is, if she wasn't really insisting, I wouldn't give in.

Laurie: Well if she enjoys it, that's good.

Vadim Gluzman: For now, "Twinkle" sounds wonderful.

Laurie: Is she doing Suzuki?

Vadim Gluzman: Yes, there's a wonderful teacher here in Chicago Betty Haag. She is a very good friend and a dear person.

Laurie: The Bernstein Serenade is one of the pieces on your new CD, and you also recently performed this same piece with the Chicago Symphony. Tell me your thoughts about it.

Vadim Gluzman: I adore it. I really think it's not played often enough, I don't think it's considered to be important enough.

Laurie: It's a strange thing, because it's a great piece. I have been in the orchestra, playing that piece, and I know that the fast movement is pretty tricky to put together. When I was listening to it on the CD, I realized that I knew that movement better than any of the rest of them because we played it so many times! If you were facing a conductor who didn't want to play the Bernstein, what would you say to convince him, or her that it's a good idea?

Vadim Gluzman: It actually happens to me regularly, when I propose to play Bernstein, or for that matter, something that is not Bruch, Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. Some of the conductors say, 'Yes, yes of course,' but you look at the schedule for the season after next and it's still Bruch. But the Bernstein, it's truly one of the greatest violin concertos of the 20th century, and the reason it isn't played frequently here is mainly because it is difficult for everyone: for the conductor, for the orchestra, for the soloist, and even more, it is difficult to put together. But I don't think that's a good reason not to play it. Shostakovich No. 1, or No. 2 for that matter, is also not a lullaby. And yet we do play it, and we continue to think it is important enough to play. I think this is true of the Bernstein also.

Laurie: For some reason when I was listening to the fourth movement of the Bernstein it was making me think of the Shostakovich....

Vadim Gluzman: You are absolutely right, 100 percent. There is a distinct parallel there.

Laurie: I wonder what it was, if Bernstein had heard it, or it was just the mood of the time.

Vadim Gluzman: It might have been the wave of the time, but also there are parallels between the two composers, in a very weird way. Shostakovich's music has an incredible amount of pain, as we know. And we all know that ...the life that he led was really one shouldn't even wish on an enemy, not to mention a friend. Of course Bernstein lived in a completely different kind of society, and he had a completely different life. I never met him myself, but from everything I have read – and I have spoken with people who were his friends -- he was an incredibly tormented soul. If you listen to Age of Anxiety, if you listen to Jeremiah, you listen to the Mass, (you can hear the parallels.) He felt that he was not recognized enough as a serious composer, and I think that must have (shown) in his writing.

Laurie: It's interesting, I think of him as dynamic, American ...West Side Story...

Vadim Gluzman: He is all of that. But he is more.

Laurie: The Serenade is a moody piece. It's not all sunshine.

Vadim Gluzman: It's a very moving piece, it's incredibly powerful. And then in the fifth movement, he can't help himself, he embraces the party music, which I absolutely adore. After four movements of great contemplation and great variety of movement and colors, to let yourself go in the fifth movement, it's just incredible. But nevertheless, I think he wasn't appreciated. He was a great composer.

Laurie: You also have recorded the Barber concerto on this disc.

Vadim Gluzman: I think the coupling of Barber and Bernstein is natural. In my eyes, this is an American piece. I wanted to record Barber from the moment that I played it for the first time. I knew this was a piece ...I am in general very fortunate with my record company, I basically have carte blanche to record anything I want. Nowadays this is almost out of the question; I'm very grateful.

Laurie: I wanted to ask you about the Baal Shem; I listened to the whole thing. Before, I was really only familiar with the Nigun, which is played frequently alone. It means something more with the entire work being played.

Vadim Gluzman: Absolutely. Having said that, of course, Nigun is the strongest musical statement of this piece; it's not the most popular (movement) for nothing. But I think the whole cycle is absolutely extraordinary. We have to remember the name, he called it "Baal Shem Tov," and "Baal Shem Tov" was the founder of the Chassidic movement in Judaism. If we go a little bit deeper into this, the Chassidic movement basically brought the religion closer to the people, the simple people, so to speak, to those who were milking cows and making shoes. Not only to those who study – intellectuals. He realized that the populations were being neglected. He brought the importance of music into everyday Jewish life, and this is how the klezmer movement started. So this is very picturesque way of showing the Chassidic and the klezmer way of living. He dedicated the whole cycle to the memory of his mother. Of course it starts with the "Vidui," which is a confession prayer, really one of the most touching prayers in my religion. Then it comes to the "Nigun," which is of course, emotionally and thematically, the high point of the cycle. There is no good translation for the Hebrew word "Nigun." They say "Improvisation," but it really is not. Nigun is improvised, but really comes from the word "manginar." which is a melody, a motif. But it's not an improvisation, because "improvisation" gives us a little different understanding of the word, not in the way we understand it today. It's a word – it does exist in Russian, in a little different state; but not in English, not that I'm aware of.

Then the third one, "Simchas Torah," it's a holiday, when Jews received the Bible, the Torah. It's one of very few happy holidays that we have, so of course the piece is very joyous and extremely exuberant, extroverted. I think it is a wonderful cycle, and it should be played as a cycle. I was very happy when the idea came, to record it all together.

Laurie: I noticed that you have spoken out against using beta blockers. I'm not a big fan myself, but I thought perhaps you have some ideas for dealing with nerves.

Vadim Gluzman: Go onstage as often as possible, there is absolutely no other way. And maybe one day realize – but sincerely realize – that all we do is produce sound, hopefully beautiful. We don't perform surgery, we do not build buildings, we do not produce anything. There is no harm in what we do, even if we do it badly. If you truly love you do, if music is something you can't live without, one will come to a point where accumulation of experience will compensate for nerves. I tell everyone who approaches me with this question: Find any possible opportunity to perform, and don't think about money, at least for the time being. Find yourself a retirement community, a church, a synogogue, any any any possibility. And just go out there and – I see no other way. To cope with nervousness medically, this is..I'm sorry.

Laurie: What you say rings true, that performance is the key. You can see it, even with children. Just play for other people. It helps.

Vadim Gluzman: You will be frightened in the beginning, it's natural. Even if you stand in front of 10 people, you are already nervous to speak. It's natural. But natural is good, I see nothing wrong. Frankly, nervousness, if one knows how to cope with it, will only add to your performance. It will not decrease anything, if you learn to deal with this. And you learn this from doing it. You can learn how to make it your friend. Keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer!


November 25, 2009 at 09:04 PM ·

A fantastic interview.  Thanks Laurie!

November 25, 2009 at 09:06 PM ·


wonderful interview.   Reminds me of the wider global significance of v.cmmie-   that the thousands of people who read this will

a) go out and buy some Guzman CDs (no luxury cat food this month)

b)   strive to have a greater understanding of a neglected composer and his masterworks

c)   get some commonsense about beta blockers and performance ;)

Great stuff,



November 25, 2009 at 10:07 PM ·

Very nice interview. Thank you.

November 25, 2009 at 10:46 PM ·

WOW, really this is the kind of violinist that I look up too!!! I have to listen to his playing, I'm sure it will be wonderful!


Thanks Laurie!!! 

November 25, 2009 at 11:57 PM ·

Fantastic interview!  

November 26, 2009 at 03:11 AM ·

Thanks, Laurie, for another great interview.  I especially liked the part about the violin being a living spirit with the imprints of all those who have played it before.  I cherish my violin, in part, because my teacher / mentor owned and played it before I did.  I've heard that Yo Yo Ma sometimes played a cello that used to belong to Casals.  I have heard him play a Strad cello bequeathed to him by Jacqueline du Pre, and it was awesome.

November 28, 2009 at 03:40 PM ·

  Magnificent interview.  Gluzman truly embraces life.

November 28, 2009 at 03:39 PM ·

Ms. Niles congratulations, What a great interview! and I  can't wait to hear Mr.Gluzman play. Thanks for sharing ,

Best regards


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