Vadim Gluzman, The accidental virtuoso

A chance encounter with Isaac Stern in Israel propelled violinist Vadim Gluzman on the road to classical music success

By Jessica Duchen, April 14, 2011
Gluzman says he began playing out of jealousy

Gluzman says he began playing out of jealousy

One hallmark of the truly great violinists is a sound on the instrument that can be recognised at once as uniquely theirs. Vadim Gluzman has just such a tone, and not just because he plays the Stradivarius that once belonged to Leopold Auer, teacher of the legendary Jascha Heifetz. There is an all-out passion to Gluzman's playing, a gorgeousness that leaves you wanting more of it, fast.

The 37-year-old Ukrainian-Israeli violinist is one of classical music's most exciting younger stars. His recordings have drawn rave reviews and this weekend he is in London to play the UK premiere of Michael Daugherty's violin concerto, Fire and Blood, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. He will be back in the autumn, performing the Korngold violin concerto with the London Philharmonic.

"I was born in Ukraine, but most of the USSR portion of my life I lived in Riga," Gluzman says. "That's where I started my music studies. I think the real reason I began was a case of childhood jealousy. My father is a conductor and my mother a musicologist, they both teach - and I wanted them to pay the same attention to me that they were paying to their students! So I demanded that they teach me. Very wisely, they sent me instead to a specialist music school."

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the family left for Israel - "it was only natural for Soviet Jews to want to live in Israel," he says. Here, an extraordinary stroke of luck set the then-teenage violinist on an unexpected path. Namely, he met Isaac Stern.

"Some of my favourite recordings were by Stern, but I only knew of him as a great violinist," he says. "I had been in Israel for about two weeks and spoke nothing but Russian, but in Israel you can get by with that - and I heard that Stern would be listening to young musicians at the Jerusalem Music Centre." Gluzman had no idea that Stern played a huge philanthropic role in Israel's musical landscape as a champion of gifted young musicians.

"I made my way to Jerusalem and at the JMC I told the receptionist I wanted to play for Isaac Stern. And she said: 'Welcome to the club! You should have arranged this a couple of years ago'." Gluzman had the impression his quest was hopeless, but at that very moment Stern himself walked in. The receptionist explained the situation. To Gluzman's surprise, instead of sending him away, Stern said: "Go and warm up and I'll give you five minutes".

Stern said: go and warm up. I'll give you five minutes

"So I went… and he was with me for about two hours. And at the end of that, I had a new violin waiting for me in Tel Aviv, a scholarship and the possibility to work with him whenever I could." Apart from Stern, Gluzman's teachers included two of the most highly respected violin professors in the world: Zakhar Bron in Europe and, in New York, Dorothy DeLay.

Gluzman is clearly a born performer: his view of music is deeply bound up with the three-way communication between composer, artist and audience. "Sofia Gubaidulina, the great Russian composer, once said something beautiful to me," he relates. "That for a successful performance one needs a triumvirate of talent: a talented composer, a talented performer and a talented audience. For me the connection with the audience has always been a crucial part of any concert. This motivates me: the feeling of really connecting with the people in front of me on an emotional or metaphysical level. If the audience is passive it only means that we, the performers, were unable to engage them."

As for the composer's side of this triangular connection, Gluzman is passionate about playing contemporary music. He points out that without dedicated performers to champion it, much of the great music of the past might never have been written. "Imagine if the violinist Joseph Joachim had not encouraged Brahms! We wouldn't have had the Brahms Violin Concerto."

Michael Daugherty's Fire and Blood was written in 2003 and is based on the murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts painted in 1932 by Diego Rivera, depicting Detroit's car industry. The music, says Gluzman, is by turns, "touching, beautiful and full of rhythmic drive, and it's masterfully written for the violin".

Its performance now, though, is somewhat ironic: Detroit's industry is currently in a state of collapse and the city's orchestra's current season was blighted by a lengthy strike by the musicians, only just resolved, which threatened its survival. "The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is one of my favourite in the US," Gluzman says. "If it were to fold, it would set an appalling precedent."

When Gluzman returns to London later in the year to play the Korngold concerto he will be conducted by Vassily Sinaisky, a lifelong mentor.

"He was the chief conductor in Riga and he was great friends with my parents," says Gluzman. "When I was growing up, I learned the symphonic repertoire by attending his concerts every week. It is wonderful to be working with him again."

Another favourite partner for Gluzman is his wife, the pianist Angela Joffe, with whom he plays in a duo. They have homes in Israel and US, though Gluzman adds that at the moment his schedule means that he lives mostly "in a plane".

As for the 1690 "ex-Leopold Auer" Stradivarius, it is on loan to him from the Stradivari Society of Chicago: "When I first picked up the fiddle, I felt this is the turning point of my life. I've been using it for 13 years and now I can't imagine not playing this violin - it has become my voice. This is what a violin sounds like in my imagination, my ear and my heart."

Vadim Gluzman plays 'Fire and Blood' at the Barbican on April 17. Tel: 020 7638 8891

Last updated: 12:02pm, April 14 2011