Two Jews, born in the early part of the 20th century in what was then Palestine, went on to become legends in the world of string music—Emanuel Vardi and Ivry Gitlis—and their greatness shines today. Both convince me that the human spirit is inextinguishable.
I have had the pleasure of knowing both men. In the mid 1980s while I lived in Paris, I heard Ivry Gitlis on several occasions. Without question he is a violin genius. His talent is of the kind that can be taught only to a certain degree—in other words, it is in the blood.
Gitlis was born in 1922 in Haifa and was trained largely in France (with Jacques Thibaud and George Enescu, among others), where he still lives today. In the 1950s and 1960s, he made several LPs for Vox Records, and these still remain in the CD catalogue.
He also trained with pedagogue Carl Flesch, who also taught Miriam Solovieff, Henryk Szeryng, Josef Hassid, Ricardo Odnoposoff, and Tibor Varga, among others.
Gitlis is a man with a strong physical presence, a huge personality, and does things in his own manner—and it is an imposing manner and convincing by virtue of his intentions and feelings, coupled with an extraordinary ability on the violin.
His playing is in the old school, which comes from the heart and extends beyond the current obsession with technique only.
So it was without question that I scurried to the small recital Gitlis gave in northern Connecticut at the Heifetz Symposium last month. Sherry Kloss, the former assistant of Jascha Heifetz and herself a very fine violinist, organized the concert. Maestro Gitlis was joined by the very fine pianist Jerry Robbins, who sensed every move Gitlis made.
After I had a brief encounter with Gitlis who was angry as he walked onto the stage because I had brought a camera to the concert, he told me to get the photos over with before he started playing. But, in the style of Victor Borge, he turned his scolding into part of his skit and went on to tell many jokes and anecdotes before he played a note. He was very successful and as funny as one can be, given the nature of the event.
If my math serves me correctly, Gitlis is now 88 years old. Consider that to even play violin after 70 years is a remarkable feat. Yet his playing was stunning and a marvel to watch. His bowing was terrific and the intonation perfect. And to be honest, I don’t know if it was that I was listening to a different interpretation or that I was aware that I was listening to one of the last of the greats, but his performance left me feeling very sad.
I realized the last of the greats are all but gone, and the younger generation of players usually leaves me rather cold.
Emanuel Vardi, born in 1915 also in Jerusalem, is one of the great violists of the world. Manny (as he is fondly called by friends) was in the Navy with my father, Oscar Shumsky. The two were friends for many years and had a superb quartet in the Navy, which performed weekly broadcasts with Bernard Greenhouse as cellist and David Stone as second violin.
Manny told me that during these broadcasts, Dad played a violin concerto (from A to Z) and Manny played the whole viola concerto literature with the spectacular group of soldiers who hit the target much better with their bows than their compatriots did with their machine guns.
Only recently has the viola been appreciated as a solo instrument. Its beautiful, sad voice sits in the alto range, sandwiched between the treble and bass voices.
Although violists are bathed in sound and have a unique vantage point from which to hear the music, they are not always occupied with pyrotechnical difficulties of the first violin part, and therefore, are easily overlooked. But Emanuel Vardi and William Primrose both did much to bring the viola to the forefront by dedicating their lives to the great and noble instrument.
As a violist myself, I know that audiences come to hear beautiful music, and if they put their prejudices aside about what an instrument is capable of, they will likely be overwhelmed by the beauty of the viola. Its more human range enables the listener to be enraptured by its sheer tonal beauty.
Despite the instrument’s beauty, I usually do not enjoy how violists play. So many players press the string and have a whiny sound, which can be offensive, especially on the upper A string. But Emanuel Vardi is a master virtuoso who has a beautiful command of the higher register, and in his hands, the range of the viola extends to a true four-octave instrument.
He is a huge talent and sees music in a multidimensional way—no doubt influenced by his parallel genius for painting.
In a terrible accident in 1993, Emanuel Vardi lost the proper use of his shoulder, which forced him to retire from the viola. But this sad fact did not stop this inspiring artist. Manny simply refocused his energy into painting, his parallel love.
This determination to create is a great inspiration to musicians all around. Perhaps we musicians have tunnel vision and think too much about our specific instruments and less about what it is we want to say.
The fact that Vardi chose to continue on the path of an artist, has led me to think about the parallels between painting and music. No doubt music is circumscribed, and rules cannot be broken too much (unless one is Ivry Gitlis), but painting allows a freedom of imagination. Does music allow more latitude than we normally permit?
Aesthetic principles must govern our fantasy, yet how much freedom is there for the taking?