At the age of 89, internationally renowned Israeli-bred violinist Zvi Zeitlin
has a lot to smile about. He has been employed by the Eastman School of Music,
at the University of Rochester, New York for over 40 years and has held the
position of Distinguished Kilbourn Professor for over three decades.
week he and his wife will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary and their
violinist granddaughter, Ariella, will perform a recital for her grandparents in
Jerusalem. Add to all that an appearance by Zeitilin tonight (8:30 p.m.), at the
Hateiva venue in Yaffo, of a work dedicated to him by his late friend, composer
Ben-Zion Orgad called Ballade.
“I am delighted to be performing in
Israel, and especially in honor of Ben-Zion. We were very good friends,” says
Zeitlin, adding that one of Orgad’s strongest traits was his love of Israel, and
of the country’s natural beauty.
“We used to go hiking all over Israel
together. The interesting thing is that he wasn’t born in Israel, he was born in
Germany and his name was Buschel. For me, he managed to create a natural style
through his musical language. Without trying, without making a conscious effort
to be Israeli, he was Israeli.”
On the other hand, Zeitlin feels that
Orgad’s music was not always easily accessible to the general public.
was a very cultured man and highly educated, and that can be a drawback in terms
of communicativeness in music.”
“After living with music for 89 years I
can say that I have lived a long time with music that at first did not speak to
me which eventually did. I also managed to live with music that didn’t speak to
me and never did since.”
One work with which Zeitlin connected from the
outset was Ballade.
For Zeitlin, the concert is particularly poignant. He
and Orgad became friends as youths in pre-state Palestine. In 1949, when they
were students playing together at the musical festival at Tanglewood,
Massachusetts, Orgad dedicated Ballade to him.
“To our surprise and
delight,” said Zeitlin, “Serge Koussevitsky, director of the festival, asked me
to perform the work for [legendary violinist] Jascha Heifetz and [Russian
cellist] Gregor Piatigorsky.”
From that day the work became a staple of
his repertoire, which he has performed all over the world.
done his fair share of globetrotting, to full houses, over his long career to
date, although there has been the odd spot of bother.
“I created a bit of
controversy playing the Schoenberg concerto, in Israel with the Israel
Philharmonic (IPO), in 1971,” he recalls.
“It was a little too modern for
the very conservative musical ears of Israel, at the time. There was a protest
on the part of many conservatives.”
But Zeitlin stuck to his guns,
playing the work at the first two concerts of the tour. By the time the third
date, in Jerusalem, rolled round public concern over the contemporary nature of
the concerto was gaining momentum. Eventually, Zeitlin agreed to change the
program but didn’t exactly placate all concerned.
“I decided to do the
Mendelssohn [violin concerto] and I called the critics in Jerusalem and told
them that I had a bit of a disappointment for them because I was going to do the
Mendelssohn instead of the Schoenberg.”
The switch didn’t exactly do the
“The intellectuals, the high brows, the snobs started to protest.
They said it was unacceptable.”
It seems that the source of their ire was
the fact that Mendelssohn was a lapsed Jew.
In the event, all worked out
even better than could be expected.
“The orchestra decided to do a
special thing, to have a concert with only the Schoenberg concerto, with me
talking about it for about then minutes, with a little demonstration, and then
The place was sold out,” says Zeitlin.
a very early start to his musical career becoming, at the age of 11, the
youngest scholarship student in the history of the famed Juilliard School of
Music in New York. He made his debut with the IPO at the age of 17, and has
performed a wide range of contemporary pieces with many of the world’s best
ensembles, playing for the likes of Stravinsky and Bernstein.
don’t have a favorite composer or favorite work,” says the
“What I am preparing to play, for any concert, happens to be
my favorite piece at the time. So I am sort of polytheistic in that respect. I
can say, however, that among the 20th century composers the one who is closest
to my heart is Stravinsky, and it was a great thrill to perform for him, with
the Israel Philharmonic in Israel, in 1962.”
The Schoenberg violin
concerto also has pride of place in Zeitlin’s repertoire.
“I played that
with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. There were no protests
then,” Zeitlin adds with a chuckle.
Despite living in the States for over
half a century Zeitilin says he still feels a very strong bond with this
“My three grandchildren, and my greatgrandchild, live in Israel
and I have always had a strong sense of the Bible and the fact that I am on holy
ground when I come to Israel.”
Orgad would, surely, have concurred.
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