Any classical musician would tell you that taking on a dozen Bach sonatas, partitas and suites is a mammoth challenge. But that is just what Vera Vaidman will do this month, spread across four solo Friday dates. The concerts will take place at the Israel Music Conservatory in Tel Aviv, on March 8, 15, 22 and 29.
Vaidman, who made aliyah from St. Petersburg in 1973, has several tricks up her seasoned sleeve, primarily a rare ability to play violin and viola with equal expertise. Normally, one finds violinists moving from violin to viola at some stage of their career path, but few continue to play both instruments. Her two-pronged proficiency will be demonstrated to her Tel Aviv audiences as she works her way through two sonatas, three partitas and one suite on violin, while transposing six suites, originally written for cello, to viola.
The size of the undertaking ahead of Vaidman does not seem to faze her. While not underestimating the task, she says it is very much a matter of going with the personal flow for her. “I haven’t really thought about the physical side of playing all these works. For me, I have sort of an internal need to come back to this material, and to constantly loom for new ways of performing it.”
Vaidman is no stranger to Bach, nor to the run of compositions she will tackle on consecutive Fridays. “I performed these cycles last year in New York,” she notes, adding that her love affair with Bach’s works for solo string instrument has been going on for a while. “You know, when you are young, you latch onto something. It excites you. For me these works are larger than life.”
While a mite past her chronological salad days, Vaidman says she has lost nothing for her early zest for Bach and his creations. “It’s a lifelong love for me.”
The Vaidman-Bach cycle affair has been going on for over 20 years. “I did them all in a marathon,” she says. “That was all on violin. Playing viola is a relatively new thing for me. I began with that around 10 years ago.”
If familiarity can breed contempt, Vaidman runs little risk of falling into the hubris, know-it-all domain when it comes to her craft and, in particular, with regard to Bach. “I think we change all the time, so our approach to the music changes. Also playing cello works on viola means you have to adopt a different viewpoint. That applies to my violin playing too. I look at the compositions for violin afresh. It enriches my work.”
Vaidman is always looking to give herself an edge, to stay on her toes. That can involve introducing the odd curve ball. “When I played the cycle in New York I used a regular bow. When I came back to Israel I switched to a Baroque bow.” Considering Bach pertains to that era that seems like a natural step to take and, although increasing numbers of violinist and viola players are making the same move as Vaidman, it remains a relative rarity.
As Bach wrote over 1,000 compositions, there is plenty for Vaidman and her similarly leaning colleagues to choose from. The violinist-violist says the scale of Bach’s oeuvre is testament to his dedication to his art, and also provides her with a source of inspiration. “Bach was always working,” she observes. “He said that himself: ‘I have been diligent and hard working all my life.’”
It seems the 18th century German organist and composer was not an airs and graces character either. “He said that anyone could achieve what he did, if they worked as hard as he did.”
That is something of a moot point. Presumably Bach was not just a grafter, and had some innate gifts too. “I think it was something internal for Bach. He was like perpetuum mobile. He was always working. And, although he never left Germany in his life, he understood people and was very humane himself. All these elements are in his music. You can feel the warmth in his works.”
Even though Vaidman dedicates her working hours to performing and teaching classical music, she is aware of the affinity jazz artists have with Bach’s output, and appreciates why he is often looked upon as the world’s first jazz musician. Vaidman says he tended to leave a lot of room for maneuver. “There are works he wrote without specifying which instrument they should be played on. And he was a master of improvisation himself. I wish I could improvise too,” she says.
Self-professed lack of extemporizational skills notwithstanding, Vaidman got herself some unparalleled musical training back in the Soviet Union. Before making aliyah, she had the good fortune to enjoy a spell under the wing of legendary Russian violinist and violist David Oistrakh. “He always had his violin case in the classroom, and he took it out to demonstrate certain parts of pieces to us,” she recalls. That must have been quite a thrill for an up-and-coming young classical violinist.
“He was a very clever person,” Vaidman continues. “That’s besides his amazing talent.”
Even in an era of instant virtual recall via the services of YouTube, which, for example, provides us with evocative footage of iconic cellist Pablo Casals playing Bach’s “Suite No. 1,” or catch Igor Stravinsky talking about the birth of “The Rite of Spring,” one of his most notable works, you still can’t beat hearing about the great masters of 20th century classical music from the horse’s mouth – well, almost from the horse’s mouth.
Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, one of last century’s most celebrated composers, dedicated two violin concerts to Oistrakh, while another Soviet great, Aram Khachaturian, wrote “Violin Concerto in D minor” for Oistrakh. You might say, Vaidman is now one of the torch bearers of that illustrious bunch.
“I try to pass on some of what I got from Oistrakh to my own students,” she says. “This profession – if you can call playing classical music a profession – is based on a sort of oral law.”
Vaidman says the repertoire for the four concerts is based on the length of the works and the scales, and she also wanted to feature her instruments in each performance. Bach’s works generally feature an alluring blend of delicacy and unbridled rich textures that cascade from the stage to the audience, in an emotional and sonic roller coaster.
There is something to be said for accrued experiential enjoyment so, if you happen to have the time, make yourself a weekly booking at the Israel Music Conservatory this month. There are worse ways to kickstart your weekend.
For tickets and more information: (03) 546-6228 and icm.org.il/tickets.
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