A Ballade for Israel

Despite living in the States for over half a century, 89-year-old violinist Zvi Zeitlin still feels "on holy ground" when he comes here.

Zeitlin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zeitlin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
Next 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.
“He 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.
ZEITLIN HAS 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 trick.
“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 performing it.
The place was sold out,” says Zeitlin.
Zeitlin had 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.
“But I don’t have a favorite composer or favorite work,” says the violinist.
“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 country.
“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.