The key to his heart

Israel Prize winner Arie Vardi, who for years brought classical music to the wider public, tells of his romance with the field, his modest background and how he got his very first piano.

Arie Vardi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arie Vardi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his various TV shows Prof. Arie (Arik) Vardi has always come across as an erudite, eloquent and genial character. He has done his best to keep the Israeli public on board the classical music train for many years now – with a seductive mix of unremitting application, accrued wisdom and charm. That, together with his long years in the service of formal music higher education and keyboard expertise, brought Vardi the country’s ultimate accolade earlier this year, when he was awarded the Israel Prize for Music.
When we met at Vardi’s Ramat Aviv home, it was immediately clear that the man is blessed with an abundance of geniality. My interlocutor, ensconced in a comfortable armchair, is the same ever-smiling soft-spoken gentleman who appears every week on the Intermezzo with Arik television show.
To call someone photogenic could be seen as something of a backhanded compliment, possibly implying that the person in question looks better in photographs than in the cold light of day. My immediate impression was that, in Vardi’s case, the opposite is true. It was hard to believe that he was approaching his 80th birthday. He was not overly keen to disclose when the milestone birthday was due to take place, only that it had yet to happen.
“I’m quite happy not to make a big deal over this,” he says. “I’m 37,” he states with a smile. “That’s my absolute age.”
SPANNING SIX and a half decades, Vardi’s career is distinguished by a long list of achievements. His reputation as a concert pianist took off when he won the Chopin Competition here in the early 1950s and he went on to perform with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. His international profile was enhanced even further when he took first place in the prestigious George Enescu International Competition in Bucharest, Romania, which was followed by a lengthy stint of concert dates all over Europe.
While not averse to having his lifetime achievements recognized with the preeminent national award, Vardi seemed unfazed by the event in Jerusalem.
“I can’t say I have been waiting all my life for this,” he notes, “but I am not surprised. Too many good people have, for too long, been saying that I should really get the Israel Prize. They said I had been deprived.” Not that he felt the “establishment” was giving him the cold shoulder; for him it has always been about getting on with the job, regardless of whether any official kudos came his way.
“You do what you do because you love it,” he declares.
Vardi may have treated his prize with equanimity, but this is clearly a big deal. “To begin with I wasn’t aware of how nice it would be to get the Israel Prize,” he remarks. “I’m not into prizes.”
But there were some “nice” side benefits to be had. “I started getting all sorts of phone calls and emails, from people I hadn’t been in touch with for 70 years,” he laughs. “One lovely woman wrote to me and asked me if I was the joker in the army who said he couldn’t wash the floor because it would damage his fingers, and he wouldn’t be able to play the piano after that. So, yes, it has been lovely to get all these reactions to the award announcement.”
However, at the end of the day he just wants to continue doing what he enjoys most, interpreting the works of the great classical composers, with a particular penchant for Schubert, as he discloses.
If Vardi had any emotional reaction to the award’s announcement it was one of regret. “When I heard about the award I was overcome with sadness that my parents are not alive to see this,” he says. “It took me some time to get over the pain. I thought that if anyone would be made happy by the award it would be them.
“They came here as Zionists – my mother from Belarus and my father from Ukraine. They were true pioneers, and did any job going. They were only interested in giving.”
THROUGH HIS television show he offers us some deeper insight into the endeavors of a wide range of musicians and imparts some of his rich experience and know-how to budding classical musicians.
In the past he conducted master classes at institutions such as the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the Paris Conservatoire, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and won a reputation as an educator abroad as well.
Vardi makes no apologies for his love of music, nor for disseminating his professional colleagues’ fervor for their art. “Anyone who engages in music and appears on stage to some degree – they are missionaries for this.
“You do this for two reasons. First of all, you simply have to express yourself through the music. You have this inner fire. It is not enough for you to just express yourself at home. You want to communicate with others, and show them what you do.
“Secondly – and I don’t want to use lofty expressions like ‘social mission’ – we all live in society and each of us tries to contribute something to society in the way we see fit.”
VARDI, WHO was an only child, certainly got all the parental support he needed to develop his natural gifts at a young age. “My parents told me that I started singing before I began talking,” he recalls. “I listened to classical music constantly. I’d go to sleep with it and get up in the morning to music. It was clear to all that the profession chose me, and not the other way round.”
But we are talking about the 1940s. The creation of the Jewish state was getting ever closer and, surely, everyone was expected to get their nose to the ideological grindstone and do their bit for the cause. Wasn’t learning classical music considered a mite too bourgeois and out of step with the overriding Zionist theme of the times?
Vardi went with only part of the zeitgeist flow. “We all went to youth movements, but of course I didn’t go to a kibbutz. Many saw that as an act of betrayal, and I also felt bad about it, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to wash floors by hand, or throw bundles of hay onto a tractor trailer.
“But my parents were ardent Zionists, and they gave as much as they could. We all felt I would give of myself, in my own way.”
In fact, the piano was not Vardi’s first choice, nor that of his similarly musically minded peers. “We all wanted to play the violin, but there was no violin teacher. So I started on piano as a temporary thing, and I’ve been doing that temporary thing ever since,” he laughs.
The Vardi family was not exactly rolling in it, and Vardi’s parents could not initially afford to buy a piano. But the youngster was not going to be deterred by mere logistics. “I’d play on neighbors’ pianos, or at school,” he says.
That didn’t make for an easy life, and keyboard time was in short supply. “I didn’t practice much. The school piano was in the sports hall, where they played basketball, and the place was open to the elements. It wasn’t the ideal place to play the piano. Maybe, if I’d been able to practice more, I may have gone further with my music,” he observes, with tongue firmly in cheek.
It wasn’t until he was 13 that he finally had a piano in his own home, thanks to a benevolent relative. “In those days no one had money. No one felt poor, because we were all in the same boat. But I had an uncle who left his place of work and he received severance pay.
“I remember he came over to us – he knew how desperate I was to have a piano – put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a wad of banknotes. He told my parents that was for my piano, and that they should repay him when they had the funds.”
Vardi says his parents were initially reluctant to accept the generous offer, but they eventually consented. “We are talking about idealistic times. They paid him back every penny,” says the Israel Prize laureate. “They scrimped and saved, and made all the repayments.”
The teenager finally had his own instrument and could practice whenever he wanted – and that was frequently. “No one had to remind me to do my piano exercises,” he says.
Vardi may have been totally enamored with the ivories, but that didn’t mean he was going to toe the line. “I practiced all the compulsory pieces, but I also played pieces that were considered taboo, that people thought were too difficult and were not suitable for a boy of my age to attempt. I didn’t care about convention. I learned, say, a complicated Brahms concerto.”
But he had to keep some developing virtuosity under wraps. “It would have been very risky to show my piano teacher all the things I’d learned on my own,” he explains. “Our teachers were from the Hungarian [cultural] mafia. They were very stern.”
Rather than being frustrated by the lack of opportunity to strut his stuff, Vardi says those constraints have served him well over the years. “We all learned discipline.”
When he joined the army in the mid-fifties, the IDF had yet to conceive the idea of enabling gifted musicians to maintain their artistic progress. “There was no official Outstanding Musician status, but things worked out very well. I was appointed commander of the Gadna [Youth Battalion] orchestra. It was a symphony orchestra, not a military ensemble, and there were some wonderfully gifted youths there.”
It was a formative and rewarding time for Vardi. “I initiated trips abroad for the orchestra, to competitions and festivals. I can’t complain about my army service,” he chuckles. “It was a growing experience for me. I also learned to take on responsibility for a whole orchestra. That was the top youth ensemble in the country at the time.”
After completing his musical army service, Vardi enrolled at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem. He also benefited from the inestimable tutorship of such luminaries of the 20th century global classical music fraternity as Swiss pianist Paul Baumgartner, and composers Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
He also lists noted Israeli composers and instrumentalists, such Mordechai Seter, Herzl Shmueli and Yehezkel Braun – all past Israel Prize winners – among his teachers.
He has also shared a stage with some of the most acclaimed conductors, such as Mehta, Kurt Masur, and Romanian-Israeli-American conductor and violinist Sergiu Comissiona, as well as some of the cream of the current new crop, such as 36-year-old Argentinean conductor and violinist Gustavo Dudamel.
After completing a decade as head of the music school at Tel Aviv University, a post he took on when he was only in his thirties, Vardi says he is more than happy to teach without having to take care of the school’s administrative side.
On the performance side, Vardi says that today he is drawn to the works of Schubert. “There is an immediacy to his music, and his ability to open up your heart. He is always a first-love composer.” This, he notes, does not generally bode well for the future.
“First love is not something superficial, but it cannot later take on new content. But, in Schubert’s case, the cognition and his structures are so mad, so wonderful. Liszt once said something beautiful – that Schubert’s immediacy is so miraculous that it blinds us to the full depth of his music. People think Schubert is some lovely songs, but they don’t get into the wonderful, long symphonies. For me, the greatest responsibility I took on in my life was to conduct Schubert’s long symphonies. By the way, I also love Chopin.”
Vardi clearly not only bestows his finely honed natural educational skills, musicianship and affability. The man is an unabashed romantic. He may or may not have turned 80 in the meantime, but with his sunny disposition and tendency to follow his heart we can look forward to enjoying his many gifts for years to come.