Soundbox / First violin
He still prefers 'Guy' over 'Herr' and bikes to work. Guy Braunstein, first violin for the Berlin Philharmonic, will participate in the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival.
Ten days ago, at a concert of the famous BBC Proms festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London, an unusual ensemble came on stage to play Felix Mendelssohn's String Octet. They were members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Arab-Israeli orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, which has been holding rehearsals in Seville every summer during the past decade before touring the world.
"I was asked to put together an ensemble of a number of instrumentalists from the orchestra and join them, and I chose not necessarily the best or the most experienced," relates Braunstein. "I chose an Israeli girl and an Israeli boy, a Palestinian girl from the territories, a Syrian girl from a Palestinian refugee family who doesn't even have a passport, and three other musicians from Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. It was a nighttime concert, from the Late Night series at the proms. These concerts are usually attended by about 200 people, maybe 300, and on rare occasions the audience reaches 500. At our concert there were 4,000 and at the end everyone was on their feet, cheering. I've had occasion to play that Mendelssohn piece more than a hundred times - you could fill a whole passport with the places I've played it in. But never like that, and I never had reactions like that."
Yet not everything was perfect, according to Braunstein. "I didn't even want to play that there, but rather in the countries of the instrumentalists themselves - in Tel Aviv, Beirut, Damascus - but we're not allowed to perform in those places. Twenty years ago I dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall and the Albert Hall and I've realized that dream, and that's fine. I'm always excited about playing there, but it is more exciting to perform for the instrumentalists' families and friends, in each of their countries: Those are the people who need to be hearing us, in my home and theirs, not in New York and not in London."
For the next two weeks Braunstein is in Israel to participate, as he does every September, in the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival founded by Elena Bashkirova and under her musical direction (from this evening until September 12 at the YMCA Auditorium). The festival is rich in content and, as every year, presents top-ranking international musicians.
Braunstein is at the very top of this list. In the early-evening meeting with him in Tel Aviv he turns out to be a typical Israeli guy in shorts and a sand-smudged T-shirt ("When I come to Israel, the first thing I do is go to the beach," he says). One has to make an effort to believe that he is the instrumentalist who holds the highest position in the world: senior first violin (concertmaster) at the Berlin Philharmonic.
A short anecdote illustrates his exalted status: As he waits for the waitress, two young women emerge from the cafe. They had been gazing at him wide-eyed since the moment he arrived - and in a trembling voice, shyly, one of them asks him in English: "Sorry, but by any chance, is it possible, you wouldn't happen to be Guy Braunstein?" The affirmative reply stirs great excitement and immediately the conversation switches to German: They recognize him from concerts in Berlin. No celebrity could have won a more excited reception.
Braunstein joined the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on condition that he sits far from the first violinist, at one of the other music stands as a rank-and-file player in the thick of the group of violinists. He joined because he is a very curious person by nature.
Before he was appointed to the most exalted orchestral position in Berlin, he had never actually played in an orchestra. "As a soloist I always envied the instrumentalists in an orchestra, and I took advantage of every opportunity to become familiar with that violin repertoire. Another repertoire that intrigued me was opera, and when I was studying at the academy in New York I went to the Metropolitan Opera and asked to be allowed to accompany singers on the piano during their practice."
Did you also study piano?
"I taught myself."
He goes on to talk about the West-Eastern Divan: "On this tour we also played at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, and that was the first time in the history of Bayreuth, since 1876, that a foreign orchestra came from the outside and played music that wasn't exclusively by Wagner. I couldn't help but smile broadly at that concert and rejoice in the thought that Hitler was probably turning in his grave and kicking its sides. And it was so good - even German orchestras couldn't have achieved that level, and not because of the performers' years of experience: Next to me at the same music stand sat a 12-year-old boy from Nazareth and I've never in my life seen such talent. At his age I wasn't even able to change positions on the violin and he is already playing the most complicated works. I can count the performers with instincts like that on the fingers of one hand. And where do we find him? Here, of all places. Of all the counties of the West, and I am familiar with many of them because I've given master classes all over the world, and in a field that is supposed to be developed there, the greatest talent is here, 50 kilometers east of Tel Aviv."
Braunstein, 38, was born in Ramat Efal and by the age of 13 had already been accepted to a musical high school - the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. "I was one of those kids who are jumped a grade only in order to get rid of all the problems they cause," he says. At Thelma Yellin he lasted for two years, and he obtained his matriculation certificate via independent study. His most important teacher was violinist Haim Taub ("As a violin teacher and musician I've never met anyone who has half of what Haim has under his belt,") and after the army he went to study in New York. He developed a solo and chamber career until friends suggested that he apply for the position of first violinist in Berlin.
The Berliner Philharmoniker is one of a kind: heterogeneous in the origins of its instrumentalists and very young. "We are wild horses they are trying to educate," he says of his orchestra. "It isn't a homogeneous orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example - from the first reading of the page they are already playing in exactly the same way and with the same sound. We need a process - but creativity like we have, they will never have in their life. In the English and American orchestras you can see the caution: less bow, less volume and you're not allowed to lead in an individual way - in short, life there is easier."
He sees Daniel Barenboim, the conductor of the Divan, as in a different category from other conductors of his generation in the world: "He knows both how to prepare an orchestra perfectly in rehearsals and to be in all his greatness in concerts, and also to teach the historical and intellectual aspects of the music," he says.
Braunstein gives about 75 concerts a year with the Berlin Philharmonic, and about the same number as a soloist and in chamber works. Bashkirova's festival in Jerusalem is one of several in which he participates, and in the coming season he is slated to perform the great concertos by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Sibelius as well as Beethoven's 10 sonatas for piano and violin with Lang Lang, Daniel Barenboim and Helene Grimaud.
"I'm an elitist, by which I mean everything I do has to be the best," he says of himself.