Soundbox / Strings together, now apart
During next week's Kfar Blum Music Festival, there will be concerts by popular quintets for piano and strings playing Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak. Among them will be musicians who will are performing together for the first time, as is customary at this festival. This will not be the case, however, for violinist Natasha Sher and violist Yuri Gandelsman. In fact, they have been playing together since she was a toddler, holding a miniature, palm-sized violin that her father, Gandelsman, bought for her. At the time the whole family played together: Gandelsman on the viola; his wife and Natasha's mother, Janna Gandelsman, on the piano; Natasha on the violin; and her younger brother Jonathan, who at first imitated her by using two pencils, one on his shoulder and the other as a "bow" - on second violin. In the past, the Gandelsman family quartet performed at Milan's Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, at a concert that aroused much attention, as well as at the Yokahama Museum in Japan, and in Frankfurt and London. But when the children grew up, their musical paths diverged.
"We began to argue with our parents and then it ended," says Sher, who is today 35.
But now, at least, we can hear the father and the daughter - who are only 22 years apart in age - playing together.
Yuri Gandelsman is considered one of the leading violists on the international scene, and has had a rich career. Therefore, any visit of his to Israel is always interesting, and it brings back memories from the decade he spent here as a violist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Gandelsman was born in 1951 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. "It was a tremendous cosmopolitan cultural center, and as a child I played the violin like everyone else," he recalls.
Thereafter, he moved to Moscow with his family: His mother was an opera singer; his brother, Alexander Zhurbin, eventually became one of the most important composers in Russia and was accepted to the city's prestigious Gnessin Academy of Music. Gandelsman's path to the top was swift: He was principal violist of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, playing recitals with the greatest names in Russia including pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and afterward principal violist and soloist in the Moscow Virtuosi chamber ensemble. He also received offers to be leading violist of the Chicago and New York Philharmonic Orchestras.
But, on a visit of the Virtuosi to Israel, Gandelsman fell in love with the country, and he and his wife decided to immigrate here. The Israel Philharmonic grabbed him, as did the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, and thus, on a hot July day in 1990, the family arrived.
"It wasn't easy," Natasha Sher remembers today. "I was 17, not an ideal age for such a dramatic change. Our first apartment was in Bat Yam with friends - a tiny two-room apartment. Suddenly there was this new climate with all the heat, neighbors who played the stereo at full blast when they heard us practicing, plus the whole matriculation process we had to undergo at school in Hebrew, a language I didn't speak at all."
But she didn't give up, she made it: Six years later she had already landed a position as violinist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
"The work in the Philharmonic is demanding. It's hard to lead a private life when you're there: It's not a job for young women," says her father, Gandelsman. "It's very hard. Trips all over the world, recordings, endless concerts - and for me that was in addition to teaching at the academy, and my job as head of the chamber music department there, which included conducting the academy orchestra. I felt I had no private life."
And, in fact, in 2000, to the surprise of many, the principal violist of the Philharmonic resigned after playing there for 10 years: An offer from the distinguished American Fine Arts Quartet tempted him once again to switch jobs and countries.
"I thought to myself, why not? I had never played in a quartet before," he says.
So Gandelsman left his new home and traveled with his wife to the United States. His son, Jonathan, went with them as well, and is today one of the outstanding members of the alternative violin scene in New York: He plays in the Silk Road Ensemble, which crosses stylistic and other lines, together with varied artists, from Yo-Yo Ma to Bono, from James Levine to Mark Morris, playing and composing.
Natasha Sher remained in Israel; indeed, from the start she chose to study here, at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
"I discovered that the great teacher of my own teacher in Moscow, Maya Glizarova, had come to teach in Jerusalem," says Sher. "In Russia they would take me to her once a year, and I used to tremble in fear and be unable to play a note. She was considered tough. One could hear a compliment from her after years, if ever. I wanted to study with her, and that's why I stayed behind."
Like her father, Sher left the Philharmonic and has now lead the second violin section of the Israel Camerata Orchestra Jerusalem for six years; she is also a member of the Erato string trio.
Gandelsman, as usual, did not remain in the same place for long; after a few years of playing in a quartet, he decided to devote himself to teaching: Last year he was appointed a full professor at Michigan State University, where he teaches students who come from all over the world.
His daughter chose to remain in the Jerusalem orchestra, in spite of the crisis in the Camerata that reached a climax about two years ago, when it was about to break up and no longer paid salaries. "I stayed because I believe in this orchestra, I believe in its path," she says.
In 2001 she got married. "He's a computer programmer, not a musician," Sher says of her partner, with what seems to be a spark of relief in her eyes; they have three children.
Asked if she is pushing them toward a career in music, she says. "I'm not enthusiastic about such a career, because I know how hard this life is: whether you're successful - and there's no home, and you live in airports and hotels - or you're unsuccessful, because what's worse than being a mediocre musician? And, in addition, it's hard for a musician to lead a family life; it's hard for the children when their mother isn't home in the evening."
At the same time, she guards her family heritage as a precious treasure: "Playing with your parents - there's nothing like it. Mainly because you don't have to explain things. The hardest thing in music is to explain in words: why to play a phrase a certain way, why the note has to sound like this and not like that. So when it's not necessary to talk - it's a wonderful feeling."