An Israeli Leading the Symbol of Berlin

Guy Braunstein is the Berlin Philharmonic's concertmaster, the highest status a musician can attain. All the more amazing considering he has never played in or led an orchestra in his life.

BERLIN - At the end of a concert about a month ago, the members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra gathered in the musicians' cafeteria, had drinks, talked and exchanged quips until late into the night. This is not a common occurrence on the musical scene: In most cases, the members of a symphonic orchestra go their own way as soon as the final applause dies down. But the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic "simply like to play and spend time together," says the orchestra's first violin - its concertmaster - Guy Braunstein, 33, the leader and representative of the entire orchestra, over a stein of beer and a cigarette.

Two hours earlier, when he took to the stage before an audience of thousands, Braunstein looked no less relaxed. The orchestra was already seated, as is the Berlin custom, and everyone waited for him. Silence filled the Berliner Philharmonie, the orchestra's uniquely constructed concert hall, subtle and simple in design, located near Potsdamer Platz. Applause greeted the entry of the first violinist, and Braunstein mounted the stage unaffectedly, even nonchalantly, without even a hint of arrogance. He bowed to the audience and began to supervise the tuning of instruments. Only after that did the conductor, Mariss Jansons, enter.

The sweetness of the sound that emanated from the round stage located in the section d'or (golden section) of the asymmetrical hall, with the audience sitting all around, was unlike anything produced by any other orchestra in the world. When the musicians entered, about one hour before the concert, Braunstein joked: "Welcome to Berlin's youth orchestra." He was referring to the upheavals that the orchestra, considered the best in the world, has undergone in recent years. From a symbol of the rigid German classical tradition, especially under the authoritarian musical direction of Herbert Von Karian - during the Nazi era too - the orchestra turned into a representative of a young, free musical spirit.

Over one-third of its members are non-Germans, including the orchestra's leading musicians for the various instruments, and the average age is quite low. "We recently took on a musician less than 18 years old, and his mother had to sign the contract for him," saysBraunstein. The musical director is also young: Briton Simon Rattle, who does not speak German and is not yet 50 years old. For the first time in the history of the orchestra, none of its three leading musicians is German. "A Japanese, a Pole and a Jew," says Braunstein. "They are the leading musicians. It sounds like the beginning of a joke."

Agonizing test

The test was agonizing. Braunstein was 30 years old when he was chosen as the Berlin Philharmonic's concertmaster three years ago. That is the highest status a musician can attain in the current music world, and it would appear that it requires not only a phenomenal talent but also a certain measure of chutzpah to even dream of sitting for the test. The feat is all the more amazing when one learns that Braunstein had never played in an orchestra before (with the exception of the Israel Defense Forces' Educational Corps' orchestra) and never led an orchestra in his life.

While Israelis have a prominent presence in important roles in the major orchestras around the globe - as leading musicians and group leaders, in Germany and the United States - this case is somewhat more complex: An Israeli is leading the symbol of Berlin. "Before the test, I was on an intensive concert tour," recalls Braunstein, "and in addition, I had to study orchestral roles of pieces I had never heard before. I kept putting off the preparation again and again, and time became short. It was a period of long flights and concerts and sleeplessness, and finally I knew I would have a free day in Paris and I counted on it."

It turned out, however, that that particular day was especially troublesome: A train strike forced Braunstein to leave Berlin earlier than planned, and in addition to the accumulated fatigue, the endless traveling and lack of sleep, he began to suffer from an severe toothache, which required complicated treatment and surgery. He sat for the test while in agonizing pain. "There were three of us left at the end. We played and then waited in the corridor," he recalls. "And then a German musician came out and said a few words to each of us, shook our hands and left." Braunstein, who did not understand what he said, remained alone with his pain, and only some time later, one of the other musicians found him and asked to coordinate schedules with him. "I said, `Fine, but what were the results?' And he started laughing, "What? You don't know? We sent out a press release a half an hour ago. Every taxi driver in Berlin knows that the orchestra has a new concertmaster, and you don't?'"

The members of the orchestra, who were present in full force at the test did not even vote. It was a case of love at first sight, and it was clear to everyone that Braunstein would be their new concertmaster. Braunstein was born in Ramat Efal, and at the age of 13 was accepted to a musical high school - the Talma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. "They were glad to get rid of me in elementary school. I was one of those that is skipped a grade just to avoid all the problems they cause," he says. He did not hold out at Talma Yellin too long, and did not learn much there either. "After two years, I dropped out, so by the age of 15, I had already finished with the whole school story. I did the matriculations exams on my own at an external school."

During those years, he studied with Haim Taub, a revered violin teacher and mentor of generations of players of stringed instruments in Israel. After he completed his army service, he went to the United States and studied there with a number of teachers, including Pinchas Zuckerman. But after Taub, no other teacher was able to excite him. "That man from Ramat Hasharon is the only one. As a violin teacher and musician - I have never met anyone that has half of what Haim Taub has, someone capable of giving me a quarter of what he gave me, even though I was scared of him."

Braunstein developed a career as a soloist and chamber musician. He began playing in the Huberman Quartet, together with Gilad Karni, Yehonatan Berick and Zvi Plesser. But the quartet broke up, partly because of their inability to practice together. "We lived in four different countries on three different continents," he says. He appeared all over the world, and finally decided to settle in Paris.

So why did you apply for the position in Berlin if you did not consider yourself an orchestra musician?

Braunstein: "I happened to meet some musicians from the Berlin orchestra - in Jerusalem too, at the first chamber music festival organized by Elena Bashkerova - and in New York. They approached me and said that the position of concertmaster had become available. I said, `That's nice, but what does it have to do with me? I have no experience.' And they said, `Don't worry, you'll learn with us.' The job was taken and I forgot all about it, but then the job became available once again and once again, the musicians approached me. So I decided to try."

Didn't the idea of Germany deter you?

"I had butterflies in my stomach before I sent the application to Germany. All the forms were filled out and the envelope sealed, but I couldn't bring myself to mail it. I kept putting it off until the deadline passed, and in Germany a deadline is a deadline. But the orchestra insisted on circumventing the rules, I guess."

Braunstein comes to concerts by bicycle with his violin on his back. The ushers at the musicians' entrance call him by his first name. "They started with, `Herr Konzertmeister' and only after threats of murder did they understand that they would have to start calling me Guy. The same thing happened in the arts academy, where I teach. The first letter I received that was addressed to Herr Professor Konzertmeister. I answered, but then I told them that if I see that title again, I will throw it in the garbage, without even opening it."

The job has not changed anything about him, he maintains. "It's hardly like an orchestra," he says. "To play with the Berlin Philharmonic is like playing chamber music and it suited me like a hand to a glove. Everyone plays together and loves to listen to one another. If the conductor does not lower his hand in time, we play according to what we hear, not what we see. And this orchestra is extreme - in sound, dynamics, phrasing. In any case, the conductor gets much more than he asks for.

What does it mean, in fact, to lead the orchestra as the concertmaster?

"To feel the most important point in the phrase, when - but especially how much - to release tension and to direct the other musicians to do so. To know all the parts and to know what is happening in the orchestra at all times, in order to make the music, almost without moving. When there is a good conductor, it's easy, especially with Simon Rattle. His musical knowledge is vast and he is constantly learning more. Or Daniel Barenboim.

"When he played as a soloist and conducted Beethoven's fourth concerto - a fearfully complex composition - I was afraid of how we would do it without a conductor, but in the end, it was the easiest thing in the world. That's how it is when the soloist knows how to think like an orchestra, knows when people need some air and plays while conducting, not like an ordinary pianist. With Barenboim, it appears that there is nothing simpler than to accompany soloists.

"In fact," he concedes, "we don't like conductors. A conductor has to know that what he shows is what he will get. Because when he starts to explain in words, we immediately start talking about what kind of car to buy."

Don't you have a problem being firm with musicians sometimes?

"No. When I was a child, I used to go with all of Haim Taub's students to the festival in Germany, and he would always bring other musicians to teach us, and once it was the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1988, I took lessons with musicians that now I have to teach and sometimes reprimand, and I was only 16 years old then."

First night hitch

The first concert Braunstein played with the Berlin Philharmonic did not begin without a hitch. "I asked to sit next to my fellow first violinist in order to get a feel of the orchestra before I began to lead it. But I didn't have a watch that evening, and because I couldn't speak German, I didn't pay much attention to the announcements over the public address system. And then, someone came and told me to follow him. I thought to myself, `What luxury; they escort you to every concert.' But when I saw that the backstage area was empty and Claudio Abbado, the previous chief conductor, and the first violinist were standing at the entrance to the stage waiting for me and me alone, I realized that I was late. I entered and the audience began applauding and I tried to signal somehow that I was not yet the leader. The whole orchestra laughed."

Like many of his musician friends working in Berlin, Braunstein makes sure to maintain close ties with Israel and appear here as often as he can. In September, he will appear in Jerusalem at Bashkerova's chamber festival and will play, among other pieces, Beethoven's "Archduke" trio and the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings. Later in the year, he will appear with Be'er Sheva's Sinfonietta conducted by Yaron Traub. "I play chamber music with some of the names that are considered the greatest in the world," he says, "only to discover that the musicians in Israel are the best there are. I miss them - Sharon Kam, Itamar Golan, Hezi Nir, Shlomi Shem Tov, Ro'i Shiloah and of course Zvika Plesser and Gilad Karni from the quartet. You can't find musicians like them anywhere else in the world. But in Israel, when do people discover that you are good? After you have come back from abroad with all kinds of prizes and titles. Before that, you're just another Israeli."