Meet the Romeo and Juliet of the Violin Music Scene

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A couple of leading violinists explain what it takes to play the instrument

Itzhak Rashkovsky and Ani Schnarch Rashkovsky.
Tomer Appelbaum

Itzhak Rashkovsky, 64, and Ani Schnarch Rashkovsky, 62; live in London and flying there

Hello, can I ask where you know Hebrew from?

Ani: We made aliyah in 1974, separately: I’m from Bucharest and Itzhak is from Odessa. Both of us studied violin at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. It was a real Romeo and Juliet story. I was 17 and Itzhak was 19, and we each had a different teacher, one who taught according to the Moscow school and the other according to the Franco-Belgian school.

Itzhak: Romeo and Juliet? Well, women are always a bit sentimental.

Ani: But in the end we got together. Afterward I went to study in London and we were married and then stayed there, but already back then we were active in an Israeli organization called Youth Music Israel. And then one day, we visited Kibbutz Eilon and fell in love with the place. Thirty years ago, we and a few other people established Keshet Eilon.

Sorry, but I have no idea what that is.

Ani: It’s a music center offering international master classes for violinists. Five years ago, we added violists and cellists.

Tomer, the photographer: What about contrabass?

Itzhak: There are very few people today who play contrabass, certainly in Israel. Even when the Israel Philharmonic was established, there were musicians who were missing. Israel was known then as a “bassoon-less country.” If you find a contrabass player living in Israel, please send him to me.

Who takes part in the workshops?

Ani: There are master classes and seminars for children – Jews, Christians, Palestinians, Muslims – during Hanukkah and Pesach. The children meet with teachers, play in an ensemble and become friends. There are also many private lessons, because that’s how you learn violin.

The violin is considered a difficult instrument for children, right?

Itzhak: Yes, because no one walks down the street in the posture of holding a violin. The violin is a world unto itself, and if you have a burning passion for it you go all the way. The teacher’s job is just to provide the match.

What do you mean by “burning passion”?

Itzhak: A violinist has to be fanatical about it. We have a saying that’s not so nice: You have to be pretty dumb to sit in a closed room five-six hours a day, like a monk, of your own volition. Musicians are a breed apart, they sacrifice a great deal for moments of inspiration on the stage.

What happens on the stage?

Itzhak: When you perform, after hours of preparation and practice, it all converges – and you have to stand there “naked,” with everyone looking at you.

Ani: It’s a form of expression by which we transmit ideas; without the instrument we have no communication.

What’s needed in order to be a violinist?

Ani: If you look at great violinists, you see that they have something in common physically. You need true physical strength to practice, to stand on the stage, also to tour.

Itzhak: Talent is God-given, the parents provide conditions, but above all you need luck. So many great people have snapped midway in their careers or ended up in an asylum. Being a musician is like being an athlete: Even if you have won gold at the Olympics, that promises nothing for the future; you must keep training. Maybe it’s like that with all artists, although I always think, “Those poor ballerinas – we at least can eat.”

Can you make a living from art?

Ani: We teach at the Royal College of Music in London.

Itzhak: And we travel around the world. We play without a regular orchestra, we’re “free-range.” Our nature is not to be part of the herd but to lead it. It’s not a 9-to-5 job.

Ani: More like 24/7.

Did you ever think about returning to Israel to live?

Ani: Because of the kibbutz, we have the feeling that we’ve never really left. We’ve been coming for many years, the scenery is amazing and the air is fresh, and we work with children who grow up and become teachers themselves.

Itzhak: We have also launched a project to build a permanent school for violinists, like [Yehudi] Menuhin’s school. And to think that the reason we went to the kibbutz was so our children could spend time on the grass and in the fresh air.

Did you want your children to play?

Ani: Our daughter has been playing the violin from the age of 3 and a half, and our son from age 7. They both have a burning passion for music.

Itzhak: They grew up and the grass stayed. This year, for the first time, our granddaughter played on it.

Martin Girdo.
Tomer Appelbaum

Martin Girdo, 75, lives in Malmö, Sweden; arriving from Copenhagen

Hello, what will you be doing in Israel?

I came because Asaf, Josephine and Lola are here – that’s the most important – and also because I love Tel Aviv.

Who is Asaf?

One of my partner’s daughters – I am not married; we have a word for it in Swedish: sambo – met an Israeli guy called Asaf. There was a delightful crush and they decided to go for it. They live part of the year in Tel Aviv and part in Lapland. The first time I visited Tel Aviv was for their wedding, and since then I’ve been back five times, and I really don’t like to travel.

But you’ve returned so often.

Already the first time I came, I said, “This is my town.” You may see an old man before you, but I have a lot of energy.

We can see that. What do you do?

In June, I will have been a teacher for 50 years. I was a homeroom teacher and a gym, geography and English teacher. I taught grades 4, 5 and 6, which means that I was with the same children for three years. It’s wonderful. I had a good connection with the students, but in Sweden at the age of 67, they tell you, “Thank you very much,” and you have to retire.

So now you’re a retiree?

Now I’m a substitute teacher, so I decide by myself when to work. If they call on a nice day, I say I’m busy and stay home. What welcome freedom! I really love being a teacher. I only hope that my head and my legs will be all right and that I will be able to continue teaching, not least because there’s a shortage of 3,000 teachers in Malmö. That’s a problem now in Sweden – young people don’t want to teach.

Do you still teach in primary school?

These days I teach refugees. Adults from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and also from Kurdistan, Turkey, Sudan and Ethiopia. Some of my students are highly educated and there are also people who, during their whole life, went to school for maybe a year or two. I think it’s important. I want to give back to Sweden what it gave me.

What did Sweden give you?

I wasn’t born in Sweden. My parents arrived from Latvia in the wake of the world war. There were no refugees at all in Sweden then. I was the only one. Swedish wasn’t spoken at home and the school system was all run in Swedish, so I had problems. Swedish is a difficult language, there are many exceptions and long words. And above all, the sounds are different. There are all kinds of whistling sounds. So in the lessons I teach we practice holding the sound in the mouth, and every lesson begins with tongue exercises. It reminds me how hard it was for me when I arrived. I didn’t have words then, and to be young without words means you are lost.

Let’s say you’re playing in the yard with other children and someone grabs the ball. You’re angry and you want it back – what do you say to them? I had no way to solve the problem, so I got into fights with them. Almost every recess I fought with other children. In the end I was really good at fighting.

How did you get along, ultimately?

My life didn’t improve until the end of primary school, when a new teacher arrived who gave me encouragement. Another thing that helped was that I was good at handball and soccer. In handball I even made it to the national youth team.

So you became an athlete.

Yes. And then everything changed: People saw my picture in the newspaper and suddenly everyone was saying hello and wanting to be my friend.

Did you go on playing as an adult?

I played in the national league between 1963 and 1972. I even got to play against the Yugoslavs in Prague, against the team that took the gold in the Olympics.

Impressive.

Sweden was good to me. My mother always said that she was happy she came to Sweden. It’s a country that helps, and I hope we will continue to help.

Have you ever visited Latvia?

Sure. In 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev started with perestroika, I went there for the first time. I was 50. My whole life I grew up without grandparents and without aunts and uncles, and there I had a family – a charming uncle and a cousin with children. I felt something in the air there, and since then I have visited quite a bit. They wanted very much to stay in touch, and that’s a marvelous feeling. It’s strange at the age of 50 to discover an old-new family.