Orchestral Maneuvers: The 28-year-old Leading the Israel Philharmonic

Israel-American violinist David Radzynski had never played with a professional orchestra before, but he’s just landed his first job – concertmaster for the IPO. He still can’t believe his pluck.

Noam Ben-Zeev
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David Radzynsky. Concertmaster for the Israel Philharmonic at the age of 28.Credit: Cristian Fatu
Noam Ben-Zeev

Alert members of the audience at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concert some three weeks ago would have noticed something unusual, just before the audience dispersed for the intermission. Some of the musicians on stage approached a young violinist, shook his hand, smiled at him and patted him on the back. The same thing happened at the end of the concert, after the bows and applause: musicians approached the violinist yet again and congratulated him, accompanied this time by the conductor.

Before the concert, the young violinist had come to the stage after all his colleagues, and just before the conductor. He led the tuning of the instruments before they started playing, sitting at the front near the conductor, and he also performed solos. He was the concertmaster, representing the orchestra before both the conductor and the audience. In this case, however, he was the new concertmaster and was making his debut performance in his new role. David Radzynski, 28, is the son of Israeli musicians living in the United States.

Twenty-eight is a young age. It’s rare and impressive to see someone so young in the important role of concertmaster – one of three such leaders in the IPO. But when asked which orchestras he has previously led, Radzynski has even more surprising answers. “I’ve never led an orchestra, nor have I ever played in a professional orchestra before. This is my first job,” he reveals, adding, “I played as an alternate, and in an academic orchestra. But that’s nothing like playing in a professional orchestra.”

So how does a young, inexperienced violinist reach such a place of honor so quickly? The answer includes a degree of coincidence. Radzynski, born at Yale University Hospital in 1986, spent years studying music at that university, won many prizes, and played as a soloist for the university orchestra and others. A 2009 recital of his was broadcast on Israeli radio show “Kol Hamuzika,” where it was heard by longtime cellist Simca Heled, who in the past had been lead cello in the Philharmonic. That was enough for Heled. He called the young unknown, then a 22-year-old student, and offered to play with him. “I think you’re good,” he wrote him, “let’s play together.”

Radzynski didn’t have the time or means to travel to Israel, so he had to turn down the offer. But Heled didn’t take no for an answer. In 2013, he made the offer again, and this time Radzynski joined up with Heled and a young pianist he hadn’t met, Lahav Shani. “I was a nobody then, completely unknown – and where can you find people willing to play with someone like that?” he wonders now. “And then they asked me, ‘Say, would you want to be a concertmaster in the orchestra?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And they said, ‘Then why not now?’”

Even though you’d never played in an orchestra, and certainly never led one before?

“Yes, because you must never refuse in this line of work. You have to go through every door that opens. In the music world, you don’t decide ahead of time what you want to be – ‘I’m going to be a great soloist!’ Decisions like that are meaningless when only one thousandth of all musicians make it there. When you get an opportunity, you take it.”

‘A big success’

The orchestra Shani and Heled were referring to was none other than the Israel Philharmonic, which was looking for a new concertmaster after Lazar Shuster’s retirement. “Everyone loved Shuster, and it was hard to say goodbye,” says Yoel Abadi, a French horn player and leading member of the orchestra. “In any case, we started looking and we heard David, and even then he caused a great deal of excitement. People were shocked when they heard him play.”

“When I said yes to Simca and he suggested that I audition for concertmaster at the Philharmonic,” recalls Radzynski, “I didn’t have any orchestra pieces ready. But he didn’t think that was important. Then, while touring around, I practiced for the audition. I came to Heichal Hatarbut and played a Bartók concerto for Zubin Mehta and the rest of the orchestra, accompanied by a piano. It was a big success – I know because the musicians yelled ‘bravo’ and applauded me.”

Despite the reaction, Radzinsky wasn’t chosen then. The Philharmonic’s regulations did not consider him an eligible candidate, because the auditions were already underway and the first, essential, stages had already been completed. But as fate would have it, negotiations with the violinist eventually chosen – Sergey Ostrovsky – went south, and the orchestra announced again last year that it was looking to fill its most prestigious position. Radzinsky was invited to audition properly. He claims that, for him, it was like starting in the final stages, because the orchestra was already familiar with him.

While preparing, and during the audition itself, I assume you really wanted the job?

“Yes. I understood that it would be a great career breakthrough; an opportunity to be part of the professional world – and since I’m a professional, I can’t compromise. In terms of playing, I have to be perfect – now more than ever, because I have the responsibility of representing the orchestra. If they hear me playing poorly during a recital, the reaction would be, ‘If he’s the concertmaster, it really must be a bad orchestra.’”

After the audition, he didn’t have to wait long to hear if he was successful. “Less than an hour after the audition ended, they called me into the office. Zubin Mehta and representatives from the orchestra were sitting there. Zubin said, ‘So, when can you start?’”

The orchestra had no doubts. “In addition to his excellent musicianship, we were looking for a leader for the orchestra,” explains Abadi. “A musician who can lead musically and socially. We’re looking for someone who, when he talks, people listen and take him seriously. Aside from that, it’s good that he’s a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. It’s not so easy to hear an Israeli at such a high level, in auditions that are open to people from around the world. Perhaps deep in our hearts we wanted an Israeli to win, but that’s certainly not the way it works.”

Despite the quick bond between the two parties, the hasty transition wasn’t easy. Radzinsky was forced to pack up his life in Kansas City, where he studied and taught. He had to drive 11 hours to his parents in Ohio to store his belongings.

At the same time, Israel isn’t a foreign place to him. His father, Yan Radzinsky, is an Israeli composer who moved to the United States in the 1980s, to study composition with Krzysztof Penderecki, and today he teaches composition in Columbus, Ohio. David’s mother is a piano teacher, and he also has a sister who is a doctor. “We spent about two months a year in Israel since I was born, and that gave me a basis for Hebrew,” he says.

And what does it mean, to lead an orchestra as concertmaster?

“During a concert, the job is to show how to play the musical sentences, to make eye contact with the musicians, or to lead all the string instruments – like the leader in a [string] quartet. To lead means to know how to signal the starting sounds for everyone when the conductor’s cues aren’t entirely clear. The conductor doesn’t put the bow to the strings, we do, and so the movement of the bow itself, the kind of movement, the speed ... for that, the musicians are looking at me.”

The quality of an orchestra’s leadership is judged mostly by the musicians themselves. But the solos Radzynski played during his first IPO concert – works by Richard Strauss and Antonín Dvořák – sounded good to the ears of all present, musicians and audience alike, and definitely justified the responsibility placed upon the violinist’s young shoulders. One can tell that his violin has a big sound, and that he is a soloist who knows what it means to take center stage: he produces a beautiful, clean sound, full of confidence – as if there’s nothing easier.

“The role is important during rehearsals as well,” continues Radzinsky. “For example, to aid those who need help or to make technical musical decisions. Today, for instance, I felt that the emphasis in one place was too much because of the way the bow was being held downward, and I changed it. Or when to reduce vibrato, or when to be silent so as not to drown out a soloist. Because I sit closest to the conductor, often I feel like I get to interpret his orders, and signal them to the orchestra.

“But with maestro Mehta, there’s almost no need for that,” he adds. “He knows everything, signals everything. In Tchaikovsky, for example, he looked at me and showed me that in the next piece he wanted glissando, just by sliding his finger along his forearm and smiling. My first concert with him was very exciting. I felt great respect and awe, and during the first rehearsal I got very excited. I couldn’t believe it – my first concert with Zubin Mehta! Am I actually talking to him? Working with him?”

Is he really such a legend?

“What do you mean? He is a legend par excellence. He’s one of the best that ever was; I’ve been a fan since I was a child. It’s inconceivable to work with him – especially after he’s worked with some of the greats, like Isaac Stern, Christian Ferras and Henryk Szeryng.”