In the August 2012 issue, the veteran virtuoso gave a wide-ranging interview to Ariane Todes, on topics from teaching and managers to emotion, conflict and playing with his friend Jascha Heifetz
It feels like a betrayal to mark Ivry Gitlis’s 90th birthday. When I met the great violinist in Paris, he railed against the idea: ‘People are so obsessed by age – it’s their problem. According to the rules I should be dead by now, but I don’t feel like it!’ He doesn’t act like it, either. Gitlis’s light shines as brightly as ever. Wherever you go with him things happen – famous violinists turn up; ladies flirt; children offer their portraits of him; film directors phone. Gitlis has a way of engaging with people and with life that is as passionate as ever. ‘I’m not looking for things to happen and either they do or they don’t, but I don’t run away,’ he shrugs. This, after all, is the man who, as well as making famous recordings of the classics, worked alongside Marcel Marceau, John Lennon, François Truffaut and poet Léo Ferré, a man who is forever connecting with people, be they taxi drivers, African orphans, rock stars or intellectuals. As his friend the cellist Steven Isserlis puts it: ‘He doesn’t care about convention or fashion – he expresses what he has to express, and he communicates with everybody, everywhere. He’s always one hundred per cent himself in every note he plays. Every phrase is overflowing with personality. His playing can be a challenge, and that’s what makes it so powerful.’
As with his playing, his speaking. When you ask Gitlis a question, his first response is usually another question, then a joke or some wordplay, and then something very profound in answer to the original question. Very often the answer is provocative, whether denouncing today’s managers or defying popular values. But as with his playing, he doesn’t care what people think – he says what he thinks and feels. So here are just some of the things we discussed over the course of six hours in a Paris café.
If you are one of the world’s best surgeons, when you reach a certain age they stop you from operating because they’re not sure your hands are as agile as they were when you were younger. You can’t say that about musicians. I heard Rubinstein play over a long period. He wasn’t my favourite pianist, but when he was over 80, until his death at 95, I heard him play like no one else. It was as if he had got to a point where he didn’t have to prove anything. He played like he felt at last and it was fantastic. Of course there are physical manifestations that prove you are not as young as you were when you were 20. But how old are you when you are 20? Some people are much older than others. It’s not a sign of senility to become younger when you’re older. It only shows that when you are older, you understand what it is to be young. There are some faculties that are not used when you are young that come more to the fore when you are older. Other people probably think of me as an old man, which I am according to the rules of life. But what can I do about it? It makes me sick because people want me to feel what they would like me to be, and I’ve never been what anybody wanted me to be. When I was younger they wanted me to be a little boy, which I wasn’t either. I’ve never lived in any time I was living. I could have been dead for the last 25 years and I wouldn’t even know it!
ON LEARNING REPERTOIRE
I was never a workaholic, except when I had to work really hard, for example when I agreed to record the Paganini caprices. I had never played them all, so I would come home and practise until 4.30 in the morning and then get back into the studio for 9. Can you imagine? To learn a Paganini caprice overnight takes an eternity! Funnily enough, I had more problems with the ones I knew better than with the ones I had just learnt, because I really had to practise them. The lesson is that you should never rest on your laurels. Everything you do, whether in your fingers or your mind, has to be continuously polished.
A concert is an event for me. I don’t play automatically, or one concert exactly the same as another. If I were doing 300 concerts a year and I had to have this kind of emotion 300 times a year, I would be dead after the 50th concert. There was a time when people used to talk about someone’s ‘1809 Russian tour’, which meant they spent most of the winter in Russia. Today people might be playing in Tokyo one night, then flying to LA, then to Paris, and then to New Delhi. I call this the ‘jet lag’ way of playing. How can you live music in that way? I’m not accusing anybody, but it makes it so that you’re trying to play evenly – not too much of this, not too little of that – and that influences the whole interpretation and expectations. People engage you if they know you’re reliable. What does that mean? Do you want music that’s reliable? Do you think Schumann wrote his music for someone who was reliable?
ON MAKING A CAREER
The very word ‘career’ has always been unpalatable to me. It took me a long time to realise that this is a métier. If you don’t have the inner impulsive inclination for it, then you’d better do something else. Today you have to have the stamina to make the kind of career that is expected of you if you’re ‘successful’ (another word I can’t stand). What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ musician? You can play a hundred or a thousand concerts, as long as there are two or three occasions that you remember yourself. If it meets what the audience wants, you made a good marriage, but it’s more important that there is something that remains in your mind.
There was always business. Sol Hurok was the great European agent: he was my manager and brought me to America. He didn’t have 150 artists on his list, but the artists he had were all individuals. When Horowitz, Piatigorksy and Milstein were youngsters, they left Russia and came to play in bars and whorehouses. They came with their friend Alexander Merovitch – he was their manager because he believed in them. He lived with them, suffered with them, played pranks with them. Those managers don’t exist now. You have people with business sense, who treat their artists like potatoes. It’s terrible, and people go along with it. But I see a new generation of younger people who are beginning to play for themselves. That gives me hope.
ON CONFLICT IN MUSIC
When people say, ‘This quartet is wonderful – the players all sound the same,’ it’s terrible. What is democracy? It’s not that everyone should think the same – that’s a dictatorship. A real democracy is where people are individuals, and because of that they have an interest in living together and they find things to agree or disagree with. When you play together you shouldn’t follow each other – you should each be yourself and get together somehow. Look at the Amadeus Quartet – each one of them was a completely different person, but what they did together was the most beautiful thing you can think of. In the 60s I was I was supposed to be playing the Brahms ‘Double’ with Rostropovich, but he couldn’t play and we were looking for someone to take his place. Someone mentioned Maurice Gendron, who was a fine cellist, but a very special character. He came with his gloves on and a disdain for everybody. He was very disagreeable and I was ready to leave. It should have been a catastrophe, and the recording is not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and that’s the miracle of music. People talk about peace as if it’s something you put on a table. It’s not. Life is a conflict – there is conflict every second. Of course, conflict where there’s killing is bad, but conflict in itself is a great thing if you live it and feel it, and see the contrasts.
ON TODAY’S STARS
When you think of the period between the First and Second World Wars, there were many wonderful players, each one a monument in themselves: Elman, Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin, Busch, Sammons, Oistrakh, Francescatti, Huberman, Enescu, Szigeti – and that’s not all. Each one of them playing the same music would be a completely different work. Today you have marketable potential if you fit into a certain format that one can sell without too much of a problem. Sometimes you see one or two artists launched like that and after a couple of years you don’t hear of them, and it’s very cruel and very bad.
ON EMOTION IN MUSIC
I don’t think players allow themselves to suffer, or get upset about things that don’t concern them personally. Beethoven wrote the ‘Eroica’ Symphony because he thought Napoleon was a hero and that the French Revolution meant the liberation of the people. Afterwards he took Napoleon’s name out because he turned out to be another Al Capone. But he was moved by it. If you make music but you don’t have the emotion to move people, what’s the point? In masterclasses, I try to make students understand that they shouldn’t only be motivated by perfect technique. It sounds like a cliché to say music is the most important thing – it’s so obvious. Technique should be about gaining the ability to play what you are feeling and what you want to give, to create a situation where when you play, you forget about your work. If someone comes to me after a concert and says, ‘You must have practised a lot,’ it means I must have played badly. About six years ago I had a serious operation for the first time in my life – I was in a clinic for a long time. One night, I was all by myself in my apartment and I took my violin and started to play the second movement of the Brahms Second Sonata. I found things in it that made me sob, but I haven’t found the same things again: it was a moment.
Everyone has talent – all children are gifted in one way or another, until they are educated. Education has become an industry and it leads towards dislocation. I remember talking with Nathan Milstein, who was a good friend. He was an Auer pupil and told me that Auer never talked about anything technical. Maybe that’s the best way to teach – to bring out what is inside the pupil, not to say, ‘That’s the way to do it.’ I don’t like the word ‘teaching’ – it’s pretentious. I don’t consider myself so grand to assume that I can teach you what to do. There’s a Jewish proverb: I’ve learnt a lot from teachers, but I’ve learnt more from my students. If you don’t learn yourself, there’s nothing you can tell them.
I played chamber music with Heifetz. I loved him and I think he was fond of me. Once, we decided to meet in Paris, and when I arrived and called at the George V Hotel they said Heifetz had just left for Venice. I was upset and wrote him a letter saying how sad I was, and that I was coming back to Los Angeles next year, but I got no answer. So after a while I sent another letter, but no answer. I got to LA and called him up, but no answer. Then a close friend of his told me that he was looking forward to seeing me so much that when he came to Paris and got the message from the answering service, he thought I was playing the same joke that he played on everyone else and that I didn’t want to see him. So we didn’t see each other for two or three years. The last time I saw him was a year or so before he died. I was in Los Angeles and I spent a few afternoons in his house. I want to cry when I think of it. He was always lonely. He was unique. They say that if you were near to him you could hear the hissing sound that you hear on the recordings. So many people today when they want to play stronger use more bow, but that doesn’t mean anything. There is an obsession today about playing big.
Photo: Ivry Gitlis performing in 2011 at a concert for the Inspiration association