A Tribute to Ivry Gitlis

I must confess that until recently, I had never heard of this phenomenal artist – so far removed is he from the present generation of violin players. His playing style – so expressive, charming at times, fierce at others, always vigorous, often freewheeling - is also of another, more individualistic, generation, a generation not embarrassed by conscious displays of high-tension emotion – the epitome of singing with the violin. There is an astonishing recording of the Tchaikovsky Vals Sentimentale by Gitlis which, in my estimation, will never be equaled. Simply stated, nobody plays like that anymore. His stupendous technical prowess aside, with Ivry Gitlis, there is no doubt about the utmost dedication, conviction, and wisdom of the man behind the playing. As has been said before, the violin doesn’t play itself.

Ivry Gitlis was born on August 22, 1922, in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel), to Russian parents. He received his first violin at the age of five and gave his first concert five years later, at age ten. When violinist Bronislav Huberman heard him play, he encouraged him to study at the Conservatoire de Paris, where, at age thirteen, he won a first prize. After graduation from the Conservatoire, he studied with Carl Flesch, Georges Enesco and Jacques Thibaud, among others – almost the same teachers under whom Henryk Szeryng studied a few years before him. In 1939, just before the war, he went to England, and when World War II broke out, worked in a British munitions factory and later in the entertainment unit of the British army. After the war, he made his European debut at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1951, he made his debut in Paris – which was later to become his main residence - and has since gone on to give concerts all over the world. Ivry Gitlis is considered one of the most gifted musicians of his generation, and many of his recordings are now classics.

During his long career, Gitlis has performed with the most prestigious orchestras in the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony, Leningrad, Tokyo, Paris, Concertgebouw, etc., etc. and the most famous conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Being a supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Ivry Gitlis played at the Oslo gala commemorating the first anniversary of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accords. In 1990, Gitlis was designated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and, as a consequence, has graciously performed at numerous UNESCO fundraising galas for educational and cultural projects.

In addition to being a violin virtuoso, he writes and composes and is the author of the autobiographical L’âme et la Corde, which was published in 1981 to critical acclaim. His first recording, "Le Concerto à La mémoire d'un ange" (Concerto to the Memory of an Angel), Alban Berg’s violin concerto, won the Grand Prix du Disque (Grand Recording Prize) in France. In 1968 he participated in John Lennon's Dirty Mac project on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus program (on a track called "Whole Lotta Yoko"). In 1971, Bruno Maderna wrote "Piece for Ivry" for him, and in 1972, he premiered "Mikka" by Xenakis. Subsequent recordings, many of which until their recent re-releases had become sought-after collectors’ items, have included the concertos of Paganini, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Bruch, Sibelius, Wieniawski and the Bartok Concerto and Solo Sonata for which he received the Best Record of the Year award from the New York Herald Tribune. Although less widely known as a chamber player, Ivry Gitlis has made music with a wide range of artists - Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, William Primrose, Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, Stephen Isserlis, Gary Hoffman, Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich, with whom he recorded the Franck and Debussy Violin Sonatas.

Gitlis is also a well-known and respected teacher, giving master classes all over Europe and beyond, regularly spending summers at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and in France, where he has created many classical music festivals. A frequent contributor to films as a composer as well as an actor, he has worked with the likes of Truffaut and Schlondorff. In 2001 he was one of the featured commentators (along with Itzhak Perlman and Hilary Hahn) in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film, “The Art of the Violin”. Tony Palmer’s 2004 documentary film on Ivry Gitlis was premiered at the Prague Spring Music Festival where it was praised by the Oscar-winning director Andrea Anderman as "the best artist's profile I have ever seen". Most recently, at the Louvre Museum in Paris, he was honored (in 2004) as part of the Festival devoted to great violinists of the 20th century. Based in Paris since the end of the sixties, Ivry Gitlis still performs throughout the world. His return to the London stage in 1996 after a long absence marked the 50th anniversary of his Wigmore Hall debut and was quite a sensational experience - critics and audience alike agreed on the immense impact of his unique personality and extraordinary interpretations, many of which can now be seen or heard on the YouTube website. The depth of his expressive powers can hardly be exaggerated. He plays the "Swan Song" Stradivarius of 1737 (the year of Stradivari’s death).