The cellist Steven Isserlis has published a short appreciation of our violinist friend Ivry Gitlis, still going strong at 97.
Normally one writes an article about a famous figure on the occasion of an important birthday – or in their memory. But I want to write briefly about Ivry, because I’ve just seen him, and I want to pay tribute to him while he’s still here. I recently spent time with him in Paris – his home for many years; he is now well into his 98th year, and I can’t pretend that his health, or – alas – his spirits are as buoyant as they were until quite recently. But – he is still Ivry; very much so!
Ivry was born in Haifa, in what was then Palestine, in 1922, to Russian parents. As a young boy, he was taken to play to Hubermann (he remembers meeting him on the beach); this led to him being brought to Europe to study, his teachers including such legends as Thibaud, Enesco and (principally) Carl Flesch, in whose class he studed alongside Ida Haendel, Ginette Neveu, and his close friend Josef Hassid, the astonishing violinist who was to die so tragically young. The 2nd world war intervened, and Ivry ended up in London. (At some point, he apparently went on a date with my mother! She always remembered it – but he, not very flatteringly, has forgotten.) After the war, he embarked upon an international career, becoming particularly famous in France, but playing with great, if sometimes controversial, success worldwide. His career was always rather different from that of any other violinist. In addition to playing and recording with many of the world’s most famous orchestras, he always wanted to branch out into other areas: he acted in several films, including one directed his friend Francois Truffaut; performed with Marcel Marceau, and with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock and Roll Circus’; and spent a lot of time in Africa, performing in various countries. He has always been a maverick, musically and personally; and has for that reason always felt somewhat excluded, despite his many many admirers (including, crucially, Martha Argerich , who has remained a wonderfully steadfast friend to him).
Being with Ivry is a very special experience; there is no-one like him. He thrives in the presence of others – demanding constant attention, it’s true, but also exuding warmth and affection. He loves Jewish jokes (and tells them brilliantly!), and he loves to recount stories from his fascinating life – among the ones with which he regaled me on this recent visit were his final visits with Heifetz, a chance meeting with Marlon Brando, and – ahem – his first amorous encounter (very funny). We listened together to a performance he gave in Rumania of the Brahms concerto. (Typical Ivry: I asked if he’d recorded the Brahms; he said he hadn’t, but there might be some recording of a concert somewhere. I looked on Youtube, and indeed there it was. ‘Really? I didn’t know!’ he said. ‘Let’s listen.’ So we did; as we approached the end of the first tutti, he remarked: ‘I mess up the beginning, but after that it’s good.’ Funny – I thought he hadn’t heard it!… Haha.) It was extraordinary – such intensity, almost manic at times. (Even he said that it was if he had a red-hot stick up his backside!) But wonderful, unique – as Ivry is! The only player I can think of – and I’m by no means the first to suggest this – whom he resembles at all is Daniil Shafran. Both of them are laws unto themselves, to whom the normal ‘rules’ just don’t apply. And both felt like musical outsiders.
Ivry is worried that his playing will be forgotten when he’s gone – is forgotten now. I spent much of my time with him reassuring him that that is not the case, that he has a legion of new fans now. I suppose that that’s the main reason for my writing this little article – in the hope that people will get in touch and let him know how much he is loved. Of course I can’t give out any contact details here; but I urge anyone who has any indirect contact with him to try to get in touch – and any young violinists who might have the chance to try to get to play for him. Ivry loves people – and suffers terribly from loneliness. His moods are variable (in a sad moment on one of these recent visits, he wondered whether ‘life is just a joke – a bitter joke’.) But spending time with him is also uplifting – and always memorable. Despite the frailties that are inevitable at his age, he is still a reliable source of thought-provoking wisdom about music, and about life in general – as well as being great company. I do hope that he spends the rest of his life feeling celebrated – he so deserves it.
Written with love.
It would be difficult to over-estimate the influence of Laszlo Heltay, who has died in Budapest three weeks short of his 90th birthday, upon the performance of choral music all over the world. The clarity and agility which he demanded from his choirs perhaps reached its apogée with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus which he founded in 1975 when Sir Neville Marriner sought a group whose singing style would match to perfection the style of his already well-established orchestra.
The solid purity of style was only then beginning in the choral world with the likes of the Monteverdi Choir, and marked a new sound far removed from the clipped Anglican cathedral and voluminous Choral Society traditions. Laszlo was the pathfinder of this movement, setting the new musical standard from the start with Collegium Musicum Oxoniense which he founded in 1960 and inspiring generations of conductors, choral leaders and singers who revered him for his musicianship, charisma and relentless perfectionism.
Generations of Sussex music students and music lovers were lucky that from 1968 until the mid 1980s he was Director of Music at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre), where he conducted the first ever concert at the GAC in December 1969 and trained the University Choir and Orchestra. In 1967 he created Brighton Festival Chorus which, then as now, rehearsed on campus and in 1995 the University conferred on him an Hon DMus. A pupil of Kodaly at the Franz Liszt Academy, he supported the anti-Communist uprising in 1956 while a producer at the Hungarian Radio from where he fled to England. A place was found for him to pursue his musical talents at
Merton College, Oxford where he remained as Director of Music establishing the CMO (later re-named Schola Cantorum of Oxford) and the Kodaly Choir. In l964 he went to New Zealand for three years to conduct the NZBC orchestra and NZ opera company. At Sussex University he collaborated often with John Birch the University Organist, which led to a professional lifetime of working together with the RPO, the ASMF and later the Royal Choral Society. He held prestigious positions with the Hamburg & Stuttgart Radio Choirs and from 1997 the Spanish TV and Radio Choir in Madrid.
His recordings with all these groups are legion.
Always keen to encourage young musicians, especially conductors and choral singers, Laszlo was heavily involved with the Europa Cantat movement and he regularly toured European countries and further afield as Chorus Master, Guest Conductor, Masterclass leader or Jury member. His final visit to Brighton was in 2006 to conduct BFC in the 40 th Brighton Festival in the Dome but alas he slipped awkwardly on the stage during the dress rehearsal and broke his hip. Outside music, his chief passions were books and languages, football and tennis, chess and dogs, and in both Spain (living for many years near Barcelona) and Hungary he worked hard to set up dog rescue centres. His
autobiography was published in Hungary in 2018, mostly the result of discussions held with the eminent Hungarian author Istvan Elmer, with a title reflecting his combined canine and choral interests – sadly the idea of calling it “From Bach to Bark” did not translate well into Hungarian.
Although he knew precisely how to extract the most spiritual depth from the sacred music he prepared with many choirs, he was profoundly non-religious and was a great disciple of the works of Richard Dawkins. He long ago acquired British citizenship and lived in Hampstead, but moved in the 1990s first to Barcelona and then back to Budapest, living in Pest with his beloved dog Charley.
There was a little pre-Hanukah ceremony this morning at Tel Aviv’s Heichal Hatarbut where staff of the Israeli Philharmonic, together with the soloist Martha Argerich, watched the lighting of the first Hanukah candle.
Music director Lahav Shani led the singing of Maoz Tsur from an electronic keyboard.
Tonight’s concert will begin with another kindling and a full audience-participation sing-in of the Hanukah hymn of faith and defiance.
The Brighton Festival Chorus has announced the death of its founder Laszlo Heltay, a Hungarian who gave the British choral tradition a much-needed upgrade in the middle of the last century.
Arriving as a refugee in 1957, Heltay hovered around Britain for seven years before migrating to New Zealand to become director of the national opera and associate conductor of the NZ Symphony.
Returning to the UK, he founded the Brighton Festival Chorus in 1967, achieving instant national acclaim with a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, conducted by the composer. With Yehudi Menuhin as president, Heltay’s chorus went on to make multiple recordings for major labels with Previn, Ashkenazy and his fellow-Hungarian exiles Kertesz and Dorati. Every other UK chorus had to pull its socks up to match Heltay’s standards.
Heltay remained head of the Brighton ensemble for 27 years.
He moved to Spain in the 1990s to improve the Madrid radio choir and latterly to his hometown Budapest, where he died of cancer on December 17.
Petra Bohuslav has been named commercial director of the Vienna State Opera, alongside artistic director Bogdan Roscic.
Bohuslav, 54, is a regional politician who was formerly a manager at Casinos Austria and managing director of the Carnuntum archology park.
The former long-serving head of the Vienna State Opera, Ion Holender, has erupted in outrage, saying Bohuslav ‘had nothing to do with theatre, or with opera.’ He accused the culture minister of sneaking in her appointment to avoid public discussion in the media lull before Christmas.
There have been multiple changes since our last power list, due to divorce, death and other human drifts but the top place is unchanged. Anna is getting Yusif into all the best gigs.
New entrants include Mr and Mrs Kaufmann and some rising maestro partners.
Here’s the 2020 leaders board:
1 Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
2 Met boss Peter Gelb, conductor Kerri-Lynn Wilson
3 Berlin maestro-for-life Daniel Barenboim, festival director Elena Bashkirova
4 LSO chief Sir Simon Rattle, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena
5 NY Philharmonic president Deborah Borda, Met’s chief development officer Coralie Toevs
6 Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, aspiring director Christiane Lutz
Two Nordic orchestras – Lahti and Helsingborg – say they have gone carbon-free. Lahti quit flying as early as 2015 and its Swedish counterpart signed up some time last year. Helsingborg also avoids flying in guest conductors and soloists.
Now the London agent Jasper Parrott, who made his fortune flying dozens of orchestras and artists around the world over the past half-century, is having a change of heart. Here’s what he writes in the Guardian:
…. this crisis is the responsibility of all of us. Everyone must be conscious of their behaviour and acknowledge the active part they have to play. Planning permission for all new concert halls, for example, should only be given if the buildings will be carbon neutral. Existing concert halls must make radical changes to ensure they are as close to carbon neutral as possible. I’m proud of our musicians who are leading by example. Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (pictured) last season partnered with the musicians from the Orchester des Wandels (the Orchestra of Change) and performed works written as a reaction to the climate crisis, with all proceeds donated to environmental projects. Kopatchinskaja now organises her schedule so as to travel by train as much as possible, and our touring department plan tours that allow orchestras to avoid taking flights….