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.