***ARTS 8.20.10
***ARTS 8.20.10

From Russia to Israel to San Bruno, with guitar

Apparently, slipping a prayer between the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall really works.

When Yuri Liberzon learned he had been accepted into Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Institute to study classical guitar, he knew he would have to decline because of the steep $30,000 tuition. Hoping for a miracle, the then–17-year-old Israeli headed for the Kotel and placed a note in the cracks.

Yuri Liberzon

He got his miracle. As soon as he got home, he checked his e-mail and found Peabody offered him a full scholarship.

Liberzon, now 27, made the move to the United States, and is today a renowned musician with many concerts, recitals and recordings to his credit.

A resident of San Bruno, Liberzon is giving two Bay Area concerts: a solo guitar recital Aug. 27 at the Old First Church in San Francisco and an appearance with the Diablo Symphony in Walnut Creek on Oct. 10, the latter a performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous “Concierto de Aranjuez.”

At both performances, audiences can expect some Spanish and baroque pieces typical of the classical guitar repertoire.

They should also expect music of the Beatles and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

“I try to play as many different styles as I can,” says the Russian-born Liberzon. “I do gravitate toward Spanish music, Bach and earlier, but I love all kinds of music.”

Playing a custom-built Stephan Connor guitar, Liberzon has a deft and delicate touch, able to coax a wide tonal range out of his instrument.

He confesses that music is a spiritual endeavor for him, something hard to come by in his hometown of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city (1.4 million people). Jews in Russia, including the Liberzon family, never had it easy, especially when it came to practicing their religion.

Instead, Liberzon practiced guitar, starting at age 6.

“My mom took me to the music school,” he recalls. “They said I should play violin or piano, and I started crying. My dad used to play guitar. I told him I wanted to play guitar. I didn’t know you’re supposed to be at least 9.”

The young guitarist excelled, and after the family made aliyah to Israel when he was 10, Liberzon began studying under the renowned guitarist and teacher Yaron Hasson, an Israeli of Yemenite heritage.

Liberzon progressed, both as a musician and as an Israeli, though it wasn’t always easy. “My family had a hard time adapting to the new environment,” he recalls. “I was affected by that. Most of my friends were Russian-speaking.”

With high school graduation approaching, Liberzon knew the army awaited him. But his musical ambitions led him to contact famed guitarist Manuel Baruecco at Peabody. Once accepted into the conservatory in 1990, he got out of his military service (with a special artist’s dispensation) and moved to the United States.

After earning a bachelor’s and graduate performance diploma, he went on to get a master’s in music from Yale University, where he studied on a full scholarship.

In 1996 and again in 1997 he won the Ariane Yerushalmi Eldor classical guitar competition of the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Other victories have come at the Appalachian Guitar Competition in North Carolina and Classical Minds in Texas.

Liberzon moved from New York to the Bay Area last year, and since then has found a comfortable niche teaching, recording and performing, both locally and around the world.

Whether taking on Jarrett or contemporary Russian composers, Liberzon shows a musically adventurous side. He says he’d like to find more Jewish music for the guitar, though it’s been slim pickings so far.

“I don’t know if such a thing exists,” he says. “There are composers in Israel who have been writing. My old teacher in Israel has finished a concerto for guitar and orchestra based on Yemenite themes.”

He seeks Jewish guitar music not only because it’s different or aesthetically pleasing. Liberzon says it speaks to him in other ways.

“I met with a rabbi in Sunnyvale,” says the guitarist. “I was telling him I’m not really religious, but he said it doesn’t matter because your soul will always be Jewish. Deep inside, I am very spiritual.”

Yuri Liberzon performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St., S.F. Tickets and information: (415) 474-1608 or www.oldfirstchurchconcerts.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.