Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein at the Danbury State Fair, 1974 (Photo/David Gahr)
Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein at the Danbury State Fair, 1974 (Photo/David Gahr)

‘Bernstein at 100’ series closes out with violinist Vadim Gluzman

Vadim Gluzman was 16 when he and his family arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union, and two weeks later he attended his first concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. At that event in October 1990, executive director Avi Shoshani announced from the stage that Leonard Bernstein had just died in New York. Gluzman watched as the audience of over 2,000 wept.

“We spoke enough Hebrew to understand what he said, and we knew this was more than news of just another artist’s passing, but we had no idea of Bernstein’s connection to the Israel Philharmonic,” Gluzman said in an interview this week from his home in Chicago. “To say that Bernstein was their darling would be a humongous understatement. Few people in all of Israel were as beloved.”

Now one of the world’s leading violinists, Gluzman, 44, will perform Feb. 22-24 at the three final concerts in the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Bernstein’s “Serenade” and “Divertimento,” an orchestral piece, are on the program. Andrey Boreyko will conduct.

The concerts are part of “Bernstein at 100,” celebrating the life of the legendary composer, conductor and educator. In addition to the special concert series, which began in September, an exhibit depicting Bernstein’s relationship with the San Francisco Symphony is on display through Feb. 28 in the lobby at Davies Symphony Hall. Ticketholders can view the exhibit before and after concerts.

In a recent article in The Strad, a classical music magazine about string instruments, Gluzman wrote, “When I was a child in Russia, my father had in his collection a couple of recordings of Bernstein conducting, smuggled from the West. When I came to the U.S. and I [learned] English, I started reading about him and listening to his Harvard lectures, which had a great influence on me. Bernstein was able to project his ideas and connect to everyone, on every level of expertise — from professional to layman — without being condescending.”

Gluzman described his father’s contraband recording of “West Side Story” as “mind-blowing” and another, of Bernstein conducting one of the Mahler symphonies, as “beyond belief.” His father is a conductor and clarinet player and his mother is a musicologist.

Vadim Gluzman (Photo/Marco Borggreve)
Vadim Gluzman (Photo/Marco Borggreve)

What was it like growing up Jewish in Russia?

“You can’t say I was raised a Jew in the Soviet Union because that was not something we knew,” Gluzman said. “I knew I was Jewish because I was beaten up a lot. And I knew my great-grandmother would not eat one day of the year — she would say she was not hungry — and one day of the year, my father would carry home a cube-shaped object wrapped in newspaper and tied with rope. It was a stack of matzah, bought on the black market in an underground bakery for Passover, though I had no idea of what Passover was, or even knew the word.”

He began studying the violin in Russia at 7 and continued in Israel. He came to the U.S. in 1993 to study with Arkady Fomin in Dallas and then at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki. Today, he appears regularly with major orchestras throughout the world.

Gluzman plays a Stradivarius that once belonged to Leopold Auer, a longtime professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and teacher of the legendary Jascha Heifetz. The instrument was given to Vadim on extended loan by Stradivari Society of Chicago. “She is a very special violin — violins in Russia are referred to as female — and was made in 1690 by [Antonio] Stradivari,” Gluzman said. “Many famous pieces were written for this violin.”

Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein at the premiere of “Arias and Barcarolles” in 1988, at a benefit for Young Concert Artists (Photo/Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)
Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein at the premiere of “Arias and Barcarolles” in 1988, at a benefit for Young Concert Artists (Photo/Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

Gluzman is especially pleased to be playing Bernstein’s “Serenade,” which he considers “one of my most beloved pieces.” Isaac Stern, who mentored Gluzman, gave the premiere performance of “Serenade” in 1954, with Bernstein conducting. “Plato’s Symposium,” a philosophical treatise on love, inspired the concerto.

“The subject is love, and there is an incredible variety of emotions throughout the five movements,” Gluzman said. “Everyone will find something that relates to them personally. It’s all in the music.” He noted that Bernstein called “Serenade” his best serious work, and he said many experts on Bernstein agree.

“Leonard Bernstein and the San Francisco Symphony,” the exhibit now on display, explores Bernstein’s connections with the last four San Francisco Symphony music directors — Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt and Michael Tilson Thomas. The exhibit includes photographs, a video and memorabilia from Tilson Thomas.

The current San Francisco conductor met Bernstein in the late 1960s at Tanglewood Music Center, and they became friends shortly thereafter. The exhibit reveals that “their lives and careers dovetailed many times in the subsequent years, and they remained close friends until Bernstein’s death in 1990.”

Gluzman said he looks forward to working once again with conductor Boreyko. “We have had a long collaboration, working together all over Europe, and he is one of the best,” he said. Gluzman also has played with the San Francisco Symphony a number of times. “It’s an amazing collection of musicians, and it’s really inspiring to play with them,” he said. “Every time, it’s a very special moment.”

Bernstein at 100” with Vadim Gluzman, 8 p.m. Feb. 22-24 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.