So the New York Philharmonic visits North Korea, and, in addition to leading his orchestra’s dramatic Pyongyang performance, conductor Lorin Maazel rehearses North Korea’s State Symphony. This, without a common language, other than music. The concertmaster of the Korean orchestra is the key to the undertaking. Maazel points to spots in the music and the concertmaster, whom he has not met before the Korean trip, tells the orchestra, in Korean, where to play. He also tells the ensemble how to play by singing staccato, or expressively, or decisively, conveying what Maazel calls for. It works surprisingly well.
The role of concertmaster as intermediary applies not only in newly-met musical collaborators with language problems, but in smooth-working long-term relationships, such as that of Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who joined the orchestra in 2001. Michael Tilson Thomas, also known as MTT, and Barantschik met in London when MTT was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. They recognized their musical compatibility at once. Eventually, Barantschik, cradled in a successful career in Europe, succumbed to MTT’s invitation to join the SFS as concertmaster.
The SFS performs in New Brunswick’s State Theater on Thursday, March 13, with MTT on the podium and Barantschik in the first chair among the first violins. The program consists of SFS staples: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. Coming on the heels of two Carnegie Hall appearances, the New Brunswick concert repeats the Beethoven, presented on Tuesday, March 11, and the Shostakovich presented on Wednesday, March 12, in New York.
In a telephone interview from San Francisco Barantschik lauds MTT’s exceptional ability to find novelty in frequently performed pieces. "He’s constantly experimenting," Barantschik says. "When he gives a piece another go, he takes us on a journey. There are always new discoveries."
Asked about the thinking behind programming Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ("The Eroica") and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 for New Brunswick, Barantschik responds at first with a practical reason, rather than a musical one. "They’re both featured in the `Keeping Score’ project," he says. "Keeping Score" is an extravaganza materializing from the coexistence of symphonic music, multimedia, and the web. A multi-pronged multi-year project instigated by MTT and produced by the San Francisco Symphony, it made its debut in 2006. It includes telecasts on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS); DVDs based on the telecasts; an interactive website, www.keepingscore.org,; and an eight-part American Public Media radio series called "The MTT Files." Princeton composer Steven Mackey is a guest on program number one of "The MTT Files," entitled "You Call That Music?" which includes excerpts from Princeton composer Paul Lansky’s "Night Traffic."
DVD versions of Keeping Score’s PBS shows presently available are devoted to Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Igor Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring," and Aaron Copland’s music. Episodes on Hector Berlioz, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Charles Ives are planned for 2009.
"`Keeping Score’ is revolutionary," concertmaster Barantschik says, "not only because of the performance, but also because of its deep explanation, its research, and the use of new media." Enjoying the DVDs on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, I was struck not so much by their revolutionary qualities, as by the fact that they seemed exactly right, revealing musical preparation and the approaches of particular instrumentalists, along with performances of complete works.
Moving onto other justifications for the New Brunswick programming, Barantschik says, "There’s good reason to bring both pieces in the same program." They are among MTT’s favorites, pieces that he has performed multiple times. Then, both pieces are political.
Barantschik cites Beethoven’s original intention to dedicate his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon, who had presented himself as a champion of the French revolution, and his decision to make a political point by changing the dedication when Napoleon disappointed him by declaring himself emperor.
The politics of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 bring Barantschik, born in 1953, back to his own early days in the Soviet Union. He calls Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, composed in 1945, "his most sarcastic and ironic symphony." The political point was not overt. "When Shostakovich wrote it, the Ninth Symphony was somewhat a puzzle," Barantschik says. "People were not ready to understand the message. With Shostakovich there’s always something hidden in his pieces because of the politics.
"Shostakovich was crazy about soccer, or football, as we called it. It was the only activity where Soviet citizens had a choice; they could decide which team to support. Many matches starting with a little march called a `Football March.’ I see some hints of this in the first movement, where there’s a simple tune in a very important symphony. When I was young many people accepted this music as innocent, reflecting competitive sports. But the fourth movement is largo, and has a bassoon solo that’s one of the longest solos in the world dedicated to one instrument. It sounds like a monologue by a bitter and tired person.
"In the fifth movement," Barantschik continues, "the piece comes back to a surface polka. The symphony starts and ends with light music. It goes from football march to polka. But the polka is a bitter dance. It’s not a happy ending. It’s as if people under Stalin were forced to dance. Things like that become clear after years of absorbing Shostakovich. I discover things I couldn’t understand when I was 25. The piece was written for the future. It’s political comment, I’m absolutely sure."
As concertmaster, only part of Barantschik’s work is visible to the audience. "What the audience can tell is that the concertmaster comes on stage and tunes the orchestra," he says. "They also notice that he plays solos.
"Behind the curtain, I prepare the string parts for every program," he says, "putting in bowings, phrasings, new tempo markings, and the wishes of the conductor. I meet with the principals of other sections to discuss things. We continue our discussions at rehearsal. The rehearsal is not just to play a piece through and make corrections. It’s always interesting to find new ways to play a piece. Research never stops. That’s true for any good orchestra."
Barantschik says he sees himself as "a bridge between different orchestral sections and my section, and between orchestra and conductor. I field questions for the conductor; he can’t react to all of them. The job asks for diplomacy. You deal with different characters, backgrounds, and temperaments.
"In performance, for instance, I feel in touch with the bassoon," Barantschik says, "He can see me. He knows what’s going on from my body language. I absorb the conductor’s demands and gestures, trying to translate them into my own body language."
As concertmaster, Barantschik is sometimes called on to play as a soloist in concertos with the SFS. "Every time I have to stand up and perform as a soloist with the orchestra, it’s a challenge," he says. "It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve played the piece before, it never takes care of itself. The most nerve-wracking thing is to play with your own orchestra. Suddenly, you see your orchestra from a different perspective. I’m more relaxed with other groups."
A relaxed encounter was the beginning of the special relationship between Barantschik and MTT. "He had just been appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony orchestra, and I was invited to record Richard Strauss’s `Heldenleben,’ which has a great violin solo," Barantschik says. "There was almost no time to discuss how to do the piece. The recording, which is one of my favorites, was spontaneous and intuitive. From then on our musical relationship was very close. We share so many musical ideas: Every piece should contain a personal view of the world, of history, and of traditions in music. We understand each other."
Barantschik was born in St. Petersburg to a non-musical family. "When I was six, my mom decided that I was not busy enough. There was a music school across street, and I could get there on my own. I started on accordion because there was space in the accordion class. After six or 12 months there was an opening in the violin class, and I switched."
After six years at a special school for musically talented children, Barantschik attended the Moscow Conservatory. At 20 he became a member of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Believing that staying there would limit his musical and personal development, he left the Soviet Union for the west in 1979, when emigration procedures relaxed just before Moscow’s 1980 Olympic Games.
"When I applied to emigrate, I was stripped of my Russian citizenship," Barantschik says. "I was also stripped of my Austrian violin; I was young and adventurous and believed in myself so I bought a violin at a department store in Leningrad. It was made in a furniture factory. It sounded like a chair and looked like one, too." Auditioning on his second-rate instrument, Barantschik became concertmaster of the Bamberg, Germany, orchestra in 1980. In 1982, he became concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra; in 1989 he became concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Concertmaster of the SFS since 2001, Barantschik lives in San Mateo, California, just south of San Francisco, with his wife Alona, a violinist, and their 10-year old son, Benjamin. He has the exclusive use of the 1732 Guarnerius del Gesu violin, which Jascha Heifetz bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Virtuoso Ferdinand David played the world premiere of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the instrument in 1845.
An adoptive Californian, who enjoys skiing and biking, Barantschik cements the Californian leadership of the SFS by joining California native, artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT was born in 1944 in Los Angeles and studied at the University of Southern California. He made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969 at age 24, stepping in for William Steinberg in mid-concert when he became ill.
Barantschik says he is looking forward to the upcoming mini-tour. "I think it’s very important to show east coast audiences that besides its climate and nature San Francisco has a fine orchestra to offer."
San Francisco Symphony, Thursday, March 13, 8 p.m. State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas includes works of Shostakovich and Beethoven. $75 to $90. 732-246-7469.