Music and Beyond: Going ‘off-road’ with uOttawa’s Yehonatan Berick

Yehonatan Berick is seen here in a video playing Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

You might know Yehonatan Berick as an upstanding member of the club of classical violinists.

After all he is soloist, a chamber musician and teacher, these days, at uOttawa. In his repertoire are such pieces as Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Ysaÿe’s Six Solo Sonatas, along with complete Sonata cycles by Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann and Grieg. But he has a secret side. And that penchant to go “off-road” is on display in a concert on July 14 as part of the Music and Beyond festival.

Yehonatan Berick. Photo: Peter Smith

He explained:

“The premise of the concert is to step away away from the standard repertoire. It’s not crazy adventurous but the program includes Piazzolla‘s History of Tango.”

Then there are The Red Violin Caprices by John Corigliano.

“I view it a kind of movie score rather than classical piece.” Corigliano took the music and turned the score into caprices, a chaconne and The Red Violin Concerto.

The final piece is Claude Bolling’s Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano Trio, which is a score that is often used in connection with TV and radio programming.

Berick was first exposed to Bolling’s Suite for flute and jazz piano trio which was recorded by jean-Pierre Rampal. “Then I got to know the violin one and that one he did with Pinchas Zukerman. I kind of grew up with that music. When I was young it was not easy in Israel to find partners to do it.

“I got to do it once in Michigan with some colleagues and wanted to do it again and we did it this year with Frederic Lacroix on piano, John Geggie on bass and Jonathan Wade from the NAC Orchestra on drums. It was so much fun that we said we have to repeat this program.”

Turns out the uOttawa music faculty can turn out quite a band.

“I talked to Julian (Armour) and he was very happy to agree. This is the kind of program you have to do more than once.”

The Piazzolla will feature another uOttawa colleague, Louis Trepanier, from Canadian Guitar Quartet. The Red Violin Caprices are for solo violin.

Berick says the program on Sunday speaks to our times.

“It’s not the standard repertoire for a concert violinist, but nowadays, to be quite honest, musicians have to expand their horizons and their skills. We can’t only just play classical music. I never liked only classical.

“I’ll tell you a secret. My favourite instrument is the guitar. My dad had a guitar. He also played the violin. That’s probably why I am playing it today, but he also had a guitar, which he wouldn’t let me touch.”

No secret then that Berick was fascinated by that guitar.

“I find they are such a smart instrument. You can play classical music and melodies and you can just play chords. A  guitar alone, it’s the base of the rhythm section. I love the sound. I can listen to the guitar ad nauseam and I never get to ad nauseam.”

But he doesn’t play the guitar in a concert setting. That’s for the violin.

“The guitar is for me. I can sing with the violin. I can express myself with it.”

Berick started violin at age six. When he was nine, “there was a TV show in Israel teaching kids how to play the guitar and because of that show, one day I went into my father’s room, opened the wardrobe where guitar was sitting on its side and I appropriated it.

I basically taught myself. When my parents saw me doing it they gave me two pages from a book.” And the rest is history on a string.

At this point, Berick admits to another secret passion.

“I have to be honest, the music that I listen to most of the time is Israeli pop. I have an iPod in my car with thousands of songs on it. It’s on shuffle and that’s what I listen to.

“Israeli pop music is quite complex actually. It has jazz influences; it has the tonality of the French chanson in there. It is really strong tonal work. These are songs that everybody knows in Israel. It’s not a niche. And it’s so much fun to listen to.”

So, with these private interests, perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s breaking the mould (or at least cracking it a bit) of a standard classical recital with this program.

“This concert kind of lets me do a bit of the other thing. There is a guitar. There is a jazz piano trio. It opens the door.”

The door is opening, too, in music schools where jazz and classical and other forms intermingle.

Berick’s all in favour of that.

“For me one of the most important aspects of music is harmony and tonality. I took theory lessons from age 12. I was very lucky to study with a teacher who managed to explain to me how theory is useful for a performer.”

Performers usually hate theory, he says.

For his students, “I try to explain all aspects — ear training, theory, history — and how they serve the interpretation of a piece of music. I hope they learn to make a decision on how to perform something based on that knowledge. When the student realizes that it’s a really good moment.”

Berick left Israel at age 22 in 1990 after completing his mandatory army service. He was headed to North America. He landed at the University of Cincinnati because he wanted to study with the late Henry Meyer, the second violinist of the legendary LaSalle Quartet.

“Henry was in Israel and did a master class. I played Mozart for him and he spoke my language about harmony and theory and not technique. I had this lesson with him and thought ‘This is it.’

“Henry was a defining force in who I became as a musician. He was an Auschwitz survivor. In the 50th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995 almost every newspaper showed a picture of an older gentleman playing a violin (at Yad Vashem) in front of one of those train cars. That was Henry.

“He managed to survive Auschwitz. He escaped and joined the partisans. After the war, Isaac Stern helped him to study in Paris and then brought him to the U.S.”

From Meyer, Berick learned the importance of teaching in a positive atmosphere. His teacher in Israel was a good teacher but the teaching style was more stick than carrot.

“I don’t think I responded to that in the best way. It was a struggle. I achieved things but it was trouble.”

“With Henry, I was initially suspicious but I got used (to the positivity) and understood that you don’t have to make people feel bad in order to get them to improve. You do have to face them with reality.

“For me this teaching method works much better. The students make breakthroughs and the atmosphere in the studio is great.”

He has carried that message through nine years of teaching at McGill, 11 more at the University of Michigan and now six years at uOttawa.

Over time, he has also learned that students need a challenge to grow.

“I realized that I needed to offer a challenge to students, something harder than what they think they can do and also to let them play pieces that they feel strongly about because that is a great motivation.

“When you love something, you don’t feel you are working hard for it.”

Lessons learned.

Music and Beyond presents The Unchained Violin
With Yehonatan Berick
Where: First Baptist Church
When: July 14 at 5 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.