Music at uOttawa: Catching up with Alisa Klebanov

Alisa Klebanov.

Alisa Klebanov started playing the violin at age three in Toronto. Her family had just arrived in Canada and her mother had seen an advertisment for a Suzuki method school.

“She wanted me to have a hobby,” Klebanov said.

Alisa was born in Israel to Russian parents. They had emigrated to go to  school and to get away from the Soviet Union. They met in Israel. Her father got a job in Canada and the rest is Klebanov family history.

After a year or so they moved to Ottawa where she stayed in Suzuki and studied with Rosemary Klimasko, the sister of NAC Orchestra violinist Elaine Klimasko, for the next 13 years. She also studied with Elaine.

Klebanov loves being a musician, especially now that she has her first contract job with the Calgary Philharmonic, which she got right out of school. But just before she went to university, she said, she had a moment of doubt.

“When it came time to decide what I wanted to do I was scared to do something so competitive. I knew I wanted to continue to do music but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. At that point I hadn’t played in an orchestra and I hadn’t been exposed to every single possibility.

“I actually applied to a social sciences program at a few universities just in case I changed my mind.”

But she stuck with it in the end and enrolled in the uOttawa School of Music.

She went to uOttawa because of Yehonatan Berick, who teaches violin at uOttawa.

“I am the musician I am today because of him. All of my teachers have helped to certain degree. If you are asking for one name there is no one I am more grateful for than Yehonatan.

“He taught me everything including how to let go of my worries. Once you do, you are able to express yourself. He changed a lot of my technique not through fear, but through logic and by accepting me for who I am as a musician and using that to my best advantage, instead of trying to imitate others.

“I think this was my biggest flaw coming to university. I kept trying to sound like other people.”

He taught her to trust herself.

They met in a master class Berick gave when Klebanov was in high school at Lisgar.

“I just knew right away I wanted to study with him.”

For about 2 1/2 years of her studies at uOttawa, Klebanov continued with the violin. Then she added an instrument.

Alisa needed to get a credit on her path to graduation and rather that take a theory class or some other “boring” course she enrolled in a course on the viola. It was an important decision.

Turns out, the viola fit her and she fit it. She started to get better and better on the instrument and she was encouraged by her teacher Michael van der Sloot to take it more seriously.

The university’s music school has arrangements with the Ottawa Symphony and with the NAC Orchestra.

Students get to play in the OSO if they get through the audition process and Klebanov made the grade, first on violin and then on viola.

“They needed me on viola so I played most of the (OSO) concerts on viola and in my fourth year (in 2018) I auditioned for principal viola and got the position.” She held that post for a year under Maestro Alain Trudel.

Meanwhile something similar had happened with NACO. She was one of a lucky few students to be asked to take part on the NAC’s Institute of Orchestra Studies. This happened in her third year at uOttawa. It lasted about seven weeks and that was the first time she played viola in an orchestra.

“It was probably the busiest time of my life so far. I was a full-time student and a full-time orchestra musician for seven weeks. I’m so glad I did that. I made so many connections and friends.

One of her mentors in NACO was violist David Thies-Thompson. He was her stand partner for those intense weeks and he helped with “auditions and everything.”

She also started auditioning for festivals and other events on viola and in 2018 was accepted into the Aspen Music Festival and School on a fellowship. That same May, she won the National Arts Centre Bursary Competition and the Sturdavent Prize for Orchestral Excerpts.

By then the viola had taken over.

“When I decided to start playing viola I hadn’t been exposed to very good violists. I knew lot of violinists. I wasn’t aware of the capabilities of the instrument.

“When I figured how to play it well, I fell in love with what it had to offer as an instrument. I liked the sound and the size of it and the tone. Everything just fit better for me. The violin was still good, but it was like I was fighting with the instrument.”

She doesn’t fight with the viola.

She even played a recital last year using both instruments to perform different sonatas.

She still plays violin but her job in Calgary has her focussed on viola. She says she intends to get back to the violin later this year.

It’s not unusual for musicians to play both. Berick does, for example, so does Pinchas Zukerman.

The instruments are different even though they appear similar, she said.

“You have to use different parts of the bow and what I use to get the biggest sound on viola is different from what I use on viola.

She says the viola’s sound is “darker, for sure, and warmer, powerful and serene. It’s very much like the human voice.”

She plays on a Canadian made viola by Charles Arsenault of Montreal. It is a a copy of an Amati viola.

She says she is also more confident on the viola. And then there is her practical side.

“There are so many amazing violinists everywhere and as I said earlier wasn’t exposed to good viola playing very often. When I started playing viola and started getting stuff out of it, I thought this was the smartest thing to do if going to stick with this career.”

It is somewhat easier to get a job in an orchestra as a violist. That matters as she has realized that that is what she wants to do with her life.

“After playing in NACO, I realized that I wanted to play in an orchestra professionally. I’ve subbed with a few orchestras on violin but when I played with NACO on the viola, I realized I liked sitting on that side of the stage. I liked how composers wrote for viola.”

Klebanov is also adventurous. She was part of a unique musical experiment by the OSO. She played an Octet by the Montreal composer Harry Stafylakis on instruments created on a 3d printer.

“That was fun. The composer wrote an incredible piece and the project was an  intriguing idea. People liked it.”

She played the cello part and fund it hard to get a sound out of the instrument. “Those (cello) strings don’t belong on the viola.”

She might not do something like that again, but on Oct. 25, she’ll be playing a concerto that has become part of her musical resume.

She’ll play the Bartok Viola Concerto with the uOttawa orchestra in St. Joseph’s Parish.

“It’s my favourite piece. I resonate very personally with that piece.”

She has studied it with van der Sloot, Berick, Thies-Thompson and at Aspen. She has played it for Jethro Marks the principal violist with NACO.

“I have played it for auditions and I have recorded it for other auditions. It has really grown with me. The second movement must be one of the most beautiful movements ever written.”

This week she’s missing a couple of concerts with the Calgary Phil including a pops evening playing with the movie Ghostbusters. But next week, once her concert in Ottawa is done, she’s back to work in Calgary.

uOttawa Orchestra with Alisa Klebanov
Where: St. Joseph’s Parish Church
When: Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: Voluntary contribution. 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.