National Arts Centre: Making musical connections with violinist Guy Braunstein

Guy Braunstein

The first time Guy Braunstein heard Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, he was a 16-year old living near Tel Aviv.

The young man was a budding star of the violin at the time and he had found a recording of the work among his parents’ record collection. The album featured David Oistrakh, as the soloist with the New York Philharmonic conducted by the legendary Dimitri Mitropoulos. Oistrakh was the violinist to whom the work was dedicated.

Braunstein will play the piece in Ottawa this week at the National Arts Centre. But the memory of that first listen is still fresh.

“This 40 minutes changed my life forever. It’s so powerful. It doesn’t leave anybody’s state of mind as it was before.”

The piece was written in the years just after the Second World War and it’s full of the horrors of that time in the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin.

“You hear the most beautiful moments and some of the scariest moments in the violin literature. The devil is all over the place in this piece.”

When it was written, in 1947-48, Shostakovich had been denounced and was out of favour with the regime. As a result it was not played in public until 1955.

“I come back to the piece time after time. Every time before I play it, and I have played it maybe 100 times, I take the score and try to find something new. Sometimes I’m lucky and sometimes I think I can’t find anything new. And then it comes to me during the performance. It could be a provocation from the English horn or the clarinet. They might play their part differently and then I’m in unfamiliar territory. This is what makes life interesting.”

Braunstein has always craved an interesting musical life.

He started studying music in Israel under the tutelage of a legendary teacher Haim Taub. That put him in contact with the man who will be conducting him this week, principal guest conductor of the NAC Orchestra John Storgårds.

“We met as teenagers. Every summer we would study and play chamber music together.

“He has conducted me in numerous violin concertos in different countries. And every now and then he pulls out his violin and we play together. It’s always a special moment.

He says he has an instant understanding when he is being conducted by Storgårds, in part because of Haim Taub’s influence.

Braunstein has even been to Lapland to perform and conduct the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, where Storgårds is the music director, which is located near the Arctic Circle in the town of Rovaniemi, Finland.

“It’s a wonderful group of people. You are in the middle of a northern landscape. All you look for are bears, elks, reindeers and the Northern Lights.”

In proof that the music world is truly a small one there is another connection to NACO for Braunstein.

Another of his teachers is the former NACO music director Pinchas Zukerman.

They met while Braunstein was serving his compulsory military service in Israel. He played for Zukerman and, in a typical gesture, Zukerman urged Braunstein to come to new York to study with him at the Manhattan School of Music.

“He said, ‘When you have finished, come to America and we’ll get some work done. And that’s exactly what I did. … I am very thankful for that opportunity.”

After finishing his studies, Braunstein began his career eventually landing a prestigious job as the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, where he stayed for about 13 years. He eventually left that post to pursue a solo career and work as a conductor.

Braunstein credits Zukerman with “defining the level that I was looking for as a performer and how to get there. I never had this thing burning so much in me the definition of what I am going to be. I wanted to do all kinds of different things … play chamber music, lead an orchestra, be a soloist. I just wanted to do it in a higher level. I think the time with him helped me to pursue this ambition.”

That ambition now takes Braunstein everywhere. For example, he was in Norway conducting when this interview was done.

He lives in Berlin these days where his son is in school and he has a collection of good friends. The German capital is also a central location from which he can easily travel across Europe where most of his work is done.

“I love the city. There is a wonderful legacy of culture right now, more than in any other city in the world with the exception of London. You can hear lots of everything.”

Because he is in such demand in Europe, he doesn’t get to North American often. he hasn’t been in Ottawa for many years, he says, making the performances this week a rare opportunity for music lovers.

“Most of the time I’m travelling like a maniac around Europe.”

Storgårds conducts Rachmaninoff
NAC Orchestra; soloist Guy Braunstein
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 17 and 18 at 8 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.