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From Saint Petersburg to San Francisco: a musical journey of Alexander Barantschik

Photo credit: Kristen Loken

Born in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), Alexander Barantschik has graduated from St Petersburg Conservatory and has worked with St Petersburg Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky. After moving abroad in 1979, he worked as a concertmaster of Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra (1989-2001) and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (1982-2001). He has collaborated with Mstislav Rostropovich in chamber music projects, and was a concertmaster for Pierre Boulez's year-long 75th Birthday Celebration. Alexander joined San Francisco Symphony in 2001 after a special invitation from its Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas. Apart from leading the SFS, Barantschik has appeared as a soloist with the Orchestra in multiple programmes during the last two decades.

On 7-9 November 2019 Alexander Barantschik will be playing J.S.Bach's Violin Concerto 1 with the San Francisco Symphony and its guest conductor Ton Koompan.

In this interview Alexander shares pivotal moments of his life, including starting to learn to play violin, leaving the Soviet Union and working in Europe, friendship with Valery Gergiev, moving to the US. Barantschik also gives insights into his concertmaster work and long-term collaboration with the Music Director of the SFS Michael Tilson Thomas. He also envisions the future of the orchestra with its Music Director Designate, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Alexander, I know that you are from Saint Petersburg and are a graduate of Rimsky Korsakov Conservatory, having played with St Petersburg Philharmonic for 5 years afterwards. Could you describe your background – why did you decide to become a violinist, how did your first years as a young musician in the Soviet Union go?

There were no musicians in my family. I just happened to live in the area where both the 10-year specialist music school and Conservatory were situated – they were in 5 min walking distance from my place. My mother decided that rather than let me run the streets, she preferred to keep me busy, so when I was six she took me to a violin teacher to the music school which was just across the street, so I could walk there myself. I started my music education playing accordeon, as the only instrumental spaces available in the school were in the accordeon class. Then next year when a vacancy opened in a violin class, they took me there. Initially I was not too attracted to playing violin, but then by the age of 12-13 I started enjoying it more, and then I began to take it seriously. Afterwards I entered the Conservatory. After graduation everyone’s dream was to join Philharmonic Orchestra under Evgeny Mravinsky, and that was my dream, too. And when I was in the third year of my studies at Conservatory, I auditioned and got the job, and was the happiest person on earth. I played there for the next five years, and it was really amazing. I then left Russia in 1979 to develop my career internationally, and since then I have lived in Germany, Netherlands, London and now San Francisco. My friends joke that if I keep moving West like this, my next job would be in Hawaii (laughs). May be it could be a good plan for my retirement. I am not sure I will find the equivalent of my position at San Francisco Symphony in the West – so now I am at my utmost possible Western destination (laughs). Next step is actually Far East – as our Earth is round.

You mention that in your youth you were influenced by Yasha Heifetz and that at some point you actually happened to study in the room he earlier occupied... Can you describe what impact did this figure have on your life?

It is absolutely true.I studied in the class of Mikhail Vaiman at St Petersburg Conservatory – a very prominent violin teacher. It was in the room 25 where Leopold Auer had been teaching his class, and Heifetz had been among his students and getting his lessons there. For me Heifetz without doubt is a violinist number 1 – in many aspects. I think he is a real Violinist violinst. There are and were many phenomenal players, but after you listen to his recording, you immediately realize that he is still the greatest. And back the character of his sound was something that ideally I would have liked to have. I wanted to be near his level in phrasing, in everything. I don’t mean copying, but his playing is something that I am inspired by even today.

I am very proud to know that you represent St Petersburg (Leningrad) Conservatory in such a distant (from St Petersburg) city as San Francisco. Do you think that there is a special school of St Petersburg Conservatory or of Russian violin playing that you have been representing since your youth?

If you compare the world today and the one 35-40 years ago, they are very different. The world has become smaller, and people are travelling much easier than before. Back then I would say that even Leningrad and Moscow violin schools were different. It was very clear how different students were playing, and there were different goals, different technique and different sound. Now somebody from St Petersburg could be teaching in Munich and the students would come from all over the world. So now you don’t distinguish a Russian school from the French or American or German like it used to be before. Violin playing has been increasingly international nowadays. Most of my students here in– as I also teach in San Francisco conservatory – are from China and Korea. And when they are studying with me, I don’t feel like I am passing the knowledge of a certain Russian school to them. I left Russia when I was quite young, and I had benefited from working with a large number of great musicians from over the world, and that enriches and globalizes one’s understanding of music. It is not like: «If you are from Russia, you can only play Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev». It doesn’t matter anymore where are you from.

Do you think that music is the only field of human activity which is so international? Usually the language is a barrier between nations, so it seems music is in a privileged position here.

Yes, musical language is a special one, and it is definitely different from that of literature. Even in dance there is probably more national traditions – say, in ballet – than in music. It is most abstract thing, it is mostly in our imagination. It is just the sound, and we envision different things in our brain. When is convincing, you don’t need translation, obviously.

You have mentioned the year 1979 as the moment when you left Soviet Union. Was it easy for a Soviet musician to move abroad? How difficult was this for you?

I didn’t have many problems with that, as I didn’t possess any state secrets (laughs), I wasn’t a dissident or an important political figure. That didn’t involve any fight or struggle. I just wanted to expand my horizons, and to hear many international musicians perform live. They wouldn’t necessarily come to the Soviet Union. I wanted to see the world’s famous orchestras and great conductors. It became obvious to me than the world is actually bigger than one city in the Soviet Union. Your generation knows about that time from reading about it, but it is already hard to imagine, right? People were not able to travel anywhere.

Yes, exactly, that’s why I am even more impressed to hear that as early as late 1970s you were able to move abroad without any issues and become the concertmaster of Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and then the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

I didn’t have great expectations straight away after moving abroad. I also didn’t have a good violin – I couldn’t bring mine over the border, as it was not allowed. It wasn’t a special instrument, but it was still prohibited to take any relatively old instruments out of the country. And so I bought my violin in the DLT, the central department store in Leningrad (laughs). It was a very cheap instrument made at a furniture factory, so you can imagine how fantastic its sound was... I auditioned with it in Bamberg, Germany, as it was the first orchestra to send me an invitation. That was for a job in the first violins section. The committee then came up to me and said: «Next week we also have auditions for a position of a concertmaster, would you like to try?» I was young and silly, and so I said why not without knowing much about what the job of a concertmaster actually involves, and how difficult and demanding it is. They said: «Can we have a look at your violin?» They had never seen anything like that, for sure. The instrument for making it was probably the axe [topor] (laughs) – unfortunately I’ve lost it, it could have become a historic artefact now. Anyway, so in the end I got that position and was the youngest member of the orchestra. Being the concertmaster of one of the prominent German orchestra was the time to learn many things quickly. Firstly, I didn’t speak a word of German. I had to learn how to live in a completely new society. I had lived in St Petersburg, a big city in the Soviet Union with huge cultural traditions, museums, etc. And now I was living in a very small town in Bavaria, Germany – a completely different world. Learning these things wasn’t easy, many aspects were difficult not just to understand, but to accept, as well. However, the young age helps. So when the orchestra got a new manager, she approached me – I spoke a little bit of English, but not much – and she said «OK, dear friend, how much time do you think you need to learn German?» And I said «Well, may be a year, may be two...» And she replied: «I give you two months!» I was still on probation without a permanent contract yet, as during the first year they check how you function. So I realized that if I don’t speak German soon, may be they will not be that interested in my services (laughs). So it was very intense – difficult, but very exciting.

Photo credit: Stefan Cohen

You actually stayed in this position of concertmaster in your next orchestras, too. Can you describe what the job of a concertmaster involves? What are these most challenging and most enjoyable sides? How do you serve as a medium between the conductor and the orchestra?

Some tasks of this position are obvious to listeners who come to the concerts. They see a concertmaster coming on stage, taking a bow and then tuning the orchestra. Concertmasters also play solo parts – bigger or smaller – but people usually get the chance to hear them individually, also. These things are obvious to everone, but there are also hidden things. The concertmaster’s role is being a bridge between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra, and also between the conductor and the principals of each strings section, and even between the conductor and wind or brass sections – depending on the score. You never do things the same way. Everything changes very quickly, and it depends on who is conducting and what is the piece. But what varies from orchestra to orchestra is a response to conductor’s gesture, as this is where the sound actually starts, and it is immensely important, as there are one hundred people who need to start playing together (laughs). The difference is in time of response. When I compare Bamberg Symphoniker Orchestra with London Symphony, LSO is the most direct group of musicians. Sometimes I even felt they were eager to play before the conductor (laughs). If you compare orchestras with cars, the German orchestra was an old Mercedes with a pedal that starts moving only after 3 seconds when you press it, and the LSO was something like an Aston Martin – a wild horse that sometimes was not patient enough to wait for a command. So you need to be very sensitive to these differences. There are many other things, as well – preparing the parts, arranging the bowings. Sometimes you have to discuss things with the conductor who in America can also be the Music Director of the Orchestra, and you also have to discuss things with your colleagues – character of sound, placement of the bow, which part of the bow to play, the fingerings, etc. It is endless. You adapt and begin to understand things in the process, you have to react and address the problem, and to solve them as they are coming – ensemble issues, learning to play together, playing in tune, dynamics, the balance between your section and others. I can talk about it forever.

As a concertmaster, do you have a special position among musicians of the orchestra, or are you an equal amongst equals?

It is a difficult one to answer – you have to be flexible. In a Mozart or Beethoven symphony there is nothing special for a concertmaster in terms of playing solo. You have to be a part of the section, you cannot be out of balance in terms of your sound. You are an equal part, and not more – there is some body language which is needed from you as a leader, but in terms of playing louder and in a more expressive way than others would not be a good idea. But then when you have to be a soloist in a certain piece, then in no time you have to switch from the sound everyone else is making to a solo sound so that people can actually hear you – you don’t necessarily have to be much louder, but you have to be much more expressive. There are different techniques to actually make your solo eloquent and expressive. Many pieces are written in the way that suddenly you are in the spotlight, and then you are back to everyone else’s music making, and that could happen several times. It requires a lot of experience. One can be a very advanced player, but still can’t become a great concertmaster overnight. It takes time and it is all about experience, learning which lasts forever. I am still learning – and it is fun.

Can you describe your London years? Were you part of Gergiev years with the LSO or not?

Gergiev and me were very good friends at the Conservatory, we were in the same year and became quite close and were listening to many recordings together. When I got the job at the Philharmonic Orchestra, he would come to the concerts and we would discuss how Mravinsky conducted this or that symphony, and he was very curious about his way of rehearsing. I actually played with him a few times in my years in Netherlands, but I left the LSO a year before he came to work with them as a Principal Conductor. So no, I never worked with him in LSO, but we still see each other, and I saw him recently when he visited San Francisco with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra – they were playing two concerts, and we always get together when he comes. Recent;y I was invited by Valery to take part in the jury of the latest Tchaikovsky Competition, but I couldn’t make free time from my work. However, several of the people I know were there.

So could you describe your years with the LSO?

I started there at the same year as Michael Tilson Thomas. So when they called me – it was a pure coincidence, I never actually planned to have a job with LSO and never auditioned for them. They didn’t have a concertmaster for quite a few years. My predecessor had left and they couldn’t find anybody. So there was a tour to Spain for which they didn’t have anybody, and one one of the pieces on the programme was The Life of a Hero [Ein Heldenleben] by Richard Strauss, which has one of the most prominent violin solos. So just a couple of weeks before I happened to the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a conductor who was going on this tour to Spain with LSO. So this conductor, Walter Weller from Vienna, recommended me. So I came to London without knowing much about them, went on tour with them, played Ein Heldenleben, but then the soloist for the Violin Concerto got ill and they also asked me to play the same Concerto with 12 hours notice, so I played it again. After that – probably liking how I did it – they offered me the job. I was totally taken by surprise, took it, and stayed there for 17 years. And then Michael left the position of Principal Conductor. The difference between British and American orchestras is in the titles – here, in the USA, it is Music Director and concertmaster, in Britain it is Principal Conductor and leader (laughs). Colin Davies, a wonderful musician and person, became the Principal Conductor – and I played with him until I got the invitation from San Francisco in 2000. And being may be just a little too adventurous, I thought – may be it is a good time to try something else. Also because after working with MTT (that’s how everybody calls Michael) – in the beginning we actually also recorded things still not knowing each other very well, and recorded things without many rehearsals, and it became obvious that we understand each other very well musically – so in the end he really wanted me to follow him to San Francisco. After spending most of my life in Europe, I thought it was a good opportunity to learn something different and get a new experience, and so in 2001 I became a concertmaster here, at San Francisco Symphony.

Could you describe what the differences are between how an American and a European symphonic orchestra functions?

You know, there is not much different musically. As I said before, every orchestra has different traditions and a style of response to the conductor, and individual players have some influence on the orchestra, but every orchestra, I believe, has ups and downs, and its development depends on the age of players, demographics, possible passing through the transition period when the players from the old generation have retired and many young players are coming, so then the style changes. Or if a new Music Director starts building new musical relationships, things change. The life of an orchestra is constantly in some flux. But I don’t think there is much difference between American and European ones – as we were talking before, the language of music is international. There are differences in terms of auditioning and hiring new musicians, and as a concertmaster I am always involved in this process. Administrative functioning can be also different. I would say that I am busier here than I have ever been, because I am also a member of different Committees of the orchestra, and have to oversee other processes that I was not involved in when working in Europe. So the rules of the game are slightly different, but not when it comes to music making. It is still the same violin with four strings, and you have 16 or 18 different people behind you in the section, and you have to deal with it.

Photo credit: Stefan Cohen

Having worked with MTT both in LSO and in San Francisco Symphony (SFS), you are a probably a rare person to know him inside out. Could you describe him as a conductor and as a person? What are main characteristics of his Music Directorship?

MTT played a huge role to make SFS more recognized internationally than it was before he came. SFS was always one of the most prominent orchestras in the USA, but not as well known internationally. Michael made the orchestra more famous, and not only because of the extensive touring, although it was part of it. His quest for innovations and many unusual and new ideas were the crux of the matter. For instance, he is very much into television and the visual arts, and documentaries, and the combination of classical music and different forms of art. So that was and still is very innovative. So there is a documentary «Keeping score» where he lectures about his beloved composers some of whom he knew personally – Copland, Stravinsky, Ives. It became extremely popular on TV, and I know that many people who had never come to a classical concert, watched it and enjoyed it – I know it first hand. Then there were thematic festivals. He is also a composer and an incredibly skilled communicator. He is probably the only conductor in the world who talks extensively before each concert. At some point Leonard Bernstein was giving educative lectures for young people and illustrating them with music – Michael was in his element doing these things, too – playing piano, talking, conducting and entertaining. So all that helped the orchestra to get to the forefront of American classical music, which was very fortunate for the orchestra. He has been doing it for the last 25 years, which is a very long time nowadays.

Has MTT been promoting modern music? Has he been commissioning work from composers?

Yes, very much so. He himself is a very good composer, and we played a number of his pieces. In my view, he is also one of the best interpreters of modern music – I am not talking of the 20th century here, but about the 21st. He always knows very well what is going on, and he has commissioned a number of works from new composers. He has a very close relationship with John Adams, and during the next season (in spring 2020) the Symphony goes on European tour with MTT, it will be his last tour with the Orchestra before he steps down as a Music Director of the SFS and the job is taken by Esa-Pekka Salonen. So it will be two Mahler symphonies, The Firebird by Stravinsky, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto and a new piece by John Adams. It says a lot about how much he cares about John’s work. The tour starts in New York and then we go through the whole Europe and spend three weeks there. It is very significant choice: Mahler is one of the composers he is very attached to, and has incredible understanding and feeling for Mahler’s music. But to commission a piece of this tour from John Adams – that tells you how much he is into new music and how much he appreciates modern composers.

Photo credit: Bill Swerbenski

Can I ask if there has been a competition between SFS and Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil)? Or do they have their own niches?

(Laughs) I don’t think there is competition between LA and San Francisco. The cities and orchestras are not too far from each other, but they have their own audiences – LA is a big city, San Francisco is much smaller, but Bay Area is about the same size as LA. So no, I don’t think so. Now we will certainly have more connection with LA Phil, as their former Music Director will become our MD!

Yes, and probably there was a connection back in the years when Esa-Pekka was still the head of LA Philharmonic and Michael became the head of the SFS?

Oh, yes, I have known Esa-Pekka for many years – he conducted here regularly even while being with LA Phil. They know each other from early years of Esa-Pekka’s career – he is younger than MTT, of course, but they have a long-lasting relationship.

So I guess it is a good time to ask about the future. How do you envision the SFS era under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s leadership? What do you think his Musical Directorship would be like and what do SFS musicians expect of working with him?

I think the orchestra is very happy, and very fortunate to have Esa-Pekka as its next Music Director. Being a conductor is probably one the most mystical professions – it is very hard to explain why sometimes there is a good chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra, or why at other times even between with a very professional person it is just not working right. In the case of Esa-Pekka Salonen, it has always been mutual admiration between him and the orchestra when he came as a guest conductor. Knowing him from quite a few years before this appointment, it is not that the orchestra is guessing what working with him will be like. We know how it will be. Everyone is very excited. There are some similarities between him and MTT – they are both composers. Before we go on tour in March with MTT, Esa-Pekka is coming for two weeks to conduct the Orchestra – it is a coincidence, but a very significant one. We will be playing Salonen’s music, and there would be Ravel and Stravinsky, and then there would be Mahler with MTT, so these consecutive five weeks will be the highlight of the season. So MTT is leaving a lot of legacy in terms of producing a certain sound, and in how the orchestra plays the music that is most dear to MTT’s heart. For instance, the Orchestra played Mahler only with MTT. I think that Esa-Pekka will definitely bring his vision and it will be different, but it won’t be demolishing things that existed before, not starting from scratch. I think Esa-Pekka likes what we are doing, and it will be an incredible experience to hear familiar things from a different perspective and make them sound anew. There is no ideal interpretation, different musicians like having different points of view, and it makes our profession exciting.

Photo credit:Andrew Eccles

What do you think of Esa-Pekka’s idea of a collaboration with eight newly appointed advisers? He seems to envision connecting the tech side of San Francisco city with the life of the orchestra.

I don’t know much about it yet, nobody does, except himself, may be. We will see what it will be like. I know that he is a big fan of modern technology, but so is MTT. It is a very good thing, as we can’t isolate ourselves from the ever-changing world, and nobody wants to become a bunch of museum exhibits, playing in tails and having the same structure of concerts with an ouverture, a concerto and a symphony. Just doing that and nothing else would probably endanger the development of musical world. We are part of this world, and if things are done in the right balance, music will benefit from all the media and technology that we have available now and already use in San Francisco. For instance, people in India can now watch us live and even participate in Q&A sessions after the performance – that is really incredible.

Is the city reacting in a certain way? The Silicon Valley guys – are they expecting something from a new Music Director of the SFS?

I think that he is very popular in the Silicon Valley. I remember him doing a commercial – using an IPad when composing a piece. I think we will have some new members in the audience when he starts conducting. He is a very appealing figure in the world of techies.

These new developments require the observation and analysis of an anthropologist writing about music like myself, as new connections between music, technology and the world outside both these areas would be formed in the future years.

Yes, we are looking forward to having you here, the exciting times for a researcher are coming. It is wonderful that you apply your knowledge to the world of classical music.

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