San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster
Alexander Barantschik is an orchestras dream come true. In 2001 he became concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas and brings to this position a vast experience as orchestral player, performing artist and chamber musician. Barantschik began studies at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory where his exceptional talent quickly led to guest appearances with orchestras throughout Russia and Europe. After emigrating from Russia in 1979, he served as concertmaster of the London Symphony, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Bamberg Symphony.
Barantschik has collaborated with renown artists such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Pierre Boulez, Andre Previn, Maxim Vengerov, Yuri Bashmet and received first prize at the Russian National Violin Competition and International Violin Competition in Sion, Switzerland. He plays a variety of repertoire with the San Francisco Symphony, not only at Davies Symphony Hall but in world tours where he also appears as soloist in concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Walton, Prokofiev, Schnittke, among others. He is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Equally fascinating is Barantschik’s violin – a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu ex- Ferdinand David and Jascha Heifetz, on loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In fact, David, who was a concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, is likely to have premiered Mendelssohn’s violin concerto on this same instrument in 1845. Alexander Barantschik talks about teaching and performing with Editor Leonne Lewis.
Can you share any impressions of your studies at the historic St. Petersburg State Conservatory?
Both of my teachers at the Conservatory studied with former students of Leopold Auer. When I was a student there, my violin lessons were in the same room where the great professor Leopold Auer taught students such as Heifetz, Zimbalist, Elman, Milstein and many other great violinists. The spirit of Auer was there. That was the most special thing for me because I grew up with their recordings and had their sound in my ears.
Do you use a certain method in teaching your students?
I don’t have a special method of teaching because I believe that every student needs to have a different approach depending on their skills and temperament. I certainly pay a lot of attention to sound production and quality. Fingerings and bowings are also very individual. I encourage my students to figure out what works the best for them and then I make some suggestions. Speaking of a method, the French school, German school, Russian school – it’s all in the past. The world is smaller now, people migrate and then there is YouTube. The real talents always find their own voice.
How would you compare your current duties as concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony with former posts as concertmaster?
There is not much difference between leading the 1st violin section of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), but every orchestra has its own tradition of reacting slightly faster or slower to the conductor’s gestures. An important difference is the number of rehearsals for every program. The LSO plays two different programs every week and therefore rehearsal time is limited. The SFS usually plays one program a week so there are more rehearsal hours. I would say that the SFS’s repertoire is wider and the orchestra plays more new music, which leads us to the next question.
What are the challenges of playing a diverse orchestral repertoire?
One of the most characteristic qualities of the SFS is its ability to quickly change the sound within a concert, which allows the orchestra to put very different pieces together on one program. Michael Tilson Thomas is very creative in programming unusual and at the same time meaningful combinations of works, which gives the listener an opportunity to follow the development of music and the relationship between pieces that were written in different centuries.
Discuss your collaboration with Rostropovich, particularly with regard to the music of Shostakovich?
I had the privilege of playing chamber music with Mstislav Rostropovich and especially enjoyed playing Shostakovich string quartets with him. Shostakovich is never sentimental. His music can be very nostalgic but not sentimental. There is a lot of pain but he never gets hysterical. There is a great deal of stoicism in his music, and at the same time there are the most lyrical, touching, even heartbreaking moments in almost everything he wrote. These things are difficult to explain, but when I was making music with Rostropovich, we didn’t need to talk about it.
Is there a musical advantage to your playing on a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu?
I believe the real value of great instruments is that they inspire players to search for new colors and open new possibilities, also in terms of fingerings and bowings. Instruments don’t sound by themselves but they make you play better. When we listen to recordings of Heifetz, Menuhin or Perlman we don’t know which violin they are playing, but we recognize the artist’s sound. There is no such thing as a Mozart violin, Brahms violin or modern music violin. The player makes the same violin sound differently. It’s the same with bows. I don’t have a favorite bow, but it’s nice to have more than just one because they need to be rehaired.