Monday, January 27, 2020

Nearly 30 years after winning the Gold Medal, Pavel Berman returns to Indianapolis for only the second time

Having just turned 50, Pavel Berman has firm plans for the next phase of his career. In a brief, rare visit to the United States, the gold medalist of the 1990 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis is back in town under IVCI auspices to appear in its Laureate Series Tuesday night at the Glick Indiana History Center.

Consistent with his wish to put the violin at the center of his activities and to explore a variety of music for this instrument in combination with others,  the violinist has established the Pavel Berman Ensemble near his home in Italy, where he's lived for many years. From that base, the ensemble will undertake short European tours.

Pavel Berman has focused on teaching as well as performing over the past 30 years.
"We will play pieces like Tchaikovsky 'Souvenir de Florence,' a Brahms sextet, Schoenberg's 'Verklaerte Nacht,' and also baroque concertos," he said, adding that the programs will feature him as soloist in virtuoso pieces, like the Sarasate "Carmen Fantasy" included in Tuesday's program.

The IVCI Laureate Series concert here will have that sort of variety. He's working again (as he did in his last Indianapolis appearance nearly 18 years ago) with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble. With that venerable group, he will play Grand Septet in B-flat major by the Swedish composer Franz Berwald and, with co-founder David Bellman and pianist Chih-Yi Chen, Gian-Carlo Menotti's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. With Chen he will perform a staple of the violin repertoire, Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major.

For nearly a decade at the turn of the century, he focused on conducting, chiefly with an orchestra he founded in Lithuania. He appeared as a guest conductor elsewhere, too, but eventually decided to bring his concentration to bear mainly on the violin, his first musical love since early childhood. "I was glad to pick up that experience," he said about conducting during a rehearsal break at the history center, "but I decided I wouldn't be able to pursue the violin the way I wanted to unless I put conducting aside."

His decision to focus on his own playing plus teaching became recently unmistakable with the publication of instructional and performing videos on the the Caprices of Nicolo Paganini. Those 24 virtuoso works are known to every advancing violinist, and have long been a staple of the required IVCI repertoire. On his web site, Berman performs many of them accompanied by a string orchestra.

He is active now in northern Italy, living in Milan and teaching in Lugano. He teaches advanced students there, most of them Italian. One of the things he generally finds missing among rising young talent is "general culture — you can't rely just on musicality to get the music right. You have to understand what it's about." He emphasizes that more than knowing the styles of great violinists of the past is essential; so is reading: "To play Schumann well, you have to know Hoffmann, Schiller, and Heine, too," Berman says.

The once-young violin virtuoso, now an accredited maestro, added that the decline of faith has cost society and young violinists some intimacy with classical music, as it was standard cultural equipment for the great composers of the past. Of Jewish heritage himself, Berman emphasizes that it is not a matter of adopting Christian belief, but of becoming acquainted with the milieu and shaping values of traditional religion as practiced in Europe, both Jewish and Christian.

At the same time, he is an advocate of new music, even if it largely emerges from a secular perspective. "Every art has to develop and be contemporary, so new music is needed," Berman said. "The repertoire we already have is great, but you need to go ahead."

He doesn't envy the situation contemporary composers face: "It's difficult for composers to write something innovative and important, but that also can be received with enthusiasm by the general public." The decline of journalistic coverage of classical music has also hurt the viability of the art form. He is not among artists who claim to disdain and ignore published criticism. "I always read everything," he says. "I believe in facing opinion, and it's something where presenters can see if they could take a chance on an artist. Now it's 'my ignorance equals your knowledge!'," Berman said with a mocking smile.

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