For 2 young violinists, a night to remember and a superstar soloist to emulate
A quick thought experiment: Let’s say Alexander Han and Benjamin Pegram, both high school students in the Clovis Unified School District, were star football quarterbacks. And let’s say that in the midst of a busy schedule, a great NFL quarterback such as Tom Brady hopped on a cross-country flight to spend a weekend in Fresno coaching them. Then, to top it off, let’s say that Brady actually played with Han, Pegram and selected team members in a practice game open to the public.
That’d be big news, right? I can just see the clump of local TV news cameras clumped in a corner of the field getting footage. There’d be headlines. Clips on YouTube. Maybe even a feature in a national magazine.
Pictured above: Vadim Gluzman performs Sunday at ‘Love Conquers All’ with the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. Photo: Teddy Hioe
None of that happened Sunday night in Fresno, when the virtuoso violinist Vadim Gluzman took a break from his busy schedule — the weekend after he performed at Carnegie Hall — to join the Youth Orchestras of Fresno in a memorable concert. A highlight was Gluzman’s performance of the Bach Double Violin Concerto. By his side were Han and Pegram, who got the opportunity to trade off the other solo line in the piece. Watching it all was conductor Thomas Loewenheim, the man who made it all happen.
It’s no surprise the larger world didn’t pay much attention. We don’t really expect it for classical music. But for those lucky enough in the audience on Sunday at the Shaghoian Hall, we got to witness a remarkable amalgamation: of the professional and the amateur; of experience and youth; of mentor and student. To watch how straight the young violinists stood and how seriously — no, reverently — they undertook their moments in the spotlight, I couldn’t help but melt at the sweetness of it all. (The fact that the concert, titled “Love Conquers All, is a Valentine’s Day-themed tradition that includes a decadent dessert auction, probably added to the sugar level for me.) It’s a good feeling when generations blend.
Gluzman fit in effortlessly with the young musicians on stage, but he also demonstrated a remarkable range of emotion. At one point in the Beethoven violin concerto, standing there playing to the audience, he made a hard pivot to face the violin section to play along with them, marking the moment with an emphatic stomp.
How committed to young musicians is Gluzman? His solos finished, he sat in the back of the violins for the entire second half, playing with the kids, I learned afterward from Julia Copeland, the orchestra’s executive director. “You could see his head through the third harp in the lineup.”
Playing with a superstar
I was curious: What was it like to perform with such a famous soloist? I tracked down Han and Pegram to ask.
Q: Can you tell me one piece of advice that Mr. Gluzman had for you?
Pegram: We both had alternating melodies in the piece, and he encouraged me to “Let each other shine.”
Han: One piece of advice Mr. Gluzman gave me was to play out confidently, use the lower half of the bow, not just the top, and to never play two same passages with the same phrase.
Q: How nervous were you before the performance?
Pegram: I was probably more nervous before this performance than I have been for any other of my recent performances, but once I was on stage all of my nerves went away.
Han: I was quite nervous.
Q: How nervous were you during the performance?
Pegram: I had invited a few of my friends to the concert, and seeing them in the audience along with Mr. Gluzman’s welcoming smile put me at ease once I was on stage.
Han: Not as nervous as before the performance.
Q: How much had you practiced the music beforehand?
Pegram: During the week before the performance, I took a couple days off from school, at the urging of my teacher, in order to make more time for practice.
Han: An hour every day for a month.
Q: What did you learn from Mr. Gluzman in terms of being a soloist?
Pegram: His stage presence is powerful, but never forced. Everything he does serves the music, which is really encouraging to watch.
Han: I noticed he plays very relaxed and musically. For example, Mr. Gluzman always emphasizes phrases and dynamics with much sensitivity to his playing.
Q: Did Mr. Gluzman let you touch his 1690 Stradivarius?
Pegram: I was going to ask if I could play his violin, but I ended up being too scared.
Han: I did not dare ask Mr. Gluzman if I could touch his Stradivarius, although I wanted to.
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Q: What was it like for the three of you to bow together at the very end and hear the applause?
Pegram: It was a great feeling to finish the Performance after all this hard work, and I’m especially happy that I was able to play the third movement with it being my favorite of the three.
Han: Honestly, it felt great. When staring out into a concert hall full of people applauding, it made the moment joyful.
Q: What will you remember most from this experience?
Pegram: To have such an incredible artist here in Fresno is an extraordinary opportunity. Following our Saturday rehearsal, he stayed behind with me in order to give me some pointers on my “Swan Lake” concertmaster solo, which was very helpful and showed me the kind of selfless artist that Mr. Gluzman is. That for me was one of the most memorable moments.
Han: The sensitivity of Mr. Gluzman’s playing, as well as an opportunity that this was.
A beautiful recap
Julia Copeland, the orchestra’s executive director, is a woman of many talents (among them: playing and teaching the violin, arts administration, public relations). She’s also a wonderful writer. Copeland sent me a note she sent to the Youth Orchestras extended family about Sunday’s concert, and it’s so eloquent I wanted to share it with everyone:
For me, what happened on Sunday, when we heard Vadim Gluzman play with exquisite sensitivity and persuasiveness, using his bow in ways we did not even know a bow could be used, creating a palate of sounds we did not know a violin—even a Stradivari from 1690—could produce, was nothing short of a miracle.
The miracle was not Vadim playing his violin like a god, which is something he does daily, you might say routinely.
The miracle was that he was doing it here, in Fresno, on stage with our young musicians.
Vadim arrived on Friday and almost immediately went to rehearse in the band room with our Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, working on Beethoven and Bach. The next day, Saturday, he spent the afternoon offering a master class to any of our young violinists who were interested. Four violinists performed for him in what I felt was the best master class I had ever seen, and I have been observing master classes since I was a child, sitting on a garbage can at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, watching Pablo Casals work with the cream of the crop of young cellists of that era.
And then, Saturday evening, Vadim was once again at rehearsal with our YPO musicians. And he stayed on, after rehearsal ended, to work on the Swan Lake solo with concertmaster Benjamin Pegram.
The next day Vadim rehearsed with the YPO again in the morning at Shaghoian Concert Hall, then returned to perform the Bach Double Concerto with Alex Han and Benjamin Pegram, then the Beethoven violin concerto by himself (accompanied by the YPO and Thomas Loewenheim!). This was when we were treated to such refinements and subtleties in his approach to expressing himself on his instrument, especially in those insane 1970s cadenzas by German/Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke, that the violinists among us were …only silly words occur to me—gobsmacked.
We were also treated to this brilliant violinist’s true devotion to teaching and to promoting young musicians. Not only did he play the second violin part in the Bach, with Ben and Alex taking turns with the first violin part, but he also played most of the tutti violin lines (the lines the orchestra violins were playing) in the Beethoven concerto, whenever he had a chance during a break from his solo line.
And then —and then, in the second half of the concert—did you see that guy sitting hidden behind the harps at the back of the violins?
Yes. Vadim performed the entire second half of the concert from inside the orchestra, playing as just another member of the combined YSO/YPO. One of the YSO players reported afterward that he could feel Vadim’s energy pushing him from the back, like a warmth.
And that’s what we all experienced: the warmth of Vadim Gluzman’s humble genius. The warmth of his desire to share his gifts with our young musicians. And the warmth of our sudden access to the key miracle of music as a shared experience. And to that unique aspect of orchestral music, as pointed out by El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu: “The orchestra,” Abreu famously observed, “is the only group that comes together for the sole purpose of agreement.”
And we agree that this was an experience of exceptional good fortune that none of us will soon forget.