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Lessons Well-Learned From a Master

At 18, violinist Ilya Gringolts brims with confidence before his L.A. debut with teacher Itzhak Perlman.

September 10, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Probably everyone who ever took music lessons remembers the exhilarating terror of a first performance with the teacher accompanying. Think of performing, however, at the Hollywood Bowl, with your teacher conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then further imagine that you are playing one of the best-known and most well-loved of violin concertos and the teacher on the podium is no less than Itzhak Perlman.

"That's not scary at all," asserts 18-year-old Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts, who will be doing all that Tuesday, when he makes his Los Angeles debut playing Mendelssohn's E-minor Concerto at the Bowl with Perlman leading the Philharmonic.

"I am looking forward to it," he says from St. Petersburg, Russia. "I saw him conduct in New York, and he's very good, very clear. The thing is, I've never played with my teacher onstage before. It will be interesting to see how his face looks while I'm playing."

Gringolts comes to the assignment with an edge honed in the unforgiving fires of international competitions: five, to be precise, culminating with a victory in the 1998 Paganini Competition. Now that's scary, he says.

"The Paganini was my last," Gringolts says firmly. "First of all, I don't need them now, and then I am just really tired of it. It is really hard, a really unpleasant feeling playing for a jury. It does not give you any inspiration but fear. It was the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done. Before the Paganini, I could not sleep. I kept having a nightmare, about falling out of a building or a roller coaster.

"It is all psychological. Competitions do a lot of harm, but one has to do them. The person who is going to have a solo career has to do something to promote himself before he gets management. It is a great opportunity to show what you can do, good probation. You get a stage and you have to just go and play."

Perlman, who is making his L.A. debut as a conductor, has no reservations about his protege. "Ilya Gringolts is a wonderful young violinist with a unique gift," he says, "combining musical intellect with technical mastery in the grand tradition.'

Perlman is referring to a broader musical tradition, but Gringolts is also heir to a more personal tradition that gives a certain inevitability to his precocious encounter with the instrument.

"My father started the violin when he was 5, and his father had played the violin. So when I was 5, my father wanted to try it on me," Gringolts recalls. "I don't remember how I felt about it then, but I started really liking it when I was 8 or 9."

When he was 6, Gringolts entered the local music academy in his native St. Petersburg, where he remained for most of his training. He met Perlman in 1998 through the Perlman Music Program, a summer camp on Long Island for prodigies that was founded in the early '90s by Toby Perlman, the violinist's wife.

"I think it has changed a lot in the last year," Gringolts says of the program. "Last summer it was kind of a cozy little place. Now it is a real camp, with a concert hall they built. You get private lessons as well as master classes. There is chamber music, and they have a little orchestra."

The past year has also brought Gringolts a material upgrade of his own. Obtaining a truly fine violin is not easy anywhere, and it can be especially difficult in the former Soviet Union.

"I had a lot of problems getting a good instrument," Gringolts says. "I've been searching everywhere. It is very hard to buy one--the prices are very high. The only thing for a musician my age is to borrow one. Even that is difficult, because there are few agencies or dealers who lend instruments. Only last year did I finally get a really good violin.

"Before, I used to play a poor thing. It teaches you. You have to try your best to extract a good sound."

And Gringolts seems to have been taught well, at every level. He has a well-received CD of music by Paganini out on BIS, featuring the Concerto No. 1 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vanska and shorter pieces with piano accompaniment. He has toured throughout Russia and Europe, and he made his North American debut in Canada last summer under another conducting fiddler, Pinchas Zukerman.

According to Gramophone's review of the Paganini disc, Gringolts is "yet another outstanding young Russian violinist. . . . He's certainly able to surmount the ferocious technical demands, and has, too, a notably rich, beautiful, unforced tone."

"I love Paganini," Gringolts says. "It is lots of fun, and there was a Paganini period in my life, when I was preparing for the competition. But my interests are very wide--Bartok, Schnittke, hip-hop.

"For me, there is also a little change in mentality about recital programs. I like to start with the violin alone and then add the piano. I am giving a recital in Vancouver [Canada] in November, where I begin with the Bach Partita No. 1 and some other unaccompanied pieces, and then bring on the piano for Beethoven's 'Kreutzer' Sonata."

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