Bar none

Nurit Bar-Josef, concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra Photo by Steve Wilson
Nurit Bar-Josef, concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra
Photo by Steve Wilson

Nurit Bar-Josef was appointed concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in 2001 at the age of 26, then the youngest such appointee to a major American orchestra. Previously assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops from 1998-2001, Bar-Josef, now 39, will be appearing as a soloist on Jan. 22-24, when the NSO plays Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique and Valse-Scherzo.

“I wore a hole in my old LP listening to Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique. …It’s the composer at his most poignant, paired with the voluptuous, vibrant sound of our concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef,” said Glenn Donnellan, a violinist with the orchestra, looking forward to the concert.

Here’s Bar-Josef herself on the Russian master, her turn as a soloist, her Jewish musical heroes and more:

When it was completed in 2001, musicians raved about Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, its acoustical near perfection. How do you feel about the Kennedy Center?

Oh yeah, I don’t like to speak badly about it, but every musician knows it’s not the best place for acoustics for us, not the most flattering hall to play in. I prefer a drier hall, as opposed to a wet one in which acoustics are so washy. You ask yourself: Did that trumpet play now, or is it bouncing off the wall? It would be nice to have some flattering give, for lack of a better word, especially for violin. A hall with more reverberation makes the sound of the violin warmer, rounder.

Was there music in your house growing up?

Nobody played instruments, but my father loved the violin. My parents took me to a lot of concerts. I was exposed. I am an only child. But my mother did play recordings. I grew up with [violinist Itzhak] Perlman. I think my mother tried to encourage me by playing Perlman. “If you practice, you can sound like this,” she told me.

What does a concertmaster do?

It’s kind of a go between [for] the conductor and the orchestra. I’m the conductor’s right-hand man or left-hand man in this case, I’m to his left hand, and I try to convey. People are sitting far away. I am trying to show the beat or the general feel of the music, a general phrase. I basically feed off the conductor and try to spread [his directions] around the orchestra – all in a matter of seconds.

Does a symphony orchestra play differently before a small crowd than a sold-out one?

When we’re in the middle of performance, we are in the piece. If we are playing Mahler 5, we are in Mahler 5. The only time it makes a difference is when I walk out and take a bow and think: Where is everyone? What’s happening in this town? Any baseball games, hockey games, going on? What’s on the other side of Kennedy Center? We play more energized in a concert with a full crowd. We feed off it. With a full crowd, we give even more than we usually do. It’s a natural thing.

Do you hear in Sérénade mélancolique the moods and places often associated with it? Does music contain other meanings for you?

Oh, absolutely. When I am playing, listening, learning, I don’t just hear notes. For me, it goes beyond that. I really internalize things. I think I’ve always been that way. If you’re in a minor, key, you feel it in a certain way. For me, it’s easy to hear all of that in the serenades. It’s such a beautiful piece, one of my favorites of Perlman’s. His sound can make you cry. It grabs you in the heart. There are some lighter moments, and then it goes back at the end, recapitulates, back to beginning, to the same feeling. I get melancholy, reminiscent, a bit sad.

Jewish music has that effect on me. It’s never in a sunny G major key, is it?

Yes, it is sad. It rips your heart out.  It’s never in a major key. I was telling my husband, who is not Jewish, that even a song like “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” is in a minor key. It’s supposed to be a fun song! After a while listening to Jewish music, I do want to say “oy vey.”

You described Perlman’s voice. What about yours, especially now that you’re a soloist?

I am not a soloist. I don’t claim to be. I’ll do it once and a while. Yes, there are some soloists who I know exactly who they are when I hear them play. I know their vibrato speed, how their sound is. Perlman had his own voice. I can try to imitate that until I am blue in the face, but I could never sound like him. But I want to have that same kind of heart. When he used to play, in the audience you could drop a pin and hear it. He had something that captures the audience. I’d like to be able to do that – at least until a cellphone rings!

What other Jewish musicians do you admire?

The list is pretty long. I am a big fan of [Israeli violinist] Pinchas Zuckerman and Joseph Silverstein, who, back in the day, was concertmaster for the Boston Symphony.

The Valse-Scherzo has been described as “technically demanding.” Do you agree?

That’s a personal question. Some players are cut out to play the more technical stuff. I am much more comfortable with much more lyrical stuff, the serenades. For me I’d say it’s technically demanding. I find those pieces difficult to play in public – fine in my own practice room but it doesn’t count in the practice room. It only counts on stage. It’s a mental game. I tell myself to take a deep breath and don’t rush and don’t freak out. Whereas, something like the Sérénade I enjoy. I enjoy singing with my violin. It’s easier for me.

Your take on D.C. life?

I bike to work – to rehearsals, not concerts. My husband and I do long bike rides in Potomac. I think it’s becoming more bike friendly in D.C.  The more I get around, the more bike lanes I see. That’s promising. We’re not where Portland or Seattle are. I spend summers out there. I do some chamber music out there. My in-laws are in Portland. We went out last spring. I went to a local high school track to run around the track, and I couldn’t believe the amount of kids I saw biking into schools. Sun, rain, shine, it didn’t matter. That was amazing to me. D.C. is not quite there, but it’s getting better.

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