March 12 2009 12:00 AM

New viola prof launches spirited chamber group

They could have stayed in bed, gone to church, watched cartoons, thrown a few snowballs. They could have worked on solo recitals or exams.

Instead, 20 young string players leaned forward for three hours of extra work at MSU’s Hart Recital Hall last Sunday morning.

The source of the pull was obvious. Ranging from undergrads to Ph.D. students, the members of Ad Libitum arrayed themselves like moons around a shaggy Jupiter of a man.

“You are yah, da-da-da,” the big man chided, chopping the air stiffly. Apparently, this was not desirable.

Then he sang the preferred version: “Yo-o-o, roe-da-doe.” To convey the joy in the latter sound, Yuri Gandelsman leaned back on his stool, eyes half shut, as if he were settling into a hot tub.

All morning, the conductor broke into spontaneous melodies and countermelodies, weaving a fragile first rehearsal together withhis breath and spit.

“I can’t help singing with my students,” he confessed. Gandelsman’s earliest musical memories are of his mother singing opera in the kitchen. To this day, when his students get into trouble, he tells them to sing the music first, to get to its heart. The technical problems can wait.

“He doesn’t talk a lot during rehearsal,” viola student Yevgeny Gorobtsov said. “He shows what he wants.”

Gandelsman, 57, is one of the world’s great viola players and a larger-than-life teacher with a strong gravitational field. Soon after he joined the MSU faculty last fall, a student chamber ensemble began to coalesce around him.

That seems to happen a lot to Gandelsman. The Russian native put together his first such ensemble at age 15, while studying in Moscow.

“We did it for half a year, until the professor said, ‘All of you have to go practice,’” he recalled with a smile.

After rising to the top of his profession in the former Soviet Union, Gandelsman immigrated to Israel in 1990.

His career has had a lot of twists and turns, but one stands out to him: playing for Isaac Stern in Stern’s New York apartment in 1989. Stern told him that principal viola chairs in the New York Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic were up for grabs, and Gandelsman was good enough for either one.

With an eye on his two children, then in their teens, Gandelsman opted for Israel.

“For kids, the United States is so different after Moscow,” he said. “A lot of problems, drugs, so much freedom. I knew many stories.”

Both children are now successful violinists. A son, Jonathan, has played with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and plays as “Johnny Gandelsman” with a world music/classical fusion group called Brooklyn Rider. A daughter, Natalie, plays violin in the Jerusalem Camerata.

In the 1990s, the elder Gandelsman soloed frequently with conductor Zubin Mehta and other top conductors, but after a decade with the Israel Philharmonic, he longed to concentrate more on teaching, recording and touring.

He also loves Russian-style table talk with his students. After Sunday’s rehearsal, several Ad Libitum players gathered at Gandelsman’s East Lansing house over borscht, potatoes and hot coffee. Somehow, talk drifted to the topic of musicians who suddenly died after concerts.

“You know which concert hall is most dangerous?” asked Gandelsmann. “The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.”

It seems that two of Russia’s greatest artists, violinist David Oistrakh and conductor Kiril Kondrashin, keeled over after performances at the famous hall.

“The podium is quite high,” Gandelsman explained. “You have to run 40-to-50 stairs up and down, up and down. When people get, you know, in age, it gets difficult.”

Everyone agreed an elevator would be a good idea.

“I could work and talk with students all day and night,” Gandelsman said.

At nearly every stage in his life, Gandelsman has led chamber groups, including ensembles in Finland, France, Italy and Russia. To his ears, a group of this size is just right — more intimate than a full orchestra, richer than a quartet.

Because the leader of a chamber ensemble is more co-creator than dictator, there’s little room for mystification or grandstanding.

“He has good conducting hands,” viola student Gorobtsov said. “It’s the old Russian school of conducting — it’s all clear.”

Sunday, when the music needed revving up, Gandelsman leaned forward at a dangerous-looking angle. When things were rocking along nicely, he bounced up and down on the vertical axis.

“You have to move,” he told them. “We have to hear it’s going somewhere.”

“He’s got a lot of energy,” Callum Hall, a cello grad student from New Zealand, said.

The group needed all of it to hack their way through Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, a slow-mo plunge through Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror.

“There are some beautiful notes, but this is music is not about beauty,” Gandelsman said. “It’s about disaster, mostly.”

It’s unlikely that 20 busy students would get together on their own time to play throwaway music, but the raw emotions and layered nuances of the Shostakovich symphony make exceptional demands.

“It’s a piece you cannot play from the outside,” viola player Carlos Botero said. “You have to get into it and fill it.” Botero, who hails from Colombia, is studying to be a conductor.

Gandelsman said he had no qualms about trusting tragic, world-weary art to young students.

“They understand it perfectly,” Gandelsman said. “You do not have to be old to have these feelings.”

“I find it hard to think that Shostakovich cannot talk with every person on this planet,” Botero said. “We’re on the edge of the seat trying to play it.”

The ensemble will balance Shostakovich with the elegant humor of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony and music by baroque master Georg Phillip Telemann.

Ever the de-mystifier, Gandelsman values communication above all.

Some people say, ‘Oh, I’m not musically talented,’” he scoffed. “That’s impossible.”

Gandelsmann himself was barely in his teens when a sour professor told him he was un-musical. Obviously, he wasn’t convinced.

He believes the ability to make music, or appreciate it, is universal. “People watching movies respond to the music,” he said. “It’s not that difficult, like people think. It’s just a beautiful, natural thing."

Yuri Gandelsman and Ad Libitum

7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 MSU Music Building Auditorium $7-$9 (517) 353-5340 www.music.msu.edu