Ivry Gitlis, charismatic Israeli violinist, dies at 98

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A private recording exists of the 1955 Carnegie Hall performance and the qualities that make it so exciting today are likely what set off the contemporary critics. It is tumultuously emotive, barely under control at times and certainly not as tidily polished as was expected from a young violinist of that era making a New York debut. It might be called an “expressionist” performance and makes what was then almost a 50-year-old concerto (the composer was still alive in Finland) seem daringly brand new.

It was left to a later generation to appreciate Mr. Gitlis fully. Pianist Stephen Hough worked with him in 2011, when the violinist was almost 90.

“There cannot be a more dangerous, free-spirited, unpredictable musician in front of the public today,” he wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph. “We both agreed that there was no point in rehearsing. I knew that whatever Ivry did at 10 a.m. would be completely different by 12 noon when we were onstage, so we just decided to wing it. All I was prepared for was the unprepared creativity of his artistry.”

Another admirer, cellist Steven Isserlis, acknowledged the controversy surrounding Mr. Gitlis in an article he wrote for slippedisc.com after learning of the violinist’s death. “His playing and his personality were on the controversial side of non-controversial,” he said. “He aroused extreme reactions in people; they either got it, or they didn’t. He wasn’t particularly happy about that — he wanted to be universally loved; but he had to accept it. He would never have dreamed of compromising for anyone.”

As Mr. Gitlis told a group of students in 2007: “Listen to your inner ear, which is connected directly to your heart and spirit, the one that tells you what you feel is you!”

“Remember that a beautiful ‘wrong’ note by a Kreisler, a Thibaud, a Casals or a Callas is worth more than a thousand so-called ‘right’ notes and that playing that is hygienically and clinically correct is not necessarily a sign of good health!”

Mr. Gitlis, of Ukrainian heritage, was born Aug. 25, 1922, in Haifa, in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His given name was Yitzhak-Meir Gitlis, and he answered to Isaac. His parents bought him a violin when he was 5. In 2013, he told the Agence France-Presse that he “simply wanted a violin, even though I was so small that I couldn’t even play it. But I decided. I chose violin, and at age 6 I began.”

When he was 9, Mr. Gitlis met Bronislaw Huberman, a leading violinist who would go on to found what is now the Israel Philharmonic. Huberman declared the boy a prodigy and collected money for him to travel to France, where he entered the Paris Conservatory. There he studied with George Enescu, Jacques Thibaud and Carl Flesch. He also changed his name to “Ivry” — the Hebrew word for Hebrew — to protest what he considered French anti-Semitism.

He moved to London in 1940, where he did clerical work for the British army and later played concerts for the troops and in factories. His first recordings were for the Vox label, which specialized in the discovery of unknown young artists, usually in mostly unfamiliar material. He recorded Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and his Chamber Concerto, music by Stravinsky and, with the conductor Jascha Horenstein, concertos by Bartok, Bruch and Sibelius.

Mr. Gitlis’s reputation grew and, in the autumn of 1963 he became the first Israeli artist to tour the Soviet Union. As part of a cultural exchange program, he played in five cities and finished off with a rapturously received performance in the Moscow Conservatory. Of the last event, the New York Times observed: “After a program of sonatas by Beethoven, Bartok and Cesar Franck, and Paganini’s first concerto, Mr. Gitlis responded generously to seemingly insatiable calls for encores,” and he played eight of them.

He also appeared with the London Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic. In the late 1960s, he moved back to Paris, where he would live the rest of his life.

Many contemporary composers were fascinated by the intensity of Mr. Gitlis’s playing. René Leibowitz dedicated his Violin Concerto (1958) to Mr. Gitlis. Roman Haubenstock-Ramati created “Sequences” for violin and orchestra (1958) for him. Bruno Maderna, who managed to infuse Italianate lyricism into the dissonances of the international avant-garde, offered “Pièce pour Ivry” (1971), of which a live performance dates from Paris in 1983. And Iannis Xenakis wrote “Mykka (s),” which Mr. Gitlis premiered in 1972.

In 1968, he explored a different sort of contemporary music when he joined John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell in an ad hoc group called the Dirty Mac, accompanying Yoko Ono in a jam session called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” The performance was issued many years later as part of the “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” film project, available on DVD.

It was often stated that Mr. Gitlis “looked” like a violinist. The Globe and Mail referred in 1990 to the way his “dark eyes, filled with wicked wit, are set in a broad face surrounded by a mane of gray hair receding from his high forehead. He has an air of comfortable self-assurance and absolute enjoyment of life, a huge smile and disarming charm.”

He was married to German actress Sabine Glaser, with whom he had three children. Two of them, Jonathan and David, were members of the rock band Enhancer. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

He kept playing well into his 90s. One of his last appearances was with pianist Martha Argerich, with whom he played in Tel Aviv in 2018.

Mr. Gitlis appeared in small roles in several films, the best known of which was “The Story of Adele H” (1975) directed by his friend François Truffaut. Appropriately, he played a hypnotist.

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