Israel’s violin genius Gitlis dies at 98

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Paris (AFP)

Israeli virtuoso violinist Ivry Gitlis died in Paris at the age of 98, his family told AFP on Thursday.

As one of the modern big names in classical music, he has not only performed with the best orchestras in the world, but has never stopped experimenting, seeking new fans far beyond the elite.

Gitlis was as comfortable playing with the Rolling Stones or jazzman Stéphane Grapelli, with African storytellers or gypsies as he was with the classical repertoire.

Very charismatic, he took “the time to meet people, to seduce them, to learn to love them”, writes the newspaper Le Parisien about the musician, who lived in the French capital.

With tousled white hair and piercing blue eyes, the maestro had a reputation for being freakish, wild and narcissistic, playing with his eyes closed, often improvising rather than using sheet music.

The first Israeli artist to perform in the former Soviet Union in 1955, Gitlis was also a strong supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO.

– Game of ‘Born’ –

Gitlis was born on August 25, 1922 in Haifa to Jewish parents who had left what is now Ukraine for Palestine, then under British rule.

When he was five, his parents bought him a violin.

“How did I start to play? I just wanted a violin, even though I was so small I couldn’t even play it. But I decided. I chose the violin and when I was six I started, ”he says.

“Even if he waited until the age of five to hold his first instrument, he gives the impression of being born with it,” wrote in 2013 the music critic of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

At nine, Gitlis met Bronislaw Huberman, the founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, who recognized the boy as a prodigy and raised money for him to travel to France.

At age 11, Gitlis entered the Paris Conservatory and two years later won the first prize of the prestigious institution.

When World War II broke out he fled to London, hoping to join the British Royal Air Force, but was put to work in military camps, hospitals and munitions factories.

– Man of the people –

His career took off in 1951 after a scandal during a music competition where the jury clashed with the public and only gave him fifth place.

Gitlis debuted in the United States in 1955 and has gone on to tour the world, performing under the best conductors and with the best orchestras, including the New York, Berlin, Vienna and Israel Philharmonic.

Everywhere he went he enchanted the audience and received long standing ovations.

“His devastating intelligence, his legendary skill, his hypersensitivity, the striking contrast of his hard and sensitive playing made him a great artist but also a man of the street, close to people and to life”, wrote another French critic .

He distinguished himself by playing Bartok, Paganini, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, but is also sought after by contemporary composers to perform like Bruno Maderna and Iannis Xenakis.

Gitlis was also interested in acting, including appearances at the cinema in “The Story of Adele H” by François Truffaut (1975) and as a vagabond playing the violin in a film by Inspector Maigret.

Father of four children, three of them with German actress Sabine Glaser, he continued to give concerts until very late in his life.

“The day when I will no longer play the violin, I will be dead”, he declared to the French newspaper La Croix in 2010.

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