Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
5 at the First Chamber Series opens 2018 with the AYR Trio‘s Piano Trio Masters. Violin virtuoso Yehonatan Berick is the “Y” in the group’s name, bookended by his collaborators: pianist Angela Park (the “A”) and cellist Rachel Mercer (the “R”). In truth, his nickname is “Big Y”, and though his website bio describes him as performer and pedagogue, there’s nothing pedantic about him. He is an internationally-renowned violinist, yet he is warm and forthcoming. In a video about his teaching approach, he states unequivocally that he views himself not as a prodigy, but one who has earned his skills and success through dedication and hard work. Describing himself as a “performer who teaches,” he ascribes much of his success as an artist to being a teacher, who has had to figure things out along the way.
“You learn a lot from working with somebody else,” he affirms. And this collaborative spirit will be front-and-center in Saturday’s AYR Trio concert. He and his fellow artists (and initials) are fast friends, but friendship is not their only distinction. In Mr Berick’s view, what sets this group apart is that each member brings “a very rich background in many different genres of classical music and art in general, but with one important aspect in common: a deep connection, understanding, and appreciation of – as well as true love for – chamber music.”
The concert program is compact, and presents two “poster boys” of the piano trio literature – Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio, and Brahms’s C Major Trio – sandwiched around “Solstice Songs”, a wonderful Canadian Piano Trio by Andrew Staniland. “Without giving away too much,” Mr. Berick enthuses, “this repertoire presents a wonderful bouquet of diverse characters and settings, which, in my view, offer clarity over [the] cryptic.”
So which aspect of the program does he most look forward to? “The outfits we get to try on!” he quips, before offering a more thoughtful response. “But seriously, I am very lucky to be a part of a team of phenomenal musicians, who combine vast knowledge of styles and inner workings of music with a never-ending search for the unexplored.” In terms of the pieces themselves, it is difficult for him to pinpoint one single aspect, since “all the pieces are so great, and their combination makes a very complete offering.” If pressed, he will admit that the moment he most anticipates is the trio of the scherzo in the Brahms piece. “Brahms had a talent to write incredibly moving trios in his chamber music scherzi,” he elaborates, “and this one, luscious and singing, is one of the best ones.”
During our conversation, I learn that Mr Berick originally took violin lessons for spatial, rather than artistic reasons. Growing up in Holon, Israel, “I actually wanted to play piano, but we could not fit one into our apartment when I was young.” His father had played violin in his youth, and suggested that the young Mr Berick consider it. “Lucky for me, one of the best violin teachers the world has known – Ilona Feher, teacher of Pinchas Zukerman, among many others – lived a mere 10-minute walk away, and I was fortunate to be her student for 12 years, until her passing in 1988.”
Whether luck or fate, Mr Berick and the violin have been an inseparable pair since he was six years old. After completing high school at the age of 16, he studied violin at Tel Aviv University’s Music Academy, before completing his studies at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, he is a Professor of Violin at the University of Ottawa and also offers master classes and artist-in-residencies – all while juggling a full performance calendar.
His passion for his chosen instrument burns bright: “The violin is perhaps the most complete instrument of the classical music in terms of its ability to sing, mesmerize, and cover an endless range of the human experience, from dead serious to completely silly, and everything in between.” This spectrum is vivid when Mr. Berick plays or teaches. The violin becomes an organic extension of his arm. The bow flows back and forth across it like a dancer. In the teaching video, he helps a student quartet to see the music as a car ascending an airport parking lot …singing the notes and illustrating the circularity of the sequence with an eloquent swirl of his arm. “While all instruments require the highest level of mastery, somehow it is the violin that has most often given its player a superhuman allure,” he observes. “You can play it sitting, standing, dancing, or even lying down on the floor, if that is your cup of tea.” And beyond its aesthetic (and gymnastic) potential, he notes the violin’s practicality: “You can bring it with you anywhere very easily, and it becomes an inseparable part of your life (just as you become a part of its history).”
This portability is no doubt handy to Mr Berick. He tours the world, and has played in some of the most notable international concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Yet despite his packed schedule, he has been a regular performer at the 5 at the First concert series — a boon for residents of Ontario, where Mr Berick also resides.
Hearing Mr. Berick and the AYR Trio within an intimate and friendly atmosphere is certainly a welcome prospect. 5 at the First is more than a simple series of concerts. It is a rich sensory experience. Co-founded in 2010 by Rachel Mercer and Michelle Corbeil, the Hamilton-based series has become a coveted venue for Canadian artists of global renown, supported by a loyal community. The music appeals to all ages. The performing artists are mere feet away from the audience, and introduce each piece to provide context and alert the audience to nuances and techniques. Equally fun is the interval, during which audience and artists mingle over complimentary refreshments.
Less obvious is the impetus behind the series’ longevity, which Mr Berick summarizes in two words: “Rachel Mercer.” Ms Mercer has created this series from “a completely unselfish place, he confides. “She believes that great music should not be limited to the cultural centres of the world, but available to everyone on the planet as often as possible. She, Michele Corbeil (Executive Director) and the artists share this mission.” As a result, the series has grown its audience steadily over the years. “I am happy to see our concerts often full to capacity, with a wide range of ages, and many returning members, many of which we have now come to know personally.”
However, Mr Berick notes, the series does not sustain on goodwill alone. The 5 at the First series operates in much the same way as concerts have through the centuries: through patronage. He acknowledges that classical music is, by its nature, a non-commercial art form. So he commends the series’ sponsors, and encourages others to consider sponsoring a concert, for both immediate gratification and longer-term impact. Such sponsorship is what enables the music to thrive, resonate and ultimately change lives, Big Y asserts — “not only for the patrons, but for their communities and for humanity at large.” And it ensures that artists like the AYR Trio can play on.
News You Can Use
What: Piano Trio Masters (part of the 5 at the First Chamber Music Series) performed by AYR Trio: Angela Park (piano), Yehonatan Berick (violin), Rachel Mercer (cello)
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Saturday, January 13, 2018, 3 PM
Where: The First Unitarian Church, 170 Dundurn St S, Hamilton ON, L8P4K3
Information and Tickets: 5 at the First
Explore and Learn: Yehonatan Berick
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya