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March 21, 2003

Jerusalem Quartet loves to play


At Carnegie Hall, in the Kennedy Centre and London's Wigmore Hall, in the premier concert halls of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa, they wear sober jackets and ties. At home in the Jerusalem Music Centre, however, these four young Israelis in their mid-20s are far happier in jeans and T-shirts.

Together, Alexander (Sasha) Pavlovsky, Sergei Bressler, Amichai Gross and Kyril Zlotnikov are the Jerusalem Quartet, Israel's only professional string quartet, and in demand worldwide as one of the most creative, dynamic and talented musical ensembles of this generation.

"Although we all started playing when we were five years old, we didn't meet until our teens," said Gross, 24, the quartet's viola player and the only native Israeli of the four.

The others came to Israel in 1991 - violinist Pavlovsky, now 26, from Kiev, violinist Bressler from Kharkov and cellist Zlotnikov from Minsk, both now 25. They enrolled in the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance on Young Musicians' scholarships and studied under violinist Avraham Abramovich. Two years later, they played their first concert together.

"Music was our ticket into Israeli society," said Pavlovsky. "It made our aliyah easy. Then, as now, it occupied 80 per cent of our waking day."

Zlotnikov is the only member of the group who is married. "But my wife, Stella, is a musician herself," he said, "a violinist who studied under the same teacher, so she understands."

Success came very fast for the quartet. By the time the four enrolled for military service in 1997, they had already triumphed in their first international contest – the Franz Schubert and the Music of the 20th Century Competition at Graz in Austria – where they carried off first prize and the prize for the best interpretation of 20th-century music; the first of a long and continuing roster of prizes awarded to the four, both as a quartet and as soloists.

Perhaps more important than the prizes, however, is that "wherever we play, we're always invited back," said Bressler.

"The fact that we're the youngest of the world's leading quartets interests our audiences," said Pavlovsky. "And our name, Jerusalem Quartet, draws people as well."

Only once has politics interfered with the quartet's music, when Palestinian students succeeded in stopping a Jerusalem Quartet performance in Manchester, England. "For the most part, however, the kinds of people who enjoy what we have to offer are not interested in politics," said Pavlovsky.

Theoretically, Gross is responsible for the group's security during the six months of each year that they perform outside Israel. "Kyril looks after travel arrangements and tickets," he said, "Sergei deals with our finances, Sasha organizes our appearances in Israel and I do everything else. Security is clearly a consideration when we travel. Our appearances are publicized, so we have to be careful."

All four underwent basic training when they were first inducted into the Israel Defence Forces, but the bulk of their IDF service was as a quartet, performing for soldiers all over Israel. When their military service ended three years ago, they changed status to Distinguished IDF Musicians and continue to play for troops three times a week when they're in Israel.

Often abroad (with bookings up to a year ahead) or on the road in Israel, it's the Jerusalem Music Centre that the quartet calls home. Having been allocated one of two recently built studios there, they put in three to four hours of practice each day.

Located in Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim neighborhood, the centre was established 30 years ago by the Jerusalem Foundation at the joint initiative of master violinist Isaac Stern and then-mayor Teddy Kollek, as a meeting place for visiting maestros and talented young Israeli musicians.

The quartet's remarkable success, however, does not completely free them from everyday financial burdens and worries. For this reason, the Jerusalem Foundation has raised funds, in the framework of its international gathering, to ensure that the foursome can continue to focus on their musical endeavors and maximize their musical potential for the next three years. It is hoped that by then they will be fully self-sufficient.

"Supporting the quartet until they are financially independent will help the city as well as the players," explained Ruth Cheshin, Jerusalem Foundation president. "The quartet will be a magnet in Jerusalem, promoting music education and love of music in schools and community centres citywide." The quartet hopes to play a series of three to five concerts a year, both for the paying public, as well as in schools and in community centres.

And how do the members of the quartet feel about this addition to an already full playing schedule?

"We feel good," said Zlotnikov. "The four of us share the same work ethic. The first vacation we ever took was after playing together daily for nine years, and that was only for two weeks. We love to play, whether it's in an international contest or a renowned concert hall, at an IDF base somewhere in Israel or in the city that's our home."

Wendy Elliman is with the Israel Press Service.