A violinist's loss is music's gain

WILLIAMSTOWN — Imagine: Under pressure from his coach, the young violinist loses the chance to premiere what is now the most popular of American violin concertos. It is the concerto written for him by Samuel Barber.

Briefly, in 1939 Samuel Fels, a Philadelphia industrialist, commissioned the piece from Barber for his ward, Iso Briselli. When the first two movements were presented to him, Briselli accepted them, but when Barber later submitted the perpetual-motion finale, Briselli's coach, one Albert Meiff, pronounced it — and, to a lesser degree, the work as a whole — unsuited for the violin. He wanted a hand in a rewrite.

Barber, one of the 20th century's leading American composers, stood his ground, and the premiere went to the famous Albert Spaulding. But still today, the virtuosic last movement does seem to come from a different place than the lyrical, almost romantic first two movements.

"An odd piece," says violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who returns to the Berkshires to play it Friday night with the Berkshire Symphony under director Ronald Feldman. It will be the first time Kutik has played the concerto in public, though he has known and studied it since his days in the Juilliard School's precollege division.

"It's kind of nice to finally get my hands around this piece that I've probably heard more than any other piece in the world," he says.

The Barber is part of a mostly American program in Chapin Hall beginning at 8 p.m. It keeps company with the Swiss Arthur Honegger's "Pastorale d' t " and the American Walter Piston's "Serenata" and Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Kutik, 32, is a graduate of Pittsfield High School and the Tanglewood Music Center. He is also a newlywed. On June 24, he and Rachel Barker, daughter of Boston Symphony principal bassist Edwin Barker, exchanged vows at Seranak, the Tanglewood mansion perched high above Stockbridge Bowl. They live in Boston; she is a social studies teacher in the Boston area.

Kutik got a big boost toward a career when, as winner of the BSO's young artists competition, he made a 2003 debut with the Boston Pops under Keith Lockhart. Now forging a career on the regional concert circuit, he has as much work as he wants, the shy-seeming violinist said in a phone conversation.

Last week, for example, he returned from six weeks on the road. Highlights were concerts in Charlottesville, Va., and a residency at Kean University in Union, N.J. He makes his debut with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

In April, he returns to Krakow for a recital and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau to perform in the March of the Living, a Holocaust commemoration that draws thousands of marchers to the former concentration camps. He made the same pilgrimage in 2012, when the observances drew 10,000 marchers. He recalls being deeply moved by the sight of "life by thousands stream into this place of death." It was a "life-changing experience" for him, he says.

A native of Minsk, Belarus, Kutik came to the U.S. with his family at the age of 5. Out of his experience as a refugee, and in recognition of his heritage, he performs and speaks about five times a year for the Jewish Federations of North America, which helped his family to emigrate.                                                            

"It's always very important for me to highlight the kind of good that can happen when communities come together to help people that need assistance, that need a little time and attention," he said, noting the federation's ongoing program of refugee assistance. "And I don't mean just financially. I mean in terms of resources, in terms of support, in terms of community."                                                                                                         

At home before the Williamstown concert, Kutik was using the time "to prepare for the next round" of concerts.                                                                                                                                                           

"It's just really important, I find at this point in my career, to have periods where all I do is rehearsing, studying, practicing." He had been going nonstop in the past weeks and switching repertoire week by week, he said, and "you need to find time to grow with what you're doing."                                                                                

Kutik gained national attention in 2014 with his recording "From the Suitcase," a collection of Russian miniatures that his mother, Alla Zernitskaya, who teaches music in the Pittsfield schools, packed for the family to bring with them when they came to the U.S. A 2016 solo album, "Words Fail," includes works composed for him by Timo Andres and Michael Gandolfi. The concept takes off from the idea that where words fail, music speaks.                                                                                                                                                           

Now Kutik is working with Gandolfi, a Boston composer who heads the composition program at Tanglewood, on a commissioned violin concerto. After the collaboration on the solo piece, he says, Gandolfi is a "natural fit" for a concerto.


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