The twenty-something Bushakevitz siblings from George – violinist Avigail and pianist Ammiel – have fast become a well-known performance pair in local classical music circles with a packed combined performance schedule in June. We caught up with them as international engagements are beginning to fill their respective diaries.
Congratulations Avigail, for having just graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City! What are your plans for after your ‘summer break’?
I am very excited to have my bachelors, after a year of Unisa (my first year) and three years, after transferring, at Juilliard. My “summer break” has been particularly wintry here in South Africa, but I leave on 22 June for Colorado, where I will participate in the two-month-long Aspen Music Festival, which incorporates solo, chamber music and orchestra, as well as performances, lessons and masterclasses by some of the world’s greatest musicians. After Aspen, I go back to New York to begin my Master of Music degree from which I hope to graduate in May 2012. In March of this year I auditioned and was accepted by three music institutions (Juilliard, New England Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music), and decided to return to Juilliard for another two years. I will continue working as an ear training teaching assistant. I am a teaching assistant in ear training at Juilliard and hereby I have learned about the intricacies of teaching a class, and I have developed a fascination for ear training and the different ways music students hear.
How long did you spend in NYC and what experience stands out during your time spent there?
The three years I have spent in NYC have been the most adventurous, eye-opening and pedagogically edifying of my life. I have tried to utilize the extraordinary range of experiences offered in the Big Apple, such as attending concerts in Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fischer Hall, hearing some of the great orchestras, going to museums such at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Art Museum. I live in Lincoln Center, a mere two blocks away from Central Park and the Hudson River. It is impossible for me to single out a particular event that stands out more than the others, but I cherish memories of hearing many extraordinary concerts.
Ammiel, you have been studying at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” in Leipzig, Germany. Can you tell us about the institution and your studies there?
Leipzig’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater is the oldest music academy in Germany and was founded by Mendelssohn in 1843. Other lecturers and graduates of the academy have included Schumann, Grieg, Albéniz, Delius and Max Reger. I am studying with Prof. Phillip Moll, an American pianist who has lived in Germany since 1970. I will graduate with a Masters degree next year – in 2011. I study conducting as well and will be making my conducting debut in October 2010 at the Brunswick Opera House in Saxony.
And your plans for after?
The question musicians dread! A music career is difficult to plan ahead, since many opportunities which change one’s plans arise suddenly. The best cities for my area of specialization (Lieder collaboration) are London, Berlin and Vienna, so I will probably study further in one of those places. The United States offers many opportunities so perhaps I will end up there, but Europe has a cultural charm which I enjoy. I am very fortunate to have grown up in South Africa, which offers a wealth of performing opportunities. I will always return to South Africa for concerts and holidays.
Do you come from a musical family and background?
Neither of our parents took up music professionally, but both have a distinct affinity with music and the arts. Our maternal grandmother studied singing (and literature) in Germany, our paternal grandfather was an amateur poet and playwright, our father was an award-winning ballroom dancer in New York, and our aunt was a professional jazz critic.
Was a career in music always a given and did you make that decision early on, or did you ever consider other options?
Come to think of it, both of us never considered any career other than music. We started doing home education from a young age in order to concentrate on music. We were fortunate to study with excellent teachers such as Jack de Wet, Mario Nell, Dietrich Wagner and Joseph Stanford, who inspired us to pursue a life in music. Also, the majority of our friends were musicians. Our mother was a strict disciplinarian when it came to practicing – something we are grateful for today but which was definitely not always pleasant at the time!
Avigail, you gave up piano after completing your Grade 7 exam with distinction. What made you choose the violin over the piano?
At the age of 11 I had my first lesson with Professor Jack de Wet, who was then living in Stellenbosch. It was a very impressionable experience, as he introduced to me some of the basic concepts of music-making, most importantly the necessity of daily practicing. Up until then, I practiced shamefully little, and the idea of putting in several hours of practice was new to me. When he accepted me as a student when I was 12, he set certain prerequisites: I need to practice at least three hours a day, and practice technical exercises every day. Even though I loved piano, and I am grateful that I have the background of keyboard training, I needed to choose between violin and piano. And with such an excellent pedagogue as Prof de Wet, it was quite an easy decision. My brother Ammiel is a pianist, so the brother/sister, piano/violin combination worked out well, and to this day we are glad we play such compatible instruments!
Tell us about your instrument and your current teacher?
I am playing on a violin on loan from the Juilliard instrument collection. It is a 19th century French violin made by Georges Chanot. I wish it were mine… But I have to return it as soon as I graduate from Masters at Juilliard, unfortunately. For the past three years I have been with Sylvia Rosenberg, and will continue with her for my Masters degree. She has phenomenal musical instincts, and I am extremely lucky to be her student. She is one of the greatest influences on my life, as she does not purely teach me skills on the violin, but life skills that would allow me to be a more successful violinist, musician and human being.
Prior to your studies abroad, where and with whom did you study in SA?
Ammiel: I started studying with Mario Nell in Stellenbosch in 2000. He is a true disciplinarian and had a big influence on my pianism. In early 2006 I moved to Pretoria to study with Prof. Joseph Stanford, one of the country’s most respected music pedagogues. Other mentors who helped me see beyond the horizon are Prof. Heinrich van der Mescht, Prof. Frikkie van Reenen, and Attorney Gustaf Pienaar.
Avigail: I studied with Rona Henning from Knysna from the age of 8 until 12, when I became a student of Professor Jack de Wet. I owe him more than I can put into words. I was with him for 7 years, until I left for Juilliard. He made me aware of the essentiality of discipline and technical conscientiousness. I am grateful to him for mentoring me as well as teaching me the violin. Every time I come to South Africa I still learn more from him.
Ammiel, in 2008 you were awarded the Unisa Overseas Music Scholarship for Performers. It was the first time since the scholarship’s inception that it was awarded for vocal accompaniment. Do you still work as accompanist and how are the challenges different from solo recitals or concerto performances?
I still work often as a vocal collaborator; the term “accompanist” is largely obsolete. I have always loved literature and the Lied is to me the perfect combination of music and literature. Liedgestaltung is a highly specialized field and focuses on tone-colour and the musical interpretation of words. If a concerto could be compared to Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, a solo recital would be a scene thereof, and a Lied recital would be an intricate detail – perhaps the famous touching fingers of God and Adam. I think the Lied is possibly the most intimate genre within Western classical music.
Ammiel, you have acquired an impressive number of music prizes, awards and bursaries over the years. Why do you think these are important in a developing career?
I have always viewed music competitions as being a necessary evil – like brushing your teeth. Prizes, awards and bursaries are necessary for an artist’s CV, and I will not deny that money is nice to have. The idealistic age of the romantic artist is (perhaps sadly) over and musicians today need to live in the real world.
What do you prefer, solo recital or performing with an orchestra?
Of course, performing a concerto with an orchestra is an honour and is great fun. To be in front of an orchestra and rise above the rich symphonic sound is an overwhelming experience, but a solo recital allows a greater level of musical intimacy. We enjoy performing recitals together and testing each other’s musical reflexes! Both of us study chamber music and in addition to the pleasure of making music with friends, one is always enriched by the sharing of musical instincts and ideas.
What has been the highlight of your performing careers so far?
Ammiel: Performing Schumann’s music in his house, Grieg’s music in his house and performing on Liszt’s piano in Bayreuth. I have performed as soloist with every professional orchestra in South Africa, experiences I greatly enjoyed.
Avigail: Playing in Carnegie Hall in the Juilliard orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with JPO in the finals of the UNISA National Strings Competition. Each of the 16 times I have been soloist with an orchestra has been memorable.
What would be your ‘ultimate performance’ – where, what music, for whom?
Well…interesting question. Glenn Gould’s recording of one of Bach’s Preludes & Fugues is on the Voyager 1, which is now approaching interstellar space. Our performances will probably be confined only to this world [high five each other]. Yesterday we gave a recital which a previous teacher of ours attended. Afterwards he came backstage to greet us and had tears in his eyes. Although he could not speak, the thankfulness that he exuded touched us deeply. Such moments are very special to us. Whether we play in Carnegie Hall or at a retirement home, we aspire to communicate with our audience in a way that is meaningful for them as well as for us.
What do you enjoy doing when not studying, practising or performing?
We have many similarities: we both enjoy driving very fast and climbing mountains. We enjoy having heated arguments about everything ranging from the interpretation of Beethoven to who gets the last smartie in the box. We like to share recordings of new music we discovered, and discuss recordings of great musicians (sometimes these discussions also become heated arguments). We both are privileged to be able to attend many world-class concerts in Germany and New York respectively. Art galleries and museums are also among our interests. We both eagerly try to learn new languages as well (currently French, Hebrew and German).
Has having a close sibling practicing in the same field benefited you as individual performers, and how?
Immensely. It is a joy to share our ideas about music and to learn from the knowledge we have acquired after each year of our separate studies. Being siblings, we are very candid with when we rehearse together and do not hesitate to be ruthlessly critical of each other’s playing. Our repertoires individually expand when we combine our respective pieces in order to perform together on our South African tours.
What would your advice be to young and aspiring South African musicians? And do you think there are enough opportunities in SA for extraordinary talent?
Gary Player famously said that the more one practices, the luckier one gets. The cliché “practice makes perfect”, is not true in music, as we can never give a “perfect performance”, but it is true that more practice brings us musicians closer to a faithful interpretation of a piece of music. So… practice conscientiously, improve technically to make it easier to interpret in a way that will do justice to the music. Listen to great recordings, analyse it and learn from it. Attend operas, solo and chamber recitals and symphonic concerts. Be enterprising – look for opportunities to perform. South Africa has a tremendous stage for young musicians. We muse at how lucky we are to live in South Africa because of the wealth of performance opportunities, from recitals and concerto performances to the more off-beat interactions of different arts in art festivals. We definitely agree that SA offers enough opportunity for extraordinary talent.
Published by ClassicSA South Africa’s Priemier Classicla Musical Directoryhttp://www.classicsa.co.za/site