Johnny Gandelsman
Marco Giannavola/Courtesy of Johnny Gandelsman
Johnny Gandelsman

A violin virtuoso’s musical take on the big issues

Johnny Gandelsman will perform an anthology of music written in 2020, after he ‘invited a wide array of American or U.S.-based composers to reflect on the current state of society in a personal and intimate way’

When Johnny Gandelsman performs at Next Stage Arts on Wednesday, Feb. 7, the Grammy award–winning violin virtuoso, composer, producer, and former member of the Silkroad Ensemble will perform works that respond to the turbulent and disconnected time of the early pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

In his anthology, "This Is America: Part II," Gandelsman tackles big issues like Covid lockdowns, the push for racial justice in the aftermath of Floyd's death while in police custody, climate change, and divisive issues like the slogan, "Make America Great Again" in his anthology.

The performance is part of Gandelsman's year-long residency at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center for the Arts ("the Hop"), which is co-presenting the program with Next Stage.

As described by its publicity materials, "This Is America: Part II" includes compelling new works as it "celebrates America's rich cultural tapestry through the eyes of contemporary composers."

Gandelsman "brings a wealth of cultural influences to the stage," says Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts. "His ability to seamlessly blend genres is a testament to his artistry."

Over the course of his residency, he is performing the anthology and expanding the project with three new Hop-commissioned pieces. The winter concert features "Breathe," a composition by Kojiro Umezaki, commissioned by the Hop.

One of the pieces, "O," by Clarice Assad, directly responds to Floyd's murder. Program notes explain more:

"O, the symbol for Oxygen. As we withdrew from the social arena, we watched in horror [as] a newly discovered virus take down thousands of people from acute respiratory failure every day. Some succumbed from complications of the disease, others for lack of respirators. Preventive measures required the whole of humanity to wear masks, to protect each other from an infection that could spread through the air.

"Soon after, another tragedy. This time, oxygen would take center stage and be violently obstructed, by force, from entering the lungs in George Floyd's body, whose last words, 'I can't breathe,' echoed through the four corners of the world, causing pain, anger, outrage. The air was thick with doubt and fear."

Gandelsman was born in Moscow, by way of Israel, and moved to the U.S. in 1995. His father, Yuri, is a violist; his mother, Janna, is a pianist; and his sister, Natasha, is a violinist.

As a founding member of Brooklyn Rider and a former member of the Silkroad Ensemble, Gandelsman has worked with such luminaries as Béla Fleck, Martin Hayes, Kayhan Kalhor, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark Morris.

As a concert soloist he has premiered dozens of new works and has released albums by The Knights, the Silkroad Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, and others on his label, In a Circle Records, which he started in 2008.

In 2016, Gandelsman won a Grammy award for "best world music album" for co-producing the album by the Silkroad Ensemble, Sing Me Home.

Gandelsman, 45, spoke by phone from his home in New Paltz, New York recently and told The Commons how "This Is America: Part II" came about. We talked about where he studied violin and what he hopes the audience will take away from his upcoming performance.

* * *

Victoria Chertok: What was your vision for the anthology, and how did it come about?

Johnny Gandelsman: Every piece was commissioned by me from the composers. Each of the composers wrote that piece specifically for me for this project.

It came together in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. My family and I moved to New Hampshire for what we thought was going to be a few weeks, and we ended up staying for six months.

We were just observing what was happening in the world. I thought that it would be interesting to commission people to write new works and just reflect on that period of time.

I commissioned over 20 works for violin by American composers and composers who live in America, and this anthology is the result.

I'm an artist in residence at Dartmouth this year, and the Hop at Dartmouth is a great presenter. I've been there many times with different groups, and I'm very grateful to them.

This is the first time presenting the whole project, which is about four hours of music by one presenter across a season. It's unusual and very cool!

[Dartmouth has] also commissioned three new works since the original anthology was created. So three new works will be premiered specifically during this season, and that is very special.

V.C.: So every piece in this program is for solo violin.

J.G.: Yes, every piece is written for solo violin and some pieces have electronics that come with them.

V.C.: What do you hope the audience will take away with from the concert?

J.G.: This music was created during a specific period of time four years ago - a very volatile time, for many reasons. And revisiting these pieces, I'm remembering what it felt like to experience 2020 in isolation and how scared we were about what was happening - the Covid pandemic - and for the world, as a very volatile election was going on.

I'm hoping the audience will come in with open minds and open ears to hear something that ends up being memorable to them.

V.C.: When did you start playing the violin? Did you play any other instruments?

J.G.: I started playing when I was 5 years old. I never really questioned it for a long time. For this project I had to figure out how to play the guitar, but I don't really play other instruments.

V.C.: What type of violin do you play?

J.G.: My violin was made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz in 2008 in Brooklyn, one of the premier instrument makers in the world. I've been playing it since it was made.

V.C.: Where did you study violin, and who were some of your teachers?

J.G.: I studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where I studied with Jascha Brodsky, Arnold Steinhardt, and Peter Oundjian.

V.C.: Lastly, how did the concert in Putney come about?

J.G.: I know Keith [Marks], as we have played there with Brooklyn Rider a few years ago. Every visit that I do at Dartmouth includes a concert somewhere in the community, and this time it's at Next Stage and I'm really excited about it.

When we were there with Brooklyn Rider, it was a great crowd. I'm excited to see people at a live show. I think it will be really fun.

* * *

Johnny Gandelsman, Grammy award-winning violinist, performs "This Is America: Part II" at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7 at Next Stage Arts, 15 Kimball Hill, Putney.

Tickets are $20 ($12, youth and student; $10, current Dartmouth College students) for the live performance and $10 to access a livestream.

Next Stage will provide a beer, wine, and cocktail cash bar.

For more information, call 802-387-0102 or visit

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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