Magazine article Strings

Kickin' It Old School

Magazine article Strings

Kickin' It Old School

Article excerpt



A viola can be a great wingman. It helped Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin join a Gypsy band's substitute list and woo the singer who would become his wife. It has also come to define his entire life. At the moment, it's tucked away in a tailor-made case at his side as he cools off on a bench in Central Park.

It's late September. In a few hours, at 2:30 AM, Ljova (pronounced: L'yova) - as he is affectionately known on stage and in the studio - will catch a train from New York to Boston to hear Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble work on his new composition, "Falling Down Everywhere." After another day of rehearsals, he'll bus back to Manhattan, just in time to see solo violinist Tim Pain perform his work "Sicilienne," which Fain recorded for his Naxos debut. Less than an hour later, he'll take the stage to perform more original music in the aptly named BarmaLjova duo, with his vocalist 'attorney wife, Inna Barmash. After the show, he'll head home to his Upper West Side apartment to check on his two sons, toddler Benjamin and baby Yosif.

But right now, he's focused on his far-flung career as a performer, composer, and arranger. "I try to fall not too far behind," Ljova says, as he checks missed calls from Brooklyn Philharmonic artistic director Alan Pierson, who is inquiring about a commission for Russian cartoon music and looming deadlines.

Twelve hours before the marathon begins, he's cooling down after a sweltering photo shoot on the roof of his personal recording space, a cozy 330 -square-foot studio apartment that's decorated with Kontraband and Brooklyn Rider concert posters and equipped with soundproof windows. He also has another Chamber Music America commission for the aforementioned Brooklyn Rider weighing heavily on his mind. But he's accustomed to the hustle.

Ljova is first and foremost a violist. Simply refer to his incredibly intimate CD Vjola: World on Four Strings (from 2005, but just re-released) or the seductive Mnemosyne (2008) by Ljova and the Kontraband (Ljova; vocalist Inna Barmash; accordionist Patrick Farrell; percussionist Mathias Kunzíi; and bassist and banjoist Mike Savino), a regular at popular New York alt-music venues Joe's Pub and Barbes.

Ljova is also a noted composer. He's written more than 70 works and arranged music for ensembles of all sizes and genres. Tapping into his Russian- Jewish roots, Ljova chiefly exports Eastern European and Gypsy music, though he's penned string pads for hip-hop mogul Jay-Z just as easily as he's arranged for the Kronos Quartet.

"[Ljova] is one of those people for whom music is breathing - it's everything and everywhere," says Silk Road and Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman, Ljova's cousin by blood. "He has an incredible ear, and he can play pretty much anything."

In addition to ensemble work, Ljova is a seasoned film and TV composer and has written music for four feature-length and more than a dozen short films. He was one of six composers invited to the 2005 Sundance Institute's Film Composers Lab; has had work licensed by HBO, PBS, and the BBC, among others; and has lectured at New York University on the subject.

In December, Ljova released the album Lost in Kino, which he celebrated with a recent concert at Lincoln Center. A retrospective of his film work from 2005 to 2011, the music can be heard in films by directors Shailly Agnihotri, Josef Astor, Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Gannet, Robin Hessman, Roman Khrushch, James Marsh, Lev Polyakov, andBasiaWinograd.

The 24 tracks feature Ljova's friends from other ensembles and walks of life, including Barmash with Gypsy party band Romashka, Savino's Tall Tall Trees, and pipa player Wu Man. Ljova also plays viola, fiddle, and "famiola" (a six-string violin/viola/cello hybrid) on the album.

"The album has two sides," Ljova says. "It has a happy side, and then there's a gloomy nostalgic side, and then there's a happyending track at the end. …

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