clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


As Nell Gotkovsky opens her studio door in the Harris Fine Arts Center at Brigham Young University, her face lights up with an incandescent smile, and you are enveloped in heady warmth as she turns her complete attention to you. To this woman, who has played for kings and potentates, you are at that moment the most important person in the world.

But first she must usher out a student - a slim, quiet girl who seems excessively subdued. Nell suggests alternatives to practicing heavily and meeting a full lesson schedule, and invites her to drop in for a little help whenever she can."She was in an accident this summer, and she feels her playing is threatened," said Nell, speaking in a throaty, intimate French accent.

Then you settle down for a chat with this woman, a violin virtuoso whose career has encompassed a grueling schedule of performance all over the world, but who slowed down because she wants to enjoy the simple pleasures of life: being in the kitchen, seeing the flowers bloom, reading a good book.

BYU's newest virtuoso-teacher will be introduced to Utahns in two upcoming events.

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23, Nell Gotkovsky will give a joint recital with her brother, pianist Ivar Gotkovsky, in the Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center. The free program will feature Mozart's Variations on "Helas j'ai perdu mon amant" in G minor, K.360, and sonatas of Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev.

In November she will perform in a new group to be known as the Artaria Trio, with Ivar Gotkovsky and cellist Roger Drinkall, a fellow faculty member at BYU.

"I always knew I would be a violinist," said Nell Gotkovsky, who as a child prodigy entered the Paris Conservatory at 12. "Three of my family have become professional musicians - besides myself and Ivar, my sister Ida is a composer."

Though Gotkovsky finished conservatory at 16, taking all prizes in performance, theory, harmony and musicology, her father quickly put things in perspective by saying, "Now everything is going to begin!"

"My father, Yaker Gotkovsky, was a violinist with the Quartet Capet, which came to BYU during the 1940s, and he played here with the Loewenguth Quartet also," she recalled.

Her 17th year (1956) was a banner year for the young artist, who won second prize and the silver medal at the Geneva Competition, and at the Warsaw Competition encountered David Oistrakh, with whom she studied, then moved on to the tutelage of Ivan Galamian and Joseph Szigeti.

In 1962 she made a fruitful connection with Walter Legge, then of EMI Records, and made her London debut under Otto Klemperer, playing the Brahms concerto. She also worked on interpretation of Schubert and Mozart with the great lieder singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

She has played concertos with conductors Giulini, Sawallisch, Boult, Ansermet, Kleiber, Dorati, Fruebeck de Burgos, Ceccato, De Waart, Davies, Dutoit and many others, with all the major English orchestras and those of Berlin, Chicago, Vienna, Hamburg and Munich and l'Orchestre National de France. Her repertory encompasses 46 concertos, including modern works of Schoenberg, Weill, Berg, Korngold, Britten, Barber, Shostakovich and Martinu.

With her first recording for EMI in 1963 (six Bartok duets with Yehudi Menuhin) began an outpouring of highly acclaimed discs on that label and for RCA. In 1972 she and Ivar began concertizing as a duo, to glowing critical acclaim, and as she has turned increasingly to the chamber repertory, they have made numerous recordings together, often on RCA.

Though Gotkovsky concertized more in Europe (England, France, Germany and Switzerland) than here, to cognoscenti she is well known. "At 22 I made my first tour of the United States, and played with the Chicago Symphony," she said. "After that I made many tours, as a recital soloist and chamber music player, and I have given many master classes here."

In 1985 she undertook an exclusive contract with Pyramid Records for compact discs, an association that continues. Recent recordings have included the Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven violin-piano sonatas.

In 1984, Gotkovsky was knighted by French President Francois Mitterand, becoming a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. "I was on tour, and I didn't know about it until I got back to France," she laughed.

Among her treasures, she counts the bow of Lucien Capet, her father's associate, which she received from his daughter three years ago. She also has the bow of Eugene Isaye, and her 1770 Guadagnini violin was offered to her by American arts patron Hans Popper. "I love my violin," she said, drawing a few brilliant, golden tones from it, then kissing it. "The varnish is the original, it has never been touched."

Turning to the childhood that shaped the woman, she related, "My father was born in Odessa, and my mother was French-Norwegian. They settled in France, where I had a marvelous childhood. My parents agreed that nature and art were the most important things. I have this feeling that the Mormon way is the way I was brought up.

"We were Protestants in a small village, and my father was a farmer as well as an artist, who believed strongly that human beings should live by the work of their hands. So we harvested the wheat each year, and took care of our animals. We five children all attended the village school, and we studied painting, literature and music. Every Sunday we had tea, with chocolate and jam, and we all played - piano, clarinet, cello, viola and violin - and sang together, religious songs as well."

During World War II her father and mother joined the resistance, and Gotkovsky proudly displayed a commendation to Yaker Gotkovsky, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for helping Allied soldiers escape the Gestapo. He also received the U.S. Medal of Freedom for his work.

Though Nell Gotkovsky was very small, she remembers well the danger and dread of hiding American soldiers in the house and about the farm, sometimes in holes in the ground, and the terror when the Gestapo would visit their house. "We children would take food to the soldiers where they were hidden, as if we were going out to play," she said. "And we had a teletype machine to receive messages about paratroopers landing."

Just before the Americans liberated Paris, her father had an encounter with novelist Ernest Hemingway.

"Hemingway came through our house, and he wanted to dash right on to Paris, to be the first American there. My father said don't dream of it, you will be killed, and he locked Hemingway up - which made him furious, but it probably saved his life. The next day when it was safe, Hemingway traveled the 45 kilometers to Paris."

Gotkovsky taught at Tulsa University 1983-86, and last year looked around for another school. "I had offers from some very big ones like Chicago and Miami, but when I came here I was so taken with the wonderful spirit of the place. People here have such beautiful ideals and goals," she said.

"I stayed for four days, and applied for a job right after Christmas. My husband had doubts, but the music department invited us both to come, and he is just as impressed as I am."

Gotkovsky's husband, writer Daniel Odier, is working on an "enormous novel" right now, she said. He also writes for Pocket Books under the nom de plume Delacorta, and is best known for his novel "Diva," upon which the fascinating movie was based.

She met Odier 22 years ago, after playing a Mozart concerto in Festival Hall in London. "As arts critic for a newspaper, he came to my concert," she said. "Backstage during the interval he introduced himself, saying he was a critic, and I instinctively replied, `Oh, please go away, I hate critics!

"After the second half as I signed autographs, he was still there. Three days later I played for a broadcast of the BBC, and I invited him to come. One month later we flew to France to visit my family. Then he left to spend a year in a Tibetan monastery! He sent me one postcard, with one word on it, `Love.' Shortly after he came back, we were married."

Having "had it all" concertizing and performing, Nell now is ready to devote herself to teaching, though she continues to record.

"I have a gift for pedagogy, and I want to pass my music along," she said. "I no longer want to be forever in planes and changing hotels, or at big receptions. I like the quiet working life, I want to spend my time concentrating on a beautiful piece of music. It is a joy to be with good people, or alone with my husband to talk about books, or to garden."