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Grammy-winning violinist Johnny Gandelsman finally performing long-awaited San Diego concerts

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman considers the audience an integral partner in his concerts, whether it’s with the intrepid Brooklyn Rider string quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble or a herculean solo performance.

“I spend many hours practicing,” Gandelsman said. “But you can only learn about how the piece affects you when you play it for an audience.

“It immediately changes everything about how I play, how I listen. You can spend 100 percent of time learning a piece in your room and then you learn 100 percent more on how you’re affected by the piece when you perform it.”

Born in Moscow and raised in Russia and Israel, Gandelsman came to the U.S. to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 1995. He won a 2016 Best World Music Grammy Award for co-producing “Sing Me Home,” by Silk Road Ensemble.

Gandelsman’s exquisite “JS Bach: Complete Cello Suites (Transcribed for violin),” was released in February 2020, a month before his original concert with Art of Elan, which had to cancel it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Art of Elan is bringing Gandelsman to San Diego to open its 15th season with “This is America” at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) Central in Balboa Park and “BaCH @ The JAI | Bach Cello Suites” at The JAI at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

“This is America” is a new recording project featuring more than 20 works for solo violin, written by American and U.S.-based artists. The project was commissioned by 20 arts organizations from the United States, including Art of Elan.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic caused cancellation of his national tour more than once, Gandelsman used the time to put “This is America” together. The concert features a diverse array of contemporary composers, including many women.

“BaCH @ The JAI | Bach Cello Suites,” meanwhile, will feature the formidable violinist performing all six suites.

With the cello suites, Gandelsman respectfully fiddles a bit with Bach. He was inspired by his friend and frequent collaborator, Irish master fiddler Martin Hayes.

“Martin’s an incredible violin player,” Gandelsman said. “He bows with so much beautiful articulation. I love that. While working on the cello suites, I tried to see if I could approach them in a little more of a fiddle position, not really baroque. I love folk music.”

Because Bach indicated a five-string cello should be used to perform the sixth suite, Gandelsman learned to play a five-string violin.

“It gave me an opportunity for growth,” he said. “It’s unusual in the classical-music world to play a five-string. But in the fiddle world, it’s very common. I really enjoyed it.”

The violinist has known the husband-and-wife team of former New York cellist Alex Greenbaum and violinist Kate Hatmaker, executive director of Art of Elan, for more than a decade.

“It’s a real thrill to have Johnny in San Diego for these two highly compelling and contrasting programs,” said Art of Elan co-founder and artistic director Kate Hatmaker. “‘This is America’ features such a diverse lineup of artists and sound worlds from folk music to jazz to more classical pieces; it’s like a musical tapestry reflecting our country’s current culture. And to have him perform the complete Bach Cello Suites on violin the following night is almost mind-blowing. Johnny is truly one of the most versatile and thoughtful artists out there right now and we cannot wait to share his talent with our San Diego audiences.”

Art of Elan, under Hatmaker’s direction, launched the BaCH Initiative (Beyond a Concert Hall) in 2019. Its goal is to present Bach’s works in nontraditional spaces.

“We’re very close musically and otherwise,” Gandelsman said. In 2019, “our family came out to San Diego and it was fun. It’s really nice to have friends like them. You bring them an idea: `I want to play cello suites, what do you think?’ It’s so encouraging when they say: ‘Yes, of course’!”

Gandelsman is no novice at these two-hour solo concerts. In 2018, he recorded and performed Bach’s Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Violin on tour, including a concert at the Carlsbad Music Festival.

What attracts him to the musical equivalent of running marathons?

“I like the idea of a deep dive into something,” Gandelsman said. “Most of my time is with Brooklyn Rider, Silk Road Ensemble and other groups. And I produce records. All of that has to do with working with a lot of people and aligning multiple schedules. There’s something refreshing about being responsible for just yourself.

“I got excited about doing the cello suites, but people were saying: `Why would you do that?’ `What would cellists say?’ Many people said not to do it. That just gave me more motivation.

“It’s been so rewarding to work on these pieces and to now have this other body of work that I know from the inside.”

‘This is America’ with Johnny Gandelsman

When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13. Doors open for exhibition viewing of “Gabriel Rico: Unity in Variety” at 6 p.m.

Where: Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) Central, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: $35 general admission, $25 ICA members, $10 students

Online: artofelan.org/concerts/johnny-gandelsman

‘BaCH @ The JAI | Bach Cello Suites’

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14. Pre-concert talk at 6 p.m. by cellist and Baroque specialist Alex Greenbaum.

Where: The JAI, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $35 to $75

Online: artofelan.org/concerts/jai-concert

Wood is a freelance writer.