Although Yuriy Bekker, the easy-going young concertmaster for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, was bar mitzvahed at 13, he's not devout. Still, it's not hard for him to connect to his heritage.
He doesn't have to watch The Pianist or Life is Beautiful to learn about the Holocaust; he spent the first ten years of his life in Minsk, Belarus. The Minsk Mazowiecki Ghetto was one of the largest in Europe, where over 100,000 people were forced into a small urban area behind barbed wires.
"My grandmother, 11 of her relatives died, but she evacuated, left everything behind, her house," Bekker says.
His family emigrated to the United Sates in the early '90s.
"I grew up experiencing some anti-Semitism," he says. "We were not allowed to practice our religion, we were afraid, and that's why I'm here in this country. I definitely feel much freer in this country to be who I am."
As the first violinist in the CSO, Bekker usually performs what Maestro David Stahl or resident conductor Scott Terrell choose, but he was free to select his own repertoire for a solo recital at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue this Sunday, part of Piccolo's "Day of Jewish Culture."
It happens to be the second annual concert of Jewish composers by a young Jewish CSO concertmaster. Last year, Diana Cohen played with her father, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen, performing a program ranging from klezmer to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
Bekker, who'll be accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong, has likewise chosen a mix of heavy and light. The program starts with Aaron Copland's Sonata for Violin and Piano, which Bekker calls "a very beautiful, very American-sounding piece by a true American composer."
Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch, subtitled "Three Pictures of Hasidic Life," is clearly a serious, traditional-minded Jewish piece; the first movement is "Contrition," the second "Improvisation," and the third "Rejoicing." On the lighter side is Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Gerswhin's Porgy and Bess and two pieces by Fritz Kreisler, whose work Bekker describes as "schmaltzy — you know, easy to the ear, with lots of slides."
(Today's Jewish culture lesson — Bekker's grandmother spoke Yiddish but he was stumped as to the original meaning of "schmaltzy." A quick check on Wikipedia says schmaltz is rendered duck or chicken fat for spreading on bread.)
This is Bekker's second time playing in Charleston during Festival season. He was an associate concertmaster with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in 2002.
"It's going to be a busy time, playing the operas and the pops concerts," he says, speaking from Houston while on mini-vacation earlier this month, having been on tour with the Degas String Quartet in Chicago.
On Sat. June 2, he joins Charleston Virtuosi founder flutist Tacy Edwards and other colleagues as they perform new music by local composers Edward Hart and Trevor Wilson. The last weekend of the festival, the CSO plays Swan Lake for the State Ballet of Georgia. His work already cut out for him with the score, Bekker will also have to keep his eyes on the electric prima ballerina, Nina Ananiashvili.
"It's a very difficult piece, tons of solos for the first violin," he says. "But that's great, I love it. When I'm busy, that's when I play my best."
Yuriy Bekker in Recital • Piccolo Spoleto's Spotlight Concert Series • $12 • (1 hour 15 min.) • June 3 at 6 p.m. • Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, 90 Hasell St. • 554-6060