Playing Viola for Sia
by Gili Malinsky
In Williamsburg’s National Sawdust’s striking space, covered wall-to-ceiling with white panels and thick black lines, composer and violinist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin sets up his six-string violin and looper in front of the audience. He’s been improvising sets with the instrument-machine combo during performances, often with moving results. This time, within minutes, the room is filled with sounds of an entire orchestra of violins - happy, sad, piercing. Afterward his partner for the night, pianist Dan Tepfer, takes the stage again and they finish up with more of their original music and some Brahms.
Ljova, gifted in his multiple musical avenues, is one for experimentation. His resume boasts composing for virtuoso cellist Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, composing for the Parsons Dance Company, scoring films, performing on SNL with Sia (performing all over the world, really) and more, pushing the viola and violin to their boundaries. He’s played and written music ranging from folk to classical to Gypsy, always with intent to learn and do more.
For him, this diversity is clear. “I’m a working musician,” he says over coffee a few weeks before the show. “I do whatever needs to be done.”
“Today I woke up at 5:30 to go play school concerts in Queens,” he says.
Ljova started playing the violin at four-years-old back in his native Moscow, his mother, writer Irena Ginzburg, asking if he’d like to try. He did, and was subjected to hours of practice for many years before he, his mother and his father, celebrated Russian composer Alexander Zhurbin, moved to New York in 1990 (when he was 11) and he quit. Soon after, though, he’d pick up the viola, playing with others and eventually attending The Juilliard School. It was at that time that he would also join a wedding band. In New York’s salad of cultures and religions, he’d find himself playing Russian weddings, Hindu weddings, Catholic weddings, Jewish weddings, etc., all-the-while picking up new music and experimenting with his instrument. It was playing with this band that he’d truly discover Gypsy music, often from Romania, a sound that influences his writing and playing years after.
Gypsy songs “have this wonderful bitter sweet quality,” he says, “They’re very immediately emotional and unapologetically heartfelt. They’re also very happy. [They’re] telling you jokes but very serious jokes.” Having heard Ljova arranges Gypsy music, a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble asked if he’d arrange some for them, and soon he found himself working with artists and venues all over the city in a colorful mix of genres and traditions.
This Sunday he’ll return to National Sawdust with his band, Ljova and the Kontraband. As described on their website, they play new music with old magic, borrowing from classical, klezmer, tango, jazz and Gypsy. The band is his favorite, his wife its talented singer.
What can people expect from the show?
“We used to say ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might do a dance…'” He says.
Is that what they’d say now?
“Sure,” he says, “why not.”
Catch Ljova and the Kontraband this Sunday, March 6th, at 5pm at the National Sawdust.