Igor Gersh is a professional viola player who has played in orchestras in New Jersey and Chicago after emigrating from Russia. But Gersh, 63, also has an expertise that not every strings player has — being a luthier.
During the seasons at Chautauqua, Gersh works as a luthier to help strings players with their instruments, at the little “violin shop” — as Gersh himself calls it — with a window open on the porch of Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. During the rest of the year, Gersh practices his craft in his private studio in Baltimore and works part-time at Potter Violins in Washington D.C.
Gersh attended conservatory to study music performance. But all his life, he’s been the “repair person for my house and everything.” Gersh also said that he “really like(s) to work with wood.”
He attended Chicago School of Violin Making for three years, while he was a freelance musician in the city at the time.
“I was sitting in between two chairs: a musician and a luthier, but now I am a full-time luthier,” Gersh said.
Maya Fields, viola student in the Music School Festival Orchestra, needed help with her instrument at the very beginning of July. The weather was very humid, Fields said, and the tuning pegs on her viola were affected by the humidity.
“The C peg was affected to the point that I was unable to turn it,” Fields said.
Fields went to Gersh to ask whether he could put some peg dope on her viola’s C peg, so that she could be able to tune her instrument “with ease.” Fields said Gersh did so gladly.
“I asked him if I owed him anything for the job,” Fields said. “He told me that I didn’t owe him anything for his work, and I thanked him for what he had done for my instrument.”
Yejoo “Esther” Lee, violin student in the MSFO, remembered another instance of Gersh’s help.
“I asked to buy a mute once because I lost mine, and when I mentioned that I would return with money, he just handed me one, free of charge,” Lee said. “I was extremely grateful because I was in desperate need of a mute for all of the pieces we were playing that week.”
Gersh has been coming to the Institution for 11 years, and he described Chautauqua as a “great” and “unbelievable” place, where he has formed deep connections with many strings players in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and MSFO, and many other Chautauquans.
“I consider myself to be very lucky to be here, because each time, after all the years of coming, it’s like a family,” Gersh said. “Everybody knows me. Everybody likes me. I like everybody. … It’s unbelievable.”
Gersh’s wife, Irene, came to Chautauqua with her husband at the beginning of this season.
“I witnessed how everyone was giving him hugs. He got lots of hugs,” she said. “… It warms your heart.”
Gersh not only fixes the technical aspects of a string instrument, but he also rehairs, repairs and restores the bow, if necessary.
“It’s very important to do the rehair right because it affects the balance. It’s very tricky, (with) many small details involved,” Gersh said.
Gersh works part-time in Washington D.C. for Dalton Potter, who told him that Gersh has “a touch.” Gersh said he finds it difficult to explain in words what it is that he feels he should do with a string instrument.
“I think I have an advantage, because I am a musician, and I feel what the performers need, for bow hair, for adjustment, anything,” Gersh said. “And they like it. … They like how I rehair the bow. Maybe I have a touch, even though I can’t explain what it is.”
What strings musicians do with the bow, Gersh said, “is (how) you produce the sound, and it’s very, very important.”
“The instrument is very important, but so is the bow. I really believe that the bow is even more important than the instrument,” Gersh said. “Because it’s your voice. It’s your tongue. It is what you do with the right hand with the bow, not what you do here, with the left hand.”
Daniel Kaler played Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 as a soloist with MSFO on Aug. 13. Kaler said Gersh’s work “had been super helpful in allowing me to go after all of the musical ideas that I wanted to express more freely.”
“Igor is a really wonderful luthier that the Institution, the music program, and the CSO are all very lucky to have,” Kaler said. “In the several years that I’ve known him and have had issues with my instrument or bow, he has always made time to help me out and has been immensely helpful. He does work of the highest caliber and has my highest recommendation.”
This summer, for instance, Kaler said, he has had many issues with his cello’s sound post, overall playability and string height. He said every time he came to Gersh with his worries and concerns about his equipment — on however short of a notice — Gersh “was always there and was a real lifesaver.”
According to Kaler, Gersh is also starting a company of his own, called My Bow Express.
“(It) would allow me to ship my bow to him for a rehair from wherever I am,” Kaler said. “I’m really happy to be able to use his services not only in the summer, but year-round.”