Goodwill ambassador

Violinist Sharon Cohen represents the IPO and Israel at Alan Gilbert’s Farewell ‘Concert for Unity’ at Lincoln Center, June 8-10


A United Nations of music is coming together within blocks of United Nations Plaza. Individual members of 17 orchestras in 15 countries are joining with the New York Philharmonic for “The Concert for Unity,” June 7-10. Among them, 34-year-old violinist Sharon Cohen will represent both the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the State of Israel.

They will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the evenings of June 8, 9 and 10, marking the end of both the New York Philharmonic’s current season and the eight-season tenure of conductor Alan Gilbert. On June 8, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and members of his Silk Road Ensemble will perform a separate program, with Mr. Gilbert on violin. Setting the stage to “celebrate the power of music to build bridges and unite people across borders” will be a free symposium on June 7, hosted by Fareed Zakari and moderated by Mr. Gilbert, entitled “What Is Cultural Diplomacy?”



If the convening musicians have been chosen to project national character as well as artistic quality, then Israel and the IPO are well served by Ms. Cohen. Enthusiastic, engaging, and as ready with a deep laugh as she is to discuss the deeper resonance of her music, she already has a solid history of bridge-building collaborations.

Devotion to her instrument began, almost mystically, just blocks from the UN and Lincoln Center.

“When I was 3, I told my parents I wanted to learn violin,” she said by phone in early May. “They were excited about it, but as Israelis living in Manhattan they didn’t know people in that line of work and weren’t sure what to do.”

An instrument was found and within two years a Juilliard violin teacher had arranged lessons for her with one of his students. She recently discovered videotapes of herself playing at that age and was pleasantly surprised.

“I have to say, it was pretty beautiful … for a kid,” she said.

Her family moved back to Israel, but she returned to the States for a Masters of Music degree from the New England Conservatory. Clearly a believer that “rests” should be limited to her violin parts, she augmented her studies by co-founding the self-conducted Chamber Orchestra A Far Cry. Although she surrendered membership when she joined the IPO in 2012, she joins them when she can, most recently in a May 26 concert with members of the Silk Road Ensemble.



In addition to five seasons globetrotting with the IPO, Cohen has been a member of Daniel Barenboim‘s West Eastern Divan Orchestra since she was 20, and, having played with members of the Qatar Symphony, Tehran Symphony and others, expects to recognize other Concert for Unity musicians.

Gilbert has said he wants “Concert for Unity” to continue after he retires his Philharmonic baton, and having Cohen in the string section is a good omen. Her prescience in identifying an instrument of expression at such a young age suggests one born with an old soul, and whether it is with her music, an orchestra, her friends and family, herself or AFIPO members, she likes relationships to last.

“I really love the fact that the violin sound has infinite duration,” she once told a reporter. “The Italian word is sostenuto: You can make the sound seem endless, like something unnatural.”

“I always feel very curious about the people who – a propos of sostenuto – sustain my life as a musician,” she said. “When I meet them after a concert or at an event, the personal connection becomes like a commitment to each other.

“And it goes both ways,” she continued. “Musicians must hold to their aspirations. I’m realizing more and more, and on deeper levels, about the connection between myself as a person and myself as violinist. At the core of being a performing artist you need to be very honest with yourself, and by knowing yourself you know what you’re trying to project. I often think that if I am the most honest to myself, then others will connect more deeply with the music I create.”



The launch of Gilbert’s international bridge-building effort immediately precedes Cohen’s most significant connection. In July she marries her boyfriend, an IT professional, and the sound that has been her lifelong love can also serve as a metaphor.

“I never gave much thought to exactly why I loved the sound of the violin,” she said. “But I do think kids, actually, at a very young age can just love something, deeply. And usually if they follow what they love, they’ll continue loving it.

“Certainly one thing that attracted me to the violin was that bowing permits the sound to be continuous. There’s something very … eternal about it,” she said finally. “The sound of a violin does not end when there is no more breath.”




Note: The June 10 performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 will be streamed on Facebook Live. Click here for more information.

June 2017