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Concertmaster Jacques Israelievitch recalls ‘fake playing the violin with two sticks from the backyard’ before picking up his first real instrument at 8 years old.

Peter Tym/The Globe and Mail

After becoming obsessed with the violin as a child in 1950s France, Jacques Israelievitch grew up to become a familiar figure in international musical circles, eventually serving for 20 years as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – making him the longest-serving concertmaster in the orchestra's history.

The respected violinist, conductor and teacher died at his home in Toronto on Sept. 5 after a short battle with lung cancer. He was 67.

Jacques Israelievitch was born in Cannes, France, on May 6, 1948, then six weeks later the family returned to Paris, their original home. It was there – in the City of Light and in the city of Le Mans that the future violinist spent his formative years and where his obsession for the violin flourished.

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"When I was a little boy," he said in a recent interview, "I used to fake playing the violin with two sticks from the backyard." He was eight before he picked up his first real instrument and began serious violin studies at Le Mans Conservatoire. By the age of 11, he had progressed to such a degree that he made his French national radio broadcast debut.

Jacques's mother, Simone (née David), and father, Isadore, ran a clothing business, with stores in Paris and Le Mans, but a climate of anti-Semitism lingered in France during this period and they found themselves targeted and squeezed out of business. Jacques had memories being called "dirty little Jew" at school.

When the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the only daughter of the legendary vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild, heard about the plight of the talented young violinist, she agreed to sponsor his education.

Thanks to her largesse, Jacques studied with Henryk Szeryng and René Benedetti at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating at age 16. He subsequently moved to the United States, where he continued his studies at Indiana University with such exemplary musicians as Josef Gingold, Janos Starker, William Primrose and Menahem Pressler – the crème de la crème.

While in Indiana, Mr. Israelievitch's interests turned increasingly toward chamber and orchestral music, and in 1972, he began his orchestral career as the assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the legendary Sir Georg Solti. At the age of 23, he became the orchestra's youngest member.

In 1978, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra named him concertmaster, a position he held for 10 seasons; and in 1988, Gunther Herbig, the then-new conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, invited Mr. Israelievitch to Toronto to become concertmaster – a post he held until 2008.

"Jacques was an outstanding violinist/musician," says violinist Mark Skazinetsky, the orchestra's associate concertmaster, who shared a stand with Mr. Israelievitch for 20 years.

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"And right from the beginning we developed a fantastic relationship, both as colleagues and as friends. He was a very intelligent, knowledgeable and cultured individual. He really knew the repertoire – be it baroque, classical, romantic or contemporary – and he knew exactly what he wanted musically and how to achieve it."

While best known for his activities as concertmaster, Mr. Israelievitch was also active as a conductor, teacher, recording artist and avid connoisseur of Canadian art and ceramics.

"The piano was always covered with ceramics," says pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico, "and I was always nervous that if I played a chord too forcefully, a piece of ceramics would go flying off."

He also had an unending passion for chamber music, frequently performing with local musicians, TSO members, or with the likes of pianists Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 1999, he formed the Israelievitch Duo, a unique chamber ensemble for violin and percussion, with his son Michael, a percussionist and now acting principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony. Together they commissioned and premiered works by several distinguished contemporary composers.

Mr. Israelievitch also loved to teach and give master classes, and was reportedly an excellent teacher. He enjoyed the interaction with students and his students adored him. He has held teaching posts with York University, University of Toronto, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the Chautauqua Institution, in New York.

His first marriage, to Gail Ivy Bass, ended in divorce in 1985. When he met Gabrielle Rubin, a child psychologist who would become his second wife, theirs proved to be an unbeatable match that some could see clearly, but they could not. When Mr. Israelievitch first introduced her to his teacher Josef Gingold, he and Ms. Rubin had known each other for only three months.

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"His eyes danced upon our meeting," the former Ms. Rubin says, "and he asked when Jacques and I were getting married. We laughed it off. But a year and a half later, Jacques phoned him and informed him that we were, in fact, getting married.

"Mr. Gingold silently put down the phone, fetched his fiddle, and proceeded to play the Méditation from Thaïs. Jacques then asked if he would come play that at our wedding – and he did."

Mr. Israelievitch was slight of frame, with Gallic features, a gentle demeanour and a distinctive, infectious laugh. He was always casually – but stylishly – dressed, and was usually seen about town wearing his trademark beret. Laughter and conversation came easily, enhanced by his distinctive, lightly accented English, betraying his French origins.

Mr. Israelievitch had a close-knit family and saw his three sons as his greatest achievement. His wife called him her "boyfriend" throughout their 30-year marriage, describing their relationship as a "great romance."

Mr. Israelievitch also maintained close ties with his mother, who lived in Paris. He would use Skype so that she could hear him playing his violin in Toronto.

In August, Mr. Israelievitch was invested into the Order of Canada, one of the country's most prestigious honours. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, presented the insignia at a private ceremony at his home.

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Mr. Israelievitch's other honours include his 1995 appointment as a chevalier, or knight, to France's Order of Arts and Letters, and his promotion in 2004 to the status of officier, or officer, one of France's highest cultural accolades. He is also the recipient of a lifetime achievement award, presented to him by the Toronto Musicians' Association in recognition of his distinguished contribution to the performing arts in Canada.

With the announcement of his death, flags at York University and the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa, were flown at half-mast. On Sept. 19, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell performed Rachmaninoff's Vocalise with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in memory of Mr. Israelievitch; while the Toronto Symphony Orchestra plans to dedicate its Sept. 25 performance to his memory. A memorial concert is also being planned for a later date.

Mr. Israelievitch was in the midst of recording 28 Mozart violin sonatas with pianist Ms. Petrowska Quilico – a frequent collaborator. Given the severity of his illness and the effects of its treatment, however, everyone assumed that the project would have to remain incomplete. There were six sonatas left to be recorded.

"But one day in May," says Ms. Petrowska, "Jacques called me and said, 'I'm going to do them! So go home and practice.'" After rehearsing for a couple of days, the pair went into the studio and recorded the remaining six sonatas in 3 1/2 hours.

"We simply sat down and did them," says Ms. Petrowska Quilico. "It was such an emotional experience. Jacques started to cry. And I started to cry. … He just played with his heart."

His final public recital was on July 11.

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Mr. Israelievitch is survived by his wife, Gabrielle; three sons, David James, Michael Benjamin and Joshua Alexander; and two grandchildren, Aya and Bennett. His mother, Simone; sister, Régine; and brother, Edmond, live in Paris.

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