Anne-Sophie Mutter Exclusive Interview: September 20, 2011
Rel. 13 Sep 2011
On Tuesday, August 30, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with legendary German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, as Deutsche Grammophon prepares to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of her career with a series of three new releases: a 40-CD box set retrospective, a 2-CD “Highlights” CD, and a new collection of ASM commissions by composers Wolfgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Sebastian Currier. In this insightful and wide-ranging discussion, Ms. Mutter discusses the origins of these three new releases, with particular emphasis on the inception and musical nature of the new commissions. The two also discuss Ms. Mutter’s educational background in the school of famed violin pedagogue Carl Flesch, her deep commitment to nurturing young musicians – as with the virtuoso double bassist Roman Patkolo, the necessity and joy of re-discovering familiar repertoire, her views on the importance of music education as a conduit to a better world, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Anne-Sophie Mutter Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Anne-Sophie Mutter videos; plus, as a special treat, DG is offering all visitors to Classical Archives a FREE STREAM of Ms. Mutter performing Mozart. Don’t miss this eloquent discussion with a most celebrated and inspiring violinist!
“The strange and wonderful thing is that when I re-explore a piece of music – hopefully with wider and more knowledgeable eyes, and with greater sensitivity – I appreciate this experience as much as I enjoy immersing myself in a totally new piece, with its own unique musical language.”
– Anne-Sophie Mutter
Nolan Gasser: Anne-Sophie Mutter, welcome to Classical Archives. 2011 is very much a banner year for classical music anniversaries: birthdays for Liszt and Menotti, passing anniversaries for Mahler and Victoria, among many others. Now, I imagine that you might protest a bit being placed in such historic company, but you must admit that it’s not every classical performer who, a mere 35 years after their first major concert at the tender age of 13, is honored by a 40-CD set by such a major label as Deutsche Grammophon, along with 2 other new releases. So, if you had to, to what forces, internal or external, would you above all attribute your ability to create and sustain such a vibrant career?
Anne-Sophie Mutter: What has always conducted my life is a curiosity for the violin and its repertoire; but also my innate passion – which came over me like a flu at the age of five, when I suddenly decided I wanted to take violin lessons. My first lessons, with Erna Honigberger [a student of famed violin pedagogue Carl Flesch], were really a piece of cake; everything seemed to be natural and almost déjà vu. I actually don't think it's an achievement to still be passionate about the violin after 35 years; after all, I’ve only covered a small part of the huge violin repertoire out there, so my curiosity is in fact growing by the day; and every new piece I premiere, and every commission I make, just adds fuel on the fire.
I must say that I'm extremely grateful and flattered… I mean flattered is not even the word… it's just amazing that Universal [Music Group, the parent company of the Deutsche Grammophon label] is going through such efforts to put this beautiful box set together; and I'm very excited that we were able to include a few radio broadcasts with [her long-time piano accompanist] Lambert Orkis – of pieces we love, but had never came around to properly record. I’ve always believed strongly in live recordings, and so it was a wonderful coincidence that we were able to resurrect a few of our favorites – like Schumann’s Violin Sonata in D minor [No.2, Op.80], and include it in the collection; as well as a recording of me playing at the age of 10 – since I thought it would be fun to hear where the whole thing began.
NG: Indeed, one of the blessings of being in the music business is having an endless repertoire to explore…
ASM: Yes, and to re-explore. The strange and wonderful thing is that when I re-explore a piece of music – hopefully with wider and more knowledgeable eyes, and with greater sensitivity – I appreciate this experience as much as I enjoy immersing myself in a totally new piece, with its own unique musical language.
NG: That’s a topic I hope we can come back to – that is, revisiting works that you've lived with in the past.
But first, we've talked about this wonderful 40-CD box set, which seems like quite an undertaking: containing the complete catalog of your 38 CDs on Deutsche Grammophon, plus, as you've mentioned, two CDs of previously un-released material – as well as a 300 page book of interviews, essays, and photos. I’m curious as to how involved you were personally in creating this package, or whether it was more of a gift from DG?
ASM: The idea came from Deutsche Grammophon, though I was involved in gathering information for the booklet, as well as old photos from my childhood related to my profession – which weren’t easy to find, but were great fun to dig up. And my daughter worked with me to find the right colors for the book – so it was a family affair.
They also asked some wonderful musician colleagues to write something, including André [Previn, Ms. Mutter’s husband from 2000-2006], who wrote a wonderful and much too generous article.
NG: Yes, I've seen it; he was very sweet and complimentary.
ASM: Yes, he was – especially the last sentence, which totally blew me away [“I know of no performer I admire more.”]. Also Lambert [Orkis] was very gracious, and insightful about what a musical collaboration is all about – and ours is over 25 years old now! Everyone involved in putting this together was very creative, and there was always a positive vibe. It was also great to know that a new collection of contemporary music would be released around the same time – which gave it all a nice balance: it’s great to celebrate what you’ve done in the past, but I’m someone who likes to look to the future; we’ve got four terrific world premieres, and so it’s not just leaning back in our rocking chair looking at – wow, 35 years [laughs]; we’re also moving into the future.
NG: Right – you’re planting seeds for the next 35 years! Indeed, we will be focusing in great detail on this new release of four world premieres.
But before we get there – one final part of this celebratory package is a 2-CD “Highlights” collection. In preparing for this interview, I’ve re-listened to your output, which is impressively vast and diverse: everything from Bach and Brahms to Berg and Lutoslawski, and all with such authority – which is what André is talking about. This “Highlights” CD includes 23 tracks by 15 different composers, featuring you with many of your famed collaborators [Herbert Von Karajan, James Levin, André Previn, Lambert Orkis, Mstislav Rostropovich, etc.]. I’m sure it was a tough process of elimination – what was you’re approach to selecting these tracks?
ASM: First, I wanted it to be chronological; but it also needed to cover a wide selection of repertoire and composers. Unlike the recording of world premieres, I naturally aimed for a more popular repertoire for the “Highlights” collection; that’s why you don’t see any works by [Sofia] Gubaidulina, [Wolfgang] Rihm, or [Norbert] Moret [all three contemporary composers commissioned by Ms. Mutter] – it’s really the core repertoire.
Of course, anything I’ve ever played has captured my full attention at the moment I performed it, and so it would silly to say, “Oh, these are my favorite pieces.” That’s simply not true; there are many, many more favorites than just this small selection. This collection is aimed at the significant works of the violin repertoire – as well as important works for me, given the time-frame in which I recorded them; that’s why, for example, it includes my first recording of the Mozart Violin Concerto in G [K.216; recorded in 1978; disc 1, track 2], although I’ve re-recorded the concerto – and think that my later recording is closer to what I stand for today, in terms of shaping and phrasing the work, as well as the size of the orchestra [the 1978 recording is with Herbert Von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic; the re-recording in 2006 featured a smaller contingent of the London Philharmonic, with Ms. Mutter conducting]. The CD will show where I’ve come from, and how I’ve evolved – and which will lead God knows where.
NG: So, it’s a snapshot of your career, while likewise highlighting some of the outstanding repertoire for the violin.
ASM: Yes, exactly – and there are also some fun pieces, like Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” [from the opera Porgy and Bess; disc 2, track 5], which perhaps aren’t core repertoire, but are nevertheless great pieces. I’ve learned a tremendous amount the use of swing and jazz interpretation, in order to tackle music like Gershwin; without André’s help, I would never have dared to touch that repertoire – I would have sounded even more German that I do now [laughs].
NG: Germans certainly know how to swing as well – just think of the music of Kurt Weil…
ASM: That's true; and [Fritz] Kreisler swings in its own right as well.
You know, I’ve always found it fascinating to listen to historic recordings, as well as to transcriptions of violin works. Kreisler comes to mind because he wrote all of these wonderful Viennese pieces [such as Caprice viennois, Op.2] that are very melancholic; these are salon pieces, but when played by Kreisler are very classy because he plays them with great seriousness and earnestness – in a manner that one doesn’t always grant to so-called “salon” pieces. This is amazing for me to think about, since my childhood performances of Kreisler and [Pablo de] Sarasate were all over the place. Still, it was a great strategy of my first violin teacher to give me a lot of virtuosic repertoire between the ages of 6 and 9 – first of all, because I could work out the challenging technique; and second, to deepen my love for these many wonderful “sound colors” – so I was not “dried out” by working only on the Flesch studies [that is, violin technical exercises devised by Carl Flesch].
NG: There’s no doubt that both Kreisler and Sarasate are composers that violinists and audiences alike are increasingly discovering – and thus it’s nice that you include Sarasate’s Gypsie Airs [Op.20; disc 1, track 10] in the “Highlights” collection.
I’m also pleased that you include one contemporary piece, the Partita by Lutoslawksi – giving the listener of the “Highlights” a sense of your involvement with new music as well.
ASM: Absolutely, this is a nod to Lutoslawski as the contemporary composer who for me opened the gate to a totally different planet of music; he was the man with the golden key who changed my life forever!
NG: Such a nice compliment! And indeed, that's a perfect segue to talk about the third release as part of this anniversary year, which is the collection of four world premieres – by Wolfgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Sebastian Currier. You've worked with all three composers before, and so I'm curious about your expectations and directives in commissioning these works. Let's start with Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel [‘Light Play’; track 1], and the Mozartean orchestration that you asked for – can you tell us a bit more of the backstory of this commission?
ASM: The backstory is in fact the Mozartean orchestra [that is, a smaller, string-dominant orchestra with limited brass and percussion]; I wanted to limit the composer in the instrumentation accompanying the violin; I wanted to get to know Rihm’s thought process on what one does in 2010 with a Mozartean orchestra with the violin as the principal musical voice. I’m actually right now on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony performing both Rihm pieces – Lichtes Spiel and Gesungene Zeit [‘Sung Time’, commissioned by Ms. Mutter in 1991], along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto [in E-, Op.64]; having not played Lichtes Spiel since its premiere last November, it was tremendous to hear how the piece has matured since then. As the subtitle [Ein Sommerstück, ‘A Summer Piece’] states, it’s a summer night’s piece – it’s a rather ethereal, almost romantic work, which reminds me of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream [Op.61], with wisps of different harmonies in the orchestra.
Rihm, like Anton Webern, loves to write two or three different instructional words over every note: little swells, con vibrato, senza vibrato, flautando [flute-like], you name it… It’s like walking in a jungle at night, and there are all these sounds and smells and lights; it’s an incredibly intense piece, especially considering the small size of the orchestra: with either 6 or 4 players per section, so long as it’s equal in number, because it’s all written divisi [divided]. The piece is tremendous in its cadenza-like, improvisatory mood; it’s so refreshing to play it every evening. Rihm wasn’t able to come to the premiere in New York, but he was at the European premiere last Friday; he suggested that we take the tempo changes even more dramatically, which makes it sound more improvisatory – and thus quite different from Sebastian Currier’s piece, Time Machine.
NG: We’re going to move to Time Machine in just a moment; but staying on Lichtes Spiel for a bit: it strikes me as being a real stand out on the CD, though they’re all great pieces. Rihm in general has a broad range of style in his output, but this piece is particularly lyrical – I especially loved the scherzando [playful] section in the middle. And it’s true that even with a Mozart-sized orchestra, he manages to create such a diversity of timbre.
ASM: Yes, it’s just amazing how Rihm is reinventing, in a way, the violin once again. As much as it is written in his cryptic musical language, it’s very different from Gesungene Zeit: it’s more varied in character; and though Gesungene Zeit has a huge orchestra, I would say that Lichtes Spiel is no less colorful or imaginative, even without percussion and brass (other than French horns). It’s quite impressive what he’s able to do with just a few notes here and there, like Mozart.
NG: Right – “Not too many notes”, as Mozart might say.
ASM: Yes, I like that; no showing off, just saying what needs to be said.
NG: Most composers would say that writing a piece is but solving problems; and sometimes having a particular challenge to solve – like a limited instrumentation – is what gets the creative juices flowing, as solutions and inspirations are found that wouldn't have been otherwise.
It’s also interesting that you conceived of this commission to be juxtaposed with actual Mozart violin concertos.
ASM: Yes, absolutely! And it fits very well with the Mozart concertos, though I have to say that it also fits fabulously well with Mendelssohn – especially given my very personal association with A Midsummer Night's Dream; those two really seem to be in a “brotherhood of spirit” – just written in different centuries. But the pairing of Lichtes Spiel with the Mozart concerti will take place again next year – where we can once again hear how the same-size orchestra has evolved between the 18th and 21st centuries.
NG: Certainly, that too has long been part of the arc of music history – that one generation looks back and “speaks” to another; and given our technological advantages, it's a lot easier to look back now than it was in the 18th, or even in the 20th century.
You earlier touched upon the other large concerto-like work on the new CD, Sebastian Currier’s Time Machine [tracks 4-10] – and it should be noted that all of these works were premiered as part of your 2010-11 season as Artist-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic. It’s quite a contrast with Lichtes Spiel; it also sounds very difficult in several sections, though quite beautiful in others, especially the last movement [“Harmonic Time”, track 10]. I've read Currier’s extensive liner notes; he really has quite a plan with this piece – with every movement dedicated to a different conception of time.
ASM: Yes, they are fabulous liner notes! It’s actually one of the few times when I’ve read liner notes that are so accurate and to the point – it’s a both an eye- and an ear-opener; it’s not just waxing away poetically about the piece, but rather a wonderful analysis of it.
But you’re right: it’s very different from Lichtes Spiel. It’s a 12-part concerto in 7 movements, which couldn’t be more diverse or mind-bogglingly interesting – not only in its orchestration, but also rhythmically. This man is just all over the place – it’s amazing! Sebastian has such tremendous ears; he hears anything. I pride myself on having a good pair of ears, but Sebastian is relentless. This kind of collaboration with a living composer is often very challenging – and frightening.
The whole thought process behind Time Machine is rather elaborate, including in the elaborate use of micro-tones; you know, [cellist Pablo] Casals once said that “intonation is interpretation”, and I find that utterly fascinating that one would take it as far as Sebastian has in this piece.
And, of course, there is this whole concept of time he introduces: delayed time, compressed time, overlapping time, etc. The most uncomfortable movement is [the third movement, track 6] “Compressed Time” – it’s the most difficult 1½ minutes I’ve ever spent on stage [laughs]: it’s like you need 8 strings and you have to move over all of them at the same time… this was a live recording, and I really was slightly afraid of these 1½ minutes!
NG: I guess that was his goal: to compress everything, including the technical challenges for the violin.
ASM: Exactly. And then you have “Backwards Time” [track 9]: how he lets things reverberate through the orchestra; and especially how he treats the harp, and how he throws the theme back at you…
NG: This is indeed a fun movement: I’m sure everyone has heard that sound of a record going backwards, where the accent comes at the end; it’s a clever devise.
ASM: Right. Yes, I'm very impressed by the piece, and I can't wait to play it around the world – and to hopefully introduce Sebastian to more than the usual “new music” crowd; the world needs to see more of him. As an aside, I’m very happy to be able to include in the additional CDs [of the 40-CD box set] his chamber piece, Aftersong, which I commissioned in the late-1990s.
NG: It’s true that Sebastian Currier doesn't yet have the name recognition enjoyed by the other two [Rihm and Penderecki] composers on the CD; these recordings will certainly help.
ASM: He's still young, so it also has to do with his age. Sebastian is in a profession where he still needs us poor, mortal performers to spread the world; but whereas we eventually start to slow down, he’ll probably just get better and better. So, don’t feel too bad for him.
NG: No, certainly not – and I’m sure that having had two works performed regularly by you, he's not doing anything but smiling.
ASM: Let's not forget that when it comes to playing a contemporary piece, it’s great if after all of the struggle, you still love playing it. I'm not saying that it has to be comfortable, but at the end of the day – after months of head-spinning studies, it's great if you still admire a piece, and feel connected to it, and want to replay it along with your fellow musicians. If a composition has that kind of thought, structure, and skill within in – if it has a “classical” form about it, and isn’t just a few ideas knitted together – it will grow on you. In this way, it will be gratifying to play and replay, and not merely receive a one-time performance.
NG: I think you've just given a good definition of what allows a piece of music to stand the test of time: performers, as well as audiences, must feel compelled to go back to it over and again, to explore its possibilities.
In thinking about Time Machines, and the technical challenges it contains, a general question: with the great number of works you yourself commission, how much involvement do you generally have with the composers, and their creative process? Is it limited to an overall framework, as with Lichtes Spiel.
ASM: Well, first, I hope I'm never disturbing them; and it’s actually rare that I make suggestions – such as I did with Wolfgang [Rihm], asking for that type of orchestra. I also did have discussions with Sebastian [Currier] about another piece – a fabulous project that involved historic Chinese and Indian instruments; but in the end we decided not to pursue it any further, because it would have probably have been rarely played, or maybe just a piece for a recording; so for this commission, I asked him to “bite the bullet” and write a proper violin concerto for a standard orchestra. These two are perhaps the only the cases in which I’ve asked the composer for a specific direction. Other than that, I just patiently wait for the music to arrive.
In fact, I’m waiting right now for [Pierre] Boulez – who will have a new violin concerto for me in 2014.
NG: Wow, that's going to be a big moment – I can recall reading a quote of yours saying how if you ever received a piece from Pierre Boulez, you’d be guilty of playing it with great emotionality. I’m sure he’s aware of your aesthetic expectations, and will give you ample opportunity to present this emotionality. Indeed, I was going to ask you what other new commissions are in the wings – and now you've given us something very tantalizing.
ASM: Yes, and there are also two pieces by André in the wings, both of which are finished: first, there is his second Violin Sonata; and the other one is a violin concerto with a Baroque-size chamber orchestra – including two interludes with cembalo [i.e., harpsichord]. Both will be premiered next year – just before the Boulez.
NG: Clearly, once a composer writes one work for you, the experience is so rewarding that he wants to write another one. And obviously André knows very well how to write for you.
ASM: Listen, I'm André's greatest fan – I'm basically commissioning him on a weekly basis!
NG: I read how much he loves to compose, so it's a happy thing on both ends.
Coming back to the new CD – in addition to these two concertos, there's also two chamber works for violin and double bass, performed with you by the young virtuoso, Roman Patkolo. These, too, are of very differing character: Dyade [track 3] by Rihm is quite lyrical; whereas the Duo concertante [track 2] by Penderecki is more rhythmic and percussive.
ASM: Yes, the Duo concertante is in more of a traditionally “flashy” style, while the Rihm is like a constant dialogue – or perhaps more like a monologue, of a couple who already knows what the other one is going to say. These two are very different from one another, and therefore extremely attractive to be played on the same concert?
NG: You’ve worked with Roman Patkolo before – on the Double Concerto that André Previn wrote for you in 2007. Can you talk about what specifically motivated you to commission both Rihm and Penderecki to tackle this rather uncommon duo – I'm wondering if it was inspired by how much fun you two had in the duet “Interlude” movement from André's concerto?
ASM: That’s actually a great point –sometimes we do play that “Interlude” as an encore: it lives very well on its own. There’s also another new commission for a duo piece that my foundation gave to Sebastian [Currier]; it’s called Ring Tones, for violin and double bass, and it’s already written. Now we have to find the time to study and then perform it. But, yes, Roman is amazing – he’s probably the most gifted string player I’ve ever heard in my life.
NG: Wow – that’s quite a statement!
ASM: I first started the [Anne-Sophie Mutter] Foundation thirteen years ago – with the goal of financially helping young string players from around the world. So, many years ago I was sent a video – this was before DVDs – from this young double bass student; to be honest, I wasn’t really interested in the double bass, so I didn’t look at it for quite a while. But his teacher, Professor [Klaus] Trumpf [at the Munich Conservatory] insisted – I don’t known how often he called. Eventually I looked at the video; I think he played the [César] Franck Violin Sonata [in A, M.8] and some kind of “Czardas” – and it was totally breathtaking! I immediately asked him to audition, and it was clear that this man was a sensation. He used to travel from Slovenia to Munich once a month by bus, overnight, in order to study a few hours, and the return home. What a story: he started as a teenager, at the age of 13 or so; he picked the double bass because there was no other instrument available. He said, “I want to play the violin,” but his father said, “We don’t have a violin, but here’s a double bass – play that.” I’m actually glad that Roman plays the bass – it makes my life easier [laughs].
NG: Right – if he played the violin, he'd be competition!
ASM: Exactly! So, he finished his studies and became a scholar – he’s now a professor at the University of Munich; he plays in the Zurich Opera Orchestra. I’m always urging him to explore playing in an even higher profile orchestra.
Why ask composers to write for the double bass? Well, why not? It has always been a fundamentally important instrument in the symphonic repertoire; and there have been great players in the past – like Gary Karr and even [famed conductor Serge] Koussevitsky, who tried to open a window on this instrument into the future. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really taken off, perhaps because the repertoire is so sadly small and limited stylistically. Whenever Roman would audition for one of the great conductors, what would they play? [Giovanni] Bottesini [(1821-99)] and Koussevitsky. Maybe it’s an illusion to think that the double bass will ever be as “glamorous” as the cello or viola – but thinking of how much someone like Slava [Mstislav Rostropovich] has totally changed the life of the cello for over five decades, or what Yuri [Bashmet] did for the viola repertoire, I do think a person like Roman can become a great inspiration for composers who previously were not intrigued by the double bass as a solo instrument, or who have had trouble writing for the instrument – and especially in pairing it with the higher register of the violin. The great art, I think, is to leave the bass in the lower register where it belongs, and not to thrust it into the cello register, where it would not stay true to what it’s truly able to express.
NG: With this advocacy for Roman and the double bass, you are thus fulfilling in a second way the vital role of an established artist to help bring forth new repertoire, and to inspire composers to think along new lines – and to likewise broaden the audience’s view to the possibilities of the instrument. Interesting too is that the double bass is a star instrument in another musical realm – jazz; think of players like Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, or Niels [-Henning Ørsted] Pedersen, who in jazz are almost in the same prominence league as trumpet players and saxophonists. So, I think it does come from the fact that there’s a dearth of repertoire for the instrument in the classical realm – and you’re helping to change that.
ASM: And it's great for Roman, as a young musician, to have this relationship with living composers – it’s more rare than for the rest of us. You know, there’s also a young generation of women bass players around the world – I don’t know if you’ve noticed that?
NG: No, I wouldn't have thought so.
ASM: Yes, I have seen a growing number of young women go for the double bass – not only in orchestras, but also as chamber music players, and soloists. Of course, all this is wonderful for Roman – he’s fulfilling his destiny, and once I’m out of the way and have finished commissioning these duos for violin and double bass, he’ll easily survive on his own.
NG: Yes, I’m sure he’ll be getting his own concertos.
ASM: Right – so I'm just there as a kind of donkey for the time being; and I hope that I’ll be let off the hook one day [laughs].
NG: Well, I'm sure that Roman is counting his blessings every day that his teacher kept bugging you, and that you gave his video a viewing.
This also brings to mind the other work of your Foundation, including with your “Mutter’s Virtuosi” [an ensemble of 14 current and former scholarship students, which began touring in the spring of 2011] – this must be a great joy for these young players.
ASM: It’s a great joy for everyone involved. It’s also an important learning process for them – to experience what the real life of an artist might be for them; most of them have no idea how much hard work is involved. We had 10 concerts in 12 days; for me this is not unusual, but they were pretty much wiped out at the end of the tour. But that’s life – you have to be fresh and get yourself ready under any circumstances; and it’s important for them to learn that early on.
NG: What a gift for them – not only to be doing performances with you, but also to have new works written for them; and when they’re so young.
So, let’s bring it back to you, as we wind down. As we’ve discussed, you’ve focused a great deal on late 20th- and early 21st-century music, but you’re equally well associated with pretty much everything else written for the violin over the past 300 years – from Vivaldi to Berg, and everything in between. I know that one emphasis you have is on exploring the violin’s full palette of color and sonority. We earlier touched on re-discovering works you’ve played in the past; are there any particular works that you’re now trying to recapture with a new approach in this regard?
ASM: I’m glad you asked – as this is a good time to talk about this: I’m just now playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. When I recorded it a few years ago  with Maestro [Kurt] Masur, it was only done because he asked me to do this, as a wish for his 80th birthday. Before that I had stopped playing the concerto in my mid-20s… My teacher, Aida Stucki – who unfortunately passed away a few months ago; she was a tremendous violinist and human being – was never taken by my playing of this concerto. Later, when I was grown up, I decided, “You know, it’s just not good enough; I gave it a try for ten years – oh well, I’ll just try to forget it [laughs]…”
So, because of Maestro Masur I came back to it – and thanks to him as well I discovered something very important: Mendelssohn wrote a “gondolier song” for tenor voice and piano [Venetianisches Gondellied ('Wenn durch die Piazzetta die Abendluft weht'), Op.57, No.5], whose piano accompaniment is much the same as the orchestra’s accompaniment in the slow movement [2.Andante] of the Violin Concerto. The text of the song tells of a young man in a piazza who waits for his love to flee with him in the middle of the night – and there’s such youthful passion, and anticipation. The slow movement of the concerto is so often played as a kind of titanic monster – with “glued-to-the-floor” motion; but by hearing it instead with the fluidity and forward moving excitement found in the song, it changes the concerto movement altogether – and gives it an exuberant joie de vivre, and a wonderful feeling of anticipation. This for me was an amazing discovery, and a great eye- and ear-opener.
Otherwise, I'm studying so much new repertoire all the time: Szymanowski’s 1st [Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35], and the Walton [Violin Concerto] – this last being a piece I’ve lived with for decades, yet it always seems like a re-discovery when I go back to it. Perhaps I’m luring myself into thinking such thoughts because I’m constantly playing a relatively large repertoire: for example, in 10 days I have to perform five violin concerti by Mozart, in Boston – and lead them from the violin. I’ll automatically have to rediscover these pieces anew; different ideas will certainly come to mind by looking at them with fresh eyes – especially just coming from reading Rihm’s concertos.
NG: And, of course, it’s this same aesthetic that keeps bringing new artists back to the standard repertoire to be performed and recorded – because there’s no one way to do these pieces.
ASM: Well, one would wish for a huge variety of viewpoints; there was a time in the past – if you go back and listen to recordings of the 1950s and ‘60s – where the differences between one performance and another were astonishing: tempos, for example, were at an even higher level of risk-taking than today. So, sometimes I wish artists would be more bold today – not just for “bold’s sake”, but because one is convinced that there’s good reasoning.
NG: This reminds me of what you’ve said regarding the challenges in today’s society – our “iPod society” as you called it: where we lack the mental investment required to fully explore the classical repertoire in all its richness. I’m wondering if you feel that young string players today are likewise not sufficiently investing in the rich potential of the music they play, and not taking appropriate risks, as did players in the past?
ASM: You know, the violin tradition of Carl Flesch that my teacher, Aida Stucki, came from was so much based on the different styles of interpretation that came out of using different fingerings to play the music; who these days is thinking of fingering as an interpretation tool? Most string players simply think, “How do I get from this measure to that measure most conveniently and safe.” But this is not how a musician should think: instead, they should think, “Where does this phrase lead? What colors in the orchestra am I supposed to highlight or blend into? Ergo, what fingering do I need to make that happen, and how can I assure that it suits my hand, etc.?” This alone is part of the interpretation process. But if your main goal is to learn a piece of music quickly and make it sound “polished”, then you will never know of the existence of the deeper layer of the score – beyond merely floating above it. This is the schooling of Carl Flesch; and unfortunately most of his students have died; and his “grandchildren” – of whom I am one – can only teach a limited number of string players. One can only hope that his books will be read, and that there will continue to be curious students who will forge their own way.
Look at [violinist] Gidon Kremer: what a fabulously interesting and self-challenging musician, as he’s been for decades. I have the greatest admiration for him because he is a searcher – a relentless searcher; and I would love to see more of that. Not students who run from one master class to another, from one great artist to another – like they’re expecting some kind of secret recipe. Instead, they have to find their own way – and young players don’t understand that finding your own way also has to do with taking risks and having your own opinions. Sure, it’s important to have a good teacher. But if you read enough, and analyze enough scores, you can gain an understanding of the music – and then even be able to contradict your teacher! The goal is to do something special with your mind and your talent!
NG: Well, I'm hoping that there will be some string players reading this who will be inspired to challenge themselves beyond how they have been; and of course you are helping to keep this vision alive with the students you are working with through your foundation.
Finally, Anne-Sophie, thinking more broadly – and given your concerns I cited earlier: you are clearly an artist who embraces an intense and well-rounded approach to study, not only in music, but also in literature and the other arts, which has enabled you to become such an important artist and activist. Can you share some thoughts regarding the challenges we face to help sustain the future of classical music within our society, especially here in the United States?
ASM: So long as we are able to sustain – or, rather, bring back – music education in the schools, there will be hope that the next generation will be able to enjoy all the creativity that this music can offer us. I don’t understand how parents can withhold culture from children as much as they do in many cases. Maybe it’s out of fear that they are too young to understand it – but age has nothing to do with this kind of understanding. Nothing is a replacement for a mother singing to her child; rhythms and sound waves – these are part of what we are made of, and what we need. We all know that music education helps interweave the right and left parts of our brains – and helps to fire up our neurons. It’s a hobby that one can enjoy by oneself or with friends; there are hundreds of ways in which music elevates our experience when we’re in a group: where everyone experiences the same emotion, or has the same goose bumps when listening to a Mahler symphony or a Mozart concerto. I hope that we never forget that we have souls, and that we shouldn’t only think of spas or shaping our muscles – but also about nurturing our souls; and so how about starting early, with the souls of children?
NG: You are preaching to the choir, and I could not agree more. Unfortunately, in the US, as soon as there are economic woes, one of the first things to get cut is arts education. It is a real travesty.
ASM: That’s true. But I would also remind you of what great ambassadors you have in your top American orchestras. For example, yesterday I performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony in Vilnius [Lithuania]; there were half a million people there – in a town that only has three million people. They have a great opera house, and are now building a new museum by [famed Iraqi-British architect] Zaha Hadid. It’s been 20 years since Lithuania was liberated from the Soviet Union, and this was the first visit by the Pittsburgh Symphony – and it was a major diplomatic and political event: the mayor and the ambassador were there; speeches were made, and in the process the Americans reassured the Lithuanians of the importance of their human and diplomatic relationship, and vice versa – and the presence of the Pittsburgh Symphony contributed greatly to this unforgettable celebration of Lithuania’s liberation. So, you should never underestimate what a great job your American orchestras do abroad in bringing the culture of your country to other places in the world – helping to heal wounds and build bridges, for us to live better together. I’m always amazed and touched that with music, resistance just melts away and a sense of brotherhood is born. What in the world is more wonderful than treating others respectfully, trying to be helpful to one another, or trying to understand that it’s all on us – we have only one planet. So, why not share it in dignity?
NG: Yes – and of course music helps to keep us dignified. That’s nice for you to share such thoughts about the importance of our top orchestras – and I hope indeed that we can continue to celebrate our culture, even as some orchestras struggle to survive. Of course, we all know the power of music as a cross-cultural communicator – as when the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea a few years back, for example.
ASM: Yes, exactly. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be that dramatic, though people do remember each such occasion, and it all adds up. It’s like what Mother Teresa said, “One drop won’t fill a bucket, but many will” [the actual quote is: “Individually, we are one drop; together, we are an ocean.”]. So, with enough people going to concerts, it will create a climate of friendship, bonding, understanding, and joyful moments that we all need in life for our darker moments.
NG: Well, we certainly thank you for your great contribution – and of the many light and beautiful moments you've given us in your great career; and our hearty congratulations for this grand anniversary!
ASM: Thank you very much Nolan; you're so kind and generous, and I’ve really enjoyed our talk.