Scholars' Association News
Issue 33
March 2015


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A discussion with Leonidas Kavakos in New York
Edited by Leda Bouzali

The New York Times has recently cited violinist Leonidas Kavakos’s playing for its “balance of pyrotechnics and lyricism”. Kavakos, a scholar of the Onassis Foundation, is one of the most prominent violists in the world, Artist of the Year at the 2014 Gramophone Awards and a nominate for a Grammy Award 2014 for his Beethoven: Violin Sonatas recording with Enrico Pace in the ‘Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance’ category. On November 22, 2014, he was invited by the affiliate Onassis Foundation USA, to give a concert with famous pianist Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall. They performed Schumann’s passionate Violin Sonata No.2, Brahms’s lyrical Violin Sonata No.2, Stravinsky’s Suite itallienne and Respighi’s heart moving Violin Sonata.

A few days earlier (November 17,2014) Kavakos was invited in a stimulating discussion with host Paul Holdengräber, director and founder of LIVE from The New York Public Library, as part or the Profiles series organized by the Onassis Cultural Center. Their discussion, excerpts of which you can read here, had as a starting point the way a musician selects the pieces that will be performed in his next concert:

L.K. What does one imagine to be a very good program, a strong concert program? There are different things that play important role when planning a concert. I would start from the desire of the artist and, if there is a cooperation with another artist, the combination with that partner’s desire, as well as the direction of the repertoire with the specific artist. Another important factor is how to create a journey not only for the ones on stage but also for the people who honor us with their presence in the concert. And there are many ways to create impressions in the audience. You can plan, for instance, a program that will have a more or less logical and very natural sequence.

P.H. Your use of the word journey is very interesting.

L.K. Absolutely, I would really describe it as a journey. For me it’s important that there is this kind of exploring of sounds, of colors, of dreams, of emotions with each other in the concert hall and the sequence is quite important.

P.H. You have spoken about what it means for you to immerse yourself in a great work, and I am very taken by this formulation: “It’s like being together with a great person; there are only things you can gain. These scores are such sources of wisdom and fantastic energy. The longer one works with them, the deeper one digs into the spirit that lies behind the notes, the better one becomes”. I am curious about this notion, this nearly melioristic notion of bettering oneself.

L.K. I believe it 100%. I believe that any of these great scores that we are playing is way above all musicians together.

P.H. How does that happen?

L.K. If I knew I would be a composer. But what I find through my experience is that it’s amazing how one sees things once he goes back after a certain amount of time.

P.H. Do you mean that, through time and age, it’s as if one where re-reading a book for the tenth time?

L.K. Absolutely. Because every time there is new information that comes out of the score. We all try to do our absolute best and try to understand the score, to analyze the score, try to perform it in a way that will be the absolute best possible that we can. And yet, when you go back, even three months later, it’s not the same piece. It happens to me all the time: God, no, this I didn’t see before! But it was always there! I just did not see it. By being able to realize new elements that actually help an already decided interpretation means, first of all, that one is able to question oneself, one is willing to reconsider, one is willing to reevaluate, one is willing to change. And I think if one is prepared for all these things, then that’s the way to become a better human being.

P.H. So, you are speaking about a kind of vulnerability and humility in front of the work. The work is first. The artist comes second. Although my knowledge of Greek is inexistent, I take it that the word “hermenia” means that in some way. Help me understand what it means.

L.K. Well, it means interpretation. But the word’s analysis is actually miraculous; interpretation is a good word, but in the word “herminia” is the “hermes” and “Hermes” was the messenger of the Gods. That means when I do “herminia” I carry the message. And this is great, because it immediately brings all of us to the right level.

Because you know -and I really hate to say that but it’s true- many of us are more famous than the composers were at their times. But it is really not us playing our music when we go on stage, it is us carrying a message of somebody else, and that somebody else usually is a great genius, somebody who really understood and conceived form and structure in a way that can make the rest of humanity imagine.

P.H. Let us now move on to the part of conducting. You have the prerequisite skills and now you have also taken on the role of being the conductor. I’d like to know why and also what has conducting taught you as a soloist.

L.K. When I was 4-5 years old and there was music in the house I would immediately put some book, not even music book, and I would just pretend I was conducting.

P.H. This was the same time, more or less, when your father gave you a violin?

L.K. That was, in fact, even before that. I was always fascinated by the different sounds that came out of a recording. My parents were both musicians, my father played the violin, my mother the piano, and I heard them practice at home, so I had the sounds of violin and piano very present. But when there was an orchestra recording playing, there were so many different sounds, colors and all of this was coming at once. I was fascinated. Nevertheless, it all started with the violin and I don’t regret it of course at all, but the conducting has been something that came rather recently into my mind again as a dream, as a wish or as a need. That was because I heard Bruckner’s symphony and he is a composer who has written practically only one piece that includes a violin, which is a quintet, a string quintet. I felt that this is something I have to do.

P.H. You have to conduct…But why?

L.K. If with Mahler one experiences the urge of humans to reach for the divine, in Bruckner I think one is in dialogue with It. That music created to me the impression that its starting point is very, very high and it does include all kinds of human emotions. But the way they are expressed is a way that is beyond them.

Besides the musical part of it, there is this enormous psychology. As a violinist playing with an orchestra you have your back to the orchestra, because you need to face the audience. As a conductor, you have your back to the audience, because you need to face the orchestra. Your role and the challenge is that you will have to not only explain what it is that you want, what you are expecting from them, but you will have to convince them; they will have to produce what is in your mind. And they will have to do it in such way that projects to the audience and convinces the audience. When you stand in front of an orchestra and you don’t have a strong idea of what you want, you are lost. But if you have a strong idea, it’s very important how you can feel the vibes in the ensemble in order to actually get it through to them verbally, in order for them to translate it in their own way and produce it as if it was their own idea.

P.H. But sometimes the orchestra is not convinced.

L.K. If the orchestra is not convinced then there is obviously a big problem.

P.H. And that happens?

L.K. It can happen. An important factor that we should mention here is the chemistry. You can have a great orchestra and a great conductor and a disaster result. It’s just like the chemistry between people.

P.H. What you are saying reminds me very much what you say about your own violin, that there is nearly a symbiotic relationship. The violin, which is made of what might simply be wood, fashioned in a certain way, it becomes this alive-

L.K. I would not put it that way, allow me. First of all, wood is alive, it’s a tree, -

P.H. I didn’t mean to insult you. I mean it is also a piece of wood that’s a promise of happiness-

L.K. Absolutely. The Stradivarius are great, unsurpassable works of art, in a form of art that has been perfectioned at a certain time and not surpassed, not even equaled. Today, imagine, with all the technology we have, we are unable to produce them. We can copy exactly everything to the smallest detail, but it doesn’t sound the same. Because there is the creation, the energy, the talent, the genius of somebody who practically appeared on earth to create this instrument.

P.H. What year is your violin?

L.K. My violin was made in 1727, so it is approximately 300 years. I feel blessed that I can have this incredible creation in my hands, the beautiful energy it carries, the incredible sound, an expressive potential that it has and the fact that it brings me in direct contact with one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived.

P.H. In our age we think everything can be done better, but a Stradivarius cannot be perfected.

L.K. What keeps the universe alive is memory. Without memory, a straight line just goes to nobody knows where. Memory creates the cycle. In our time we tend to imagine that if we ‘know’ we can produce something great like the Parthenon. But why can we not produce it? Because we don’t know it all. Our time is fantastic because we have all this knowledge that we can actually share, we have this knowledge that we can actually touch, we can approach it, it’s there for us. It is a real challenge the fact that today’s access to knowledge has never existed before.

P.H. Which puts into question the notion of memory. We have a prosthetic memory, in some way, we have a memory that is exterior to ourselves. In some sense, we don’t need to remember because a machine can do it for us.

L.K. Yes, of course it is true, but what I wanted to say is that with all that access to knowledge, I think humanity today is acting in the most stupid way. It’s really amazing. We are acting as a tree that wants to get out of its root. It’s not possible.

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