New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Photo Credit – Richard Termine
Leonidas Kavakos is recognized across the world as a violinist and artist of rare quality, known at the highest level for his virtuosity, superb musicianship, and the integrity of his playing.
But in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at the November 17 installment of the Onassis Cultural Center’s PROFILES series, the longhaired musician did not speak from this height. He spoke directly from the level of his heart about performing music, the November 22 concert, Romanticism and Classicism, his own past and the importance of folk music, and especially about the lustrous Stradivarius with its golden S-curves that he lifted out of its case to play, like Orpheus returning.
The conversation was a prelude to the concert of Leonidas Kavakos and the pianist Yuga Wang performing Brahms Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, Schumann Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Stravinsky Suite Italienne, and Respighi Violin Sonata at Carnegie Hall on November 22.
It was all about music but the theme might just as well have been life. Kavakos is a philosopher.
Quoting a statement by a Yiddish actor, Mr. Holdengräber asked if the violinist agrees that repetition of a work leads to the betterment of the individual. “Absolutely!” Kavakos answered, “I believe that any of these great scores we’re playing is way above all musicians together.” He finds it amazing that he sees so much when he goes back to a piece after a certain amount of time. “That’s really how one can understand what’s there. All the time there is new information that comes up out of the score. I believe that there is not one artist in the world who when he tries to prepare a piece is not doing her or his absolute best…this is clear. We all try to do our absolute best; we all try to understand the score, yet when you go back, like three months later, and play the same piece–and this happens to me all the time–I say, “wow, I didn’t see this before!” But it wasn’t that it appeared all of a sudden; this was always there; I just did not see it… What’s amazing to me is that by being able to realize new elements that decide the interpretation, it means that one is able to question oneself that one is willing to reconsider, one is willing to be evaluated; one is willing to change. I think that if one is prepared for all of these things then that’s the way to become a better human being.”
Various factors play important roles in the planning of a concert program, Kavakos explained. It starts with what the artist desires to play and what one imagine to be a very good or strong program if there are other artists, what kind of repertoire one chooses to take with that 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 at the concert.” There are many ways to create impressions in the audience, he said, one way is to create a program with a more or less logical and very natural sequence, as is the case with the 11/27 program of Brahms and Schumann, “a very obvious combination of two composers who knew and appreciated each other and who also were personally involved… Brahms’ music is a continuation of Schumann’s music.” Another program might be one of “big extremes” such as a calming work whose mood is broken when it’s followed by one that presents a kind of “shock”.
“Brahms and Schumann are a very beautiful combination,” said Kavakos, going on to describe the Romantic aspects of these two composers. “For me, Schumann is the ultimate composer because his music is full of fire, and I don’t think Brahms has this kind of fire; he’s more settled in his music… Schumann, especially in the Violin Sonata 2 in D Minor that we’re playing–which is a late sonata–is just full of Romanticism. It’s exhausting, in fact, at the end of the performance. The great thing about a performance is that each person can translate what comes out of the performance in their own way… and there is no ‘right’ way.”
In answer to Holdengräber’s reference to the meaning of the word “ερμηνεία”, meaning interpretation, or analysis, Mr. Kavakos directed his attention to the root of the word. ”Interpretation is a good word, but actually the meaning of the word is miraculous. Hermes was the messenger of the gods… so this means that when I do this, when I do ερμηνεία, I carry the message of the god, which in this case is the composer. It immediately brings all of us to the right level… many of us are more famous than the composers were in their times. But when we go on the stage to perform music we are carrying the message of someone else. That somebody else is usually a great genius. Someone who really understood, and conceived form and structure in a way that can make the rest of humanity imagine this.”
Being a violinist has turned out to be one of his two forms of expression. Although Kavakos pretended to be conducting an orchestra while standing on a book even before he was given a violin at the age of five by his violinist father and pianist mother, the feeling of “needing to conduct” reentered his mind only recently, said Kavakos, who has conducted a number of major orchestras, when he heard a symphony by Bruckner. “Hearing that piece, I thought ‘my God, this is something I have to do’, in the sense of making it happen, to not just listen to it. If with Mahler humans get this urge to reach for the divine, with Bruckner, I think, one is in dialogue with it.”
Kavakos has a symbiotic relationship with the violin he plays, the “Abergavenny” Stradivarius violin of 1724, “a piece of magic”, which puts him ”in contact with one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived”. “Yes, it’s a piece of wood because it starts out as a piece of a tree. A tree is an organism that is alive; it has roots… that’s extremely important,” he said describing visiting a violinmaker’s atelier where you see the wood before it’s worked. and you see that’s it’s literally just a thick slice of wood that they design in the shape of the violin, cut it, then thin it down and soon. But even in the thick slices of wood, there is a potential voice that just hasn’t yet spoken. The voice is there, though; that is what is amazing: the voice is already there before it appears.” the miracle of these instruments is that not only are they works of art, but they have a function.” Kavakos displayed that function to a waiting audience that followed his request to refrain from applause at the conclusion of the Bach that enchanted them.
Leonidas Kavakos’ latest album is Brahms: The Violin Sonatas with pianist Yuja Wang, released by Decca in April 2014.
The November 17 PROFILES was co-presented by Carnegie Hall. Launched in 2013, the Onassis Cultural Center’s PROFILES series offers stimulating discussions with celebrated cultural figures who so far have been legendary filmmaker Costa Gavras and the president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, Arianna Huffington.