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Interview with Maxim Vengerov: Returning to the violin interview with Vilde Frang: Carl Nielsen Violin Concerto

Laurie Niles ( January 9, 2013 at 7:21 PM


Maxim Vengerov couldn't be happier to be playing the violin again, after his four-year hiatus from performing, and after the painstaking reinvention of his playing technique following shoulder surgery.

Now 38, Vengerov returns to the concert stage with his world enlarged: more conducting engagements, continuing teaching posts with the Royal Academy of Music in London and International Menuhin Academy of Music in Switzerland, and increased involvement with international violin competitions. During his years away from the violin, he studied conducting, and he also married Olga Gringolts, sister of Ilya Gringolts. (They just celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Elizabeth.) Vengerov will be in North America this May for the Montreal International Music Competition, which features the violin in 2013. (By the way, applications are due on January 18 -- download an application here if you wish to participate.) Vengerov will conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, accompanying the finalists and then the winners of the competition.

Maxim Vengerov
Photo: Naim Chidiac

Vengerov was a superstar from the start, beginning his lessons at age five in Novosibirsk, Russia (still the Soviet Union at the time of his birth) with Galina Tourchaninova, then with the great Zakhar Bron. Soon he was winning major international competitions and awards. At age 10 he made his first recording, then proceeded to record just about everything in the violin repertoire. As a teenager, he got to know both Mstislav Rostropovich and Daniel Barenboim, who became friends and mentors to him. He owns and plays the 1727 "Ex-Kreutzer" Stradivarius violin, and he was the subject of the documentary, Living the Dream, which received the Gramophone Award for Best Documentary in 2008.

Vengerov stopped playing in 2007, citing both professional malaise and a weightlifting injury to his right shoulder that had plagued him since 2005. This month he releases his first recording in five years: the recording of his comeback recital on April 5, 2012, at Wigmore Hall in London (available on Jan. 14 in the U.K. and Jan. 29 in the U.S.).

During the holidays, I spoke with Vengerov over phone from Lugano, Switzerland, where he was visiting family. We talked about his mentors in music and conducting, Rostropovich and Barenboim; about his return to violin playing, with physical pain as his guide; and about competitions and his new role with Montreal International Music Competition and the Wieniawski competition.

Laurie: I enjoy your playing so much, and your Shostakovich recording, with Rostropovich conducting, is one of my favorites. How different is it to conduct a concerto, than to play one?

Maxim: I can tell you one thing about Maestro Rostropovich: he may not have been regarded as one of the greatest conductors from the technical point of view; but I made seven CDs with him, and I must say, those recordings are my best ones. And I recorded with many other wonderful maestros who were not instrumentalists. I think it was his great musicianship and also understanding of the violin repertoire, of the stringed instruments, that helped us to build an incredible chemistry that I had with no one else. That's why I think I've inherited this love for accompaniment, to accompany young people, my colleagues. I love to not only accompany violin but also piano soloists. For me, it is a great challenge and a great privilege to be on stage with them.

Laurie: I know that two of your mentors were the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and also the pianist Daniel Barenboim, and both of them are conductors. Did you speak about conducting with them, or mostly about music, or both?

Maxim: Both! Music, conducting, playing with the orchestra…They were my mentors, and sometimes our meetings went far beyond technical issues. Of course, the principal source of our meetings was the music, and what was required to perform Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, or Brahms, Sibelius, Nielsen….I've recorded most of my violin repertoire with these two conductors, who were also instrumentalists.

Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from each of them?

Maxim: Slava (Rostropovich) was like a musical father, he was so close to my heart. Again, it was much more that I learned from him than just music, and musical expression. The thing that struck me was his humanity, and he transformed me into sort of a man of the world. Before meeting him, I was just a talented player that loved playing for audiences. We worked principally on pieces by composers that he had met and that he had friendships with. Those were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Walton, Stravinsky. Beyond that, we also recorded Beethoven. One of the interesting things, when I came to play Beethoven for him, he said, "You know what, Maxim, I can just feel that Beethoven is trying to say something to me, because I think if you play it like this, he would love it." I asked him, "How do you absolutely know this, that Beethoven would love it?" and he said, "Because I think even the composer was convinced, even it wasn't his way. Even if the tempo is slower or faster than he would imagine, he would enjoy it!" For (Slava), it was a matter of being convinced what Shostakovich and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky was, even if he had not met those composers.

For Barenboim, it was a different approach. He would view a piece of music as an instrumentalist, as a pianist, from the harmonic point of view, from the orchestration, coloring. (Barenboim's was) also an amazing view, completely different from Slava. With Slava, it was this instant connection with the composer, with the soul of the composer. He would tell me, you have to imagine you were Shostakovich, or you were Prokofiev, performing the music. One of the most striking and touching things Slava told me was right at the end of his life, when I met him for the last time in the hospital. He told me that when he met me, I played beautiful Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and he told me a lot of things about those composers. But Shostakovich, he didn't have to tell me; it was as if I knew this composer when he was alive. And that was the biggest compliment, coming from him.

For Barenboim, the work was written, and that's in the past. He would approach it as if he were re-working and re-writing the whole work from scratch. But I think those were also Slava's qualities, he would take the work and say, "We have to try to reinvent this and make it as if we are doing a world premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto," which is actually hard to imagine! How many times has the Beethoven Violin Concerto been performed, since the concerto was written? But he would still find something very personal, something that is personal to him. I learned a lot from this approach.

Laurie: So what do you feel for you, as a conductor, is the most important thing, when working with a soloist?

Maxim: First of all, one has to reach a harmony with your colleague, the soloist.

Laurie: If you can!

Maxim: If you find no harmony whatsoever with the soloist (he laughs) -- that happens sometimes -- because sometimes the soloist doesn't want to or cannot, due to the lack of experience or an unwillingness to connect with you.

There are some players that think: here I am, a violinist or pianist, and you're an orchestra conductor, to serve me. It's a normal approach -- I don't say this as something negative. It's obvious that if we listen to the recordings of Jascha Heifetz of the most beautiful works by Sibelius, Beethoven -- with great conductors, you hear a loud, very present violin sound, and somewhere in the back is an orchestra! (He laughs) That's why I don't say this is bad! It's a matter of upbringing, a matter of habit, how the performer views the music. And some people view it in a sort of horizontal way: a line of the violin, or piano, with accompaniment of orchestra.

Laurie: And so what do you do if the soloist views it that way?

Maxim: Then you just serve your best, to be together and to support the instrumentalist, soloist, and try not to be annoying. For me, to be frank, it's less interesting because it becomes a matter of sport: Can I be together, or can I not be together? You use your professionalism to bring the orchestra at the right (dynamic) level, at the right speed, at the right form of articulation -- and this is what I call a good service to the soloist.

Now, when the soloist meets you and says, "This is how I feel," and "Let's make music together," you discuss a little bit, he or she plays for you, something in the dressing room, and then once you start making music on stage, a harmony has to be reached. You can absolutely disagree with the soloist, but again I should serve the best I can at the moment -- and not be passive, but be active in the accompaniment, to bring out the harmonies to stimulate the soloist to play his or her best. The conductor and orchestra, depending on the piece, provide the rhythm, character, harmony, and the spirit of the work.

Laurie Do you like conducting and playing equally well, or is there one you prefer over the other?

Maxim: It's like saying, I was born in Russia and my mother tongue is Russian. Do I love German, or English, more? I can't say I love Russian less, it's just so different! (He laughs) and I enjoy speaking different languages.

Laurie: How many do you speak, by the way?

Maxim: Well I speak English, fairly good German, not reasonable French. (He laughs) In time, I hope to speak French well! And a bit of others…

For me, violin is my first source of communication with the audience -- no doubt, my first love. But before coming to the violin, I wanted to become a conductor, because my mother was a choir conductor, and I saw her conducting. I sat in on all the rehearsals -- I was singing in the choir. She wanted to become a symphonic conductor, but because I started playing, and I needed her to be with me, she quit her job. She didn't develop the symphonic conducting career that she wanted. My father worked in the orchestra as an oboist, so I visited his rehearsals and watched the conductor who was the principal conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic, Arnold Katz. I really loved his example. He was my idol at the time, when I was three and four. He just passed away a few years ago.

Laurie: So you had this in mind, for a long, long time.

Maxim: Yes, I had this in mind, but then I started with the violin and I was sort of stuck with that! (He laughs)

Laurie: You were so good at it, still are!

Maxim: Quite successfully stuck, let's say. And I rather enjoyed that, throughout my years. And then there came a time when I needed to conduct the English Chamber Orchestra, and so I needed to take some lessons. I didn't, and I still don't, believe that somebody with absolutely no knowledge of conducting technique can go in front of orchestra and say, okay, I can play the violin great, now I can conduct! It also requires some time, to learn the language of the musicians. You have to speak their language.

Laurie: Whom did you study with?

Maxim: I studied at that time with Vag Papian, who was my pianist. Vag was a student of a very important teacher in Russia, Ilya Musin, who was a teacher of Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, Yakov Kreizberg, and many others.

Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from him?

Maxim: He comes from the Leningrad school of conducting, which provides great technical basic skills for the conductor. For me, that was wonderful to go through, the studies with Vag. I progressed quite quickly, and I was able to conduct chamber orchestras. Then in 2009, I decided to study conducting on a different level, a more serious level, so I would be able to conduct symphony orchestras. At this time I became a student of Maestro Juri Simonov. He comes from another school of conducting, also from Leningrad, from St. Petersburg. His teacher was (Nikolai) Rabinovich. So Rabinovich was a student of Aleksandr Gauk, Gauk was a student of Nikolai Malko. Malko was a student of Felix Mottl (and Mottl was a was a contemporary of Mahler.) So that is the Russian-Germanic school of conducting.

Laurie: A good pedigree!

Maxim: I'm very lucky, because Juri Simonov provided a phenomenal manual technique of conducting that allows me to show quite a lot of things with my hands, without using a lot of verbal expressions.

Laurie: I'm sure you wind up in front of orchestras with musicians who speak many different languages, but we all speak music, right?

Maxim: Yes. What's important is to be able to express yourself and the way you feel about this music, your interpretation, with your gestures. That's why you need to learn the source of communication: conducting technique.

Laurie: There are too many people who get up there and do some kind of ballet that doesn't really convey a lot.

Maxim: It may work in the short-term, because the orchestra is inspired. Also nowadays, orchestras (are so good), they can play even without a conductor. But if one becomes music director, you need a different knowledge.

Laurie: Do you want to become a music director, one day?

Maxim: I'm not sure I would like to become a chief director of an orchestra, I will tell you why: simply for one fact, because I may have to abandon my violin. (A music directorship) is a big job: to spend at least 15 weeks with the orchestra, to learn all this repertoire each year, to do the administration, to discuss the agenda with the orchestra, to advocate for the right soloist…there's a lot of work, being a music director. And it's not only the conducting -- conducting takes maybe the least time! That's why, I may look for a guest conducting position, which would require maybe three to five times a year somewhere.

Laurie: A regular guest conductor.

Maxim: Yes, to establish a very good relationship with an orchestra. That is what I think, in time, I will be looking for.

Laurie: Now speaking of abandoning your violin, did you ever really do that during your break from performing, or were you pretty much playing the whole time? Are you happy to be back to performing?

Maxim: First of all, I'm incredibly happy to be back on the violin.

When I couldn't play for four years -- it was a very good time for me, actually, because I could study conducting. Otherwise, I never would have been able to devote myself to this learning process. So from this point of view, it was great that I didn't play the violin. Also, it's increased my deeper knowledge in music, not only conducting, but I think I have more colors to my violin playing than before, for the fact that I hear it somehow differently.

Anything we learn and anything we go through in life gives sort of an imprint on your main profession. I can feel now, as a violinist, I'm a different person, and I'm thankful for these four years of time.

But I missed my violin for at least two of the years that I didn't play: the third and fourth years. The first two years were just great -- because I had a good rest! But then I said to myself, "Ooh, I really miss it," and I was looking for a way to come back. It wasn't easy, I must say, it wasn't.

Laurie: How did you do it, how did you come back?

Maxim: I came back because I was lucky to find a good surgeon who performed wonderful surgery on me, on my shoulder. And then I had one year of rehabilitation.

Laurie: I wondered if you had to change your violin technique.

Maxim: Not only did I have to change technique, but I wanted to. It was very natural for me to change technique. I feel much more free with the instrument. Because simply, I was putting too much effort into the violin-playing, it was sort of too physical. Now, I use only what's necessary to produce the sound and articulation -- whatever I need. Now I don't move too much, whereas before, my movements were sort of like a palm tree!

Laurie: When you rehabilitated, did you work with a doctor, or a violin teacher, or both?

Maxim: Totally alone. I had two criteria: First, music. The final result in music, what I wanted to hear, because I have very strong expectations, always, as to how it has to sound. And the second criteria: it had to be as less-physical as possible. So I wanted to achieve the (musical) results I wanted, with as less effort as possible.

Laurie: Did you play repertoire, did you play scales, how did you do it? I can think of a lot of violinists who would love to improve their physical playing to improve their health, but it's hard to know how.

Maxim: I must say that in this way, I was really lucky, because I had had an operation, and I was still in pain when I got out of the operation. Four months after the operation, I had done a lot of rehab, physical exercises, but I still couldn't play. So I had to work with pain, with quite a lot pain, actually. I had to (address the) matter of relaxation in my playing, otherwise I couldn't sustain playing more than 10 minutes.

Laurie: So the pain kept you from overdoing it.

Maxim: Exactly. So pain was sort of my red light. (He laughs)

Laurie: Pain was your teacher.

Maxim: Yes. If I had pain, that meant I was doing something wrong. It's amazing, actually. I realized that if I am in pain when I'm playing, I had to balance it. (I had to use) force, but just enough to get through. And I had to always increase the amount of playing. I started with 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20, I got to an hour. It was quite a long process. Then very naturally, I could see that my movements were more refined than before. I had reconstructed everything, including my left hand, and my position of the neck.... Violin-playing, as anything else in life, is not only about being relaxed, but you have to contract your muscles and de-contract. The relaxation after the contraction is very important, you have to be 50-50. So I was working with this balance for a very, very long time, until I felt absolutely at ease, which is now. Now I feel that.

Yes it's true, I could write a book about this.

Laurie: It would be a very interesting book! Inspirational. It's hard to work back from something like that.

Maxim: Actually, I didn't do it totally alone. My father was my mirror all that time. He helped me -- he was more of a psychiatrist. (He laughs) But I think now my father can -- if you gave him the violin, I think he would start playing now! (He laughs) Although he never touched the violin in his life!

Also, I'm helping a few young people now, who came to me after the operation. I understand their difficulties. I'm actually the one who has gone through it, and I'm a good example for them. Not direct students, but they come to me and I see them regularly.

Laurie: You do teach though, at the Royal Academy in London, yes?

Maxim: Yes. At the Royal Academy, and at the International Menuhin Academy of Music in Gstaad, Switzerland.

Laurie: I've watched an old masterclass video of you teaching and you look like a fun teacher, do you enjoy teaching?

Maxim: Yes, although I must say that my style of teaching is different now, due to experiences I've had, and also my conducting experience, and experiences with viola and baroque violin -- all of these things add to the package.

Laurie You have also been more involved with competitions -- as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, and this year you will be working with the Montreal International Music Competition. How did you get involved with the Montreal competition?

Maxim: I've known about the Montreal International Music Competition for quite a long time. It's a wonderful competition, and when the organization approached me, I thought it would be a great honor. Also, with my experience as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, I felt this would be wonderful continuation, to be involved with another competition.

Laurie: So you will be both conducting and serving on the jury?

Maxim: We decided that I should not be on the jury after all, because I'm going to conduct in the final round. It's difficult to be on both sides of the fence! (He laughs) So this time I prefer to be with the colleagues, with the young competitors. I know how difficult and challenging it is to perform in front of the jury -- not only that, but to compete among other brilliant young musicians. We have a very good committee, so I'm sure the choice will be made wonderfully, and I trust the competition is going to be at the highest level possible.

I'm very excited about conducting all the finalists. Conducting the violin repertoire is one of my favorite things to do, because I do understand the challenges of the concerto, and I know the difficulties of playing with the orchestra. As conductor, I think I can be of some help to the young competitors.

Many people wonder, why do we need to do competitions? Many young people say, maybe if I can learn a couple of concertos, can get a good PR agent, it will just happen for me! Yes, it might, because with today's media possibilities -- the Internet, TV, all the promotional activities -- you can achieve phenomenal things to promote yourself. But there is something that we forget, by promoting yourself. We sometimes forget about the main reason why we are playing for people. We are playing the greatest compositions -- Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky -- they left for us this great heritage. It's as if people go to museums to see Leonardo da Vinci, the great paintings -- we have to deliver these great works, all the concertos, sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, in the best possible way that we can. We have to find very personal approach to them. Every soloist nowadays has to try to say something unique, something personal. Otherwise, if you're playing just another performance of Brahms concerto, why do we need to hear that?

That is the great lesson that Barenboim taught me. I played the Sibelius concerto for him, in a private room with the pianist, and I was very happy about my performance. I felt it was very emotional, good technically -- and he didn't say anything. I asked him, "Maestro, don't you like it?" He said, "Yes, I like it. It's great violin-playing. But I want to hear your Sibelius! I didn't hear your Sibelius." I asked him, "What do you mean, my Sibelius?" He said, "Well, take the score, don't play the violin any more. Just study the score. Tomorrow morning, we have the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and I want to really hear your Sibelius, your discovery, based on your new, detailed knowledge of the musical score."

I spent one whole night with the score of the Sibelius, and I totally re-discovered this work. Of course, the first rehearsal was far from perfect, and even my technique started to lose something because I was more busy with the music. So I went a step back, and after rehearsal I was very unhappy. But Barenboim came to me and said, "Well, I am happy that you have started now."

Why do we need competitions -- we want to hear every young competitor, to compare their interpretations, their souls, their personalities, how each of them views Beethoven, Mozart, even Paganini -- Paganini was a great composer, not only sportsman, as some people view him. And we want to go definitely beyond technique, because in today's society, with all our new technological possibilities, the level of technique has grown. That means the development of the human souls has to be even higher, has to match the technical possibilities.

Laurie: So when you are on a jury, it sounds like you are looking for the kind of thing that Daniel Barenboim was looking for in you.

Maxim: Absolutely. That's why we need competitions. Because we can recognize out of 40-50 players -- we want to find the most developed ones, the people who, in their future, will bring something to our audience, will bring something to the music, will add something to the musical world. And beyond that, even those people who do not pass through to the finals, they will have goals, they will have dreams fulfilled because they were at the competition where the atmosphere was incredible, where the level, not only technical but the performing art level, was fantastic. So they go away from the competition with the souvenirs and new challenges.

Laurie: Inspired.

Maxim: Inspired. That's what, we need to inspire young people.


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