Fiery Fiddling from France

By Steven Libowitz   |   December 6, 2018
Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja makes her Santa Barbara debut (photo by Julia Wesely)

Not surprisingly, the Moldovan-born virtuoso violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja turned out to be one of the most ambitious and active music directors of the Ojai Music Festival when she headed up the venerable classical music festival this past summer. Her four-day visit to the mountain village veered from a solo performance unplugged in Libbey Park to the vitally visceral “Dies Irae” theatrical suite, with stops at Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and the suite version of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.”

The Grammy Award-winner who excels at both the classical repertoire and new commissions and reinterpretations of modern masterworks has been hailed as “dizzyingly unpredictable and almost unbearably exciting” by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, and praised as “a player of rare expressive energy and disarming informality, of whimsy and theatrical ambition” by The New York Times.

Now, just six months after Ojai (an experience she termed “just heaven”), Kopatchinskaja makes her Santa Barbara debut performing in recital with frequent collaborator pianist Polina Leschenko in a program featuring mostly French works by Poulenc, Ravel, Enenscu, and Bartók, this Tuesday, December 11, at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall. The violinist discussed Ojai, the recital, and more in an email interview. 

Q. You brought “Dies Irae,” the recent composition about, in your words, “our biosphere and civilization being doomed by global warming,” to Ojai. I have a few questions about the implications of the piece: First, having just done an interview with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet about their banned countries project, I am curious about the question of musicians actively engaging in the political/social debate. (Sometimes to me it seems like classical musicians are the nowadays revolutionaries, akin to folksingers in the 1960s). 

A. I am not one of these artists who think that they are so terribly important as to have their say about everything. So this is not about a “political/social debate.” It’s about all serious scientists of this world – also those of the Trump administration – telling us that we are on a path of collective and accelerating suicide. We are the first generation who has the chance to realize this, and the last one who has a chance to do something. We have an actionable window of a couple of years and we are basically doing nothing. 

Do you feel you are having an impact in some way, or are you satisfied with purely having the outlet for artistic expression, or is it something else?

How could I be satisfied? No, I’m desperate and panicking. There is no impact at all. The prayers of the right are as useless as the electric cars, and the Paris Agreement is basically a political fig-leaf, insufficient, non-binding, and not followed even by those who did not leave it.

Would you talk about your commitment and devotion to playing new music? Why is it important to you?

Is it art if we repeat the always same core repertoire of classical music? This reminds me of the small town in China where everybody paints van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” to hundreds each month for sale. Or do you have the habit of reading the journals of 1850? Or should universities repeat the experiments of the 20th century? Having studied composition and having composed myself I am just curious what happens today. Isn’t this the most natural thing of the world? Or do I need a psychiatric assessment?

Turning to the upcoming recital here in Santa Barbara, you are performing with pianist Polina Leschenko, who I know you see as much more than an accompanist, and who has been described as being as “extremist” as you are. You’ve also been quoted as saying you had a lot of fun in the studio making your new record together. It seems you have risk-taking and boundary-pushing in common. How do you describe your connection? Do you feed off it? And in what ways to the lines between musical and personal intersect in your working together?

If you hear Polina, you will know immediately: What incredible virtuosity, what elegance, what refinement, and how she brings out edges and harmonies you never knew they existed even in known pieces like “Ravels Tzigane.” She seems a caressing pussycat, but suddenly she shows the claws of the tiger.

I noticed that there aren’t any very contemporary works on the program as announced. This seems contrary to your desire to further modern music. Would you explain your choices?

Well, all the pieces played are less than a hundred years old; that’s better than most concerts. This program has its origins in the Paris between the wars: Bartok played his first sonata in a private concert with his muse violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, while Ravel turned the pages for him and Poulenc turned the pages for Jelly. After the performance Ravel told Bartok that he would write a Hungarian rhapsody – the “Tzigane” – for Jelly. This was an outright and cheeky provocation because Bartok had just written in the Parisian Revue Musicale how much he abhorred Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies and the Hungarian dances of Brahms. And Jelly tried to extract a violin sonata from Poulenc but to no avail. It was only the brilliant violinist Ginette Neveu which succeeded to have a sonata during the German occupation of Paris in WWII. In every movement Poulenc quotes the jazz-standard “tea for two“, which was forbidden by the Nazis and the sonata was dedicated to the poet Federico Garcia-Lorca, who had been murdered by the fascists. Enescu was also part of this Parisian Galaxy. In 1927 he premiered Ravel’s violin sonata with the composer at the piano, and in the same year he also premiered his famous third sonata, “Dans le caractère populaire Roumain,” one of his best pieces.

Changing directions, I loved where I read in another interview that one of the ways you see yourself as a musician is to try to “make myself as empty and receivable as possible, so that every piece at any point can find the best place in my brain, my heart, and my hands.” I’m curious how you balance that idea of being an empty vessel with bringing your own emotions, intellect, and passion to the pieces?

Being empty means above all, to forget everything what you had heard and were taught about a piece, and then build a fresh, personal, and authentic encounter with all your faculties, this meaning that you have to invest yourself totally, that’s what I mean if I say that “You have to become the piece.”

Classical Corner

Hallelujah! Cartwright commands Christmas: The Santa Barbara Choral Society’s annual The Hallelujah Project concert has become a cherished Christmastime tradition after just five years. This year, the Goleta Valley Junior High Chorus and baritone soloist Tyler Reece join the society’s orchestra and singer for a program featuring Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols,” “White Christmas,” and other holiday chestnuts, for the Saturday-Sunday, December 8-9, shows at the Lobero. The re-telling of the classic “Twas the Night Before Christmas” set to orchestration features narration by Angela Cartwright, best known for her roles opposite Danny Thomas in Make Room for Daddy, as Brigitta Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and as Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.

‘Seasons’ for CAMA centennial: Avi Avital, the first mandolin soloist to be nominated for a classical Grammy, serves as featured soloist for Vivaldi’s famed “The Four Seasons” in the centerpiece work of the free community concert starring the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performing an all-Vivaldi program at the Granada Theatre at 8 pm on Tuesday, December 11. The Community Arts Music Association (CAMA) concert, which also features the composer’s Concerto for Two Violins in G Minor and Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor, is a gift to the community in celebration of CAMA’s 100th season.

Strings and things: Santa Barbara Strings’ free Winter Chamber Recital combines the educational program’s The Honors Quartet, Piano Quartet, Piano Trio, String Quartets, String Trio, and Cello/Piano Duo in a program of works by Brahms, Mozart, and more, at 3 pm Sunday, December 9, at The Samarkand Mountain Room, 2550 Treasure Drive. 


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