One of the most sought-after contemporary solo artists and conductors, an artist of prolific talent, his career has been totally out of the ordinary: he withdrew from the limelight at the peak of his fame, aged just 30, and spent a four-year hiatus engaged in conducting and pedagogy. His 2011 return to the violin scene was a spectacular comeback that revealed a completely different artist
Maxim Vengerov (1974) is a recipient of prestigious awards from institutions like the Royal Academy of Music (UK). Decorated with the National Order of Merit of Romania and the Order of Merit of the German Federal State of Saarland, he has received an Honorary Visiting Fellowship at Trinity College, Oxford, and in 2019 received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Music in London and the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco, gaining the title of Knight. Vengerov is the winner of Gramophone Classical Music Awards, a Grammy Award, a Classic Brit Award, five Edison Classical Music Awards, two Echo Music Prizes, as well as the Crystal Award of the World Economic Forum (2007), which is awarded to leading artists whose leadership has inspired inclusive and sustainable change that contributes to improving living conditions around the world.
He performs on the ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius violin that was made in 1727. Back in 1997, he became the first classical musician ever to become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. As a shining star of classical music, he is among the few who nurture unusually strong relations with journalists and, when his obligations permit, he doesn’t miss out on opportunities to meet his adoring fans.
This interview was prompted by Vengerov’s performance, together with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski (1979), at Belgrade’s Kolarac Endowment Hall on 29th June, under the auspices of the “Virtuosos Without Borders” series of art music concerts. Their performances represent “fireworks of virtuosity and emotion”, and they arrived in Belgrade following masterful performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s Barbican Centre and the Philharmonie de Paris.
“This chair is really comfortable, I’m afraid that people will fall asleep during the concert. Sometimes people at concerts are totally sleepy, and then in the second part they start enjoying themselves. What is important at the end of the concert is what people take away. Music somehow goes into the subconsciousness, and when a person listens to music while sleeping that’s also a kind of therapy, maybe even a stronger one. Things coming from outside sometimes have an even greater effect on us, when our consciousness is there. That’s because, when we are conscious, we view the concert and observe the visual effects, the eyes take a lot of attention. We look at the pianist, violinist; we look everywhere, there are people around. But when one closes one’s eyes, that’s when the effect starts.
“Belgrade is a really important city for me. First of all, I love the audience here – the most receptive and warmest audience in the East. There are a few events that I really remember well. I’ve been here a number of times, as you know. One of the first times that I came here, I came as a conductor. It was my first ever orchestra and I performed a major repertoire. It was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, my first great symphony with the Belgrade Philharmonic. So, as a conductor, I will always remember the orchestra and venue of my debut. And I know that it was also Zubin Mehta’s first orchestra when he was very young, and we are very similar in this way. Then I came during very difficult times for your country, before and after the bombing. I performed here for children in hospital, during the conflict in Kosovo. It was really difficult, but I insisted on coming to perform both here and in Kosovo. Simply, as a representative of children in my capacity as UNICEF goodwill ambassador, children are on both sides, and I couldn’t stand aside while both sides suffered; physically and mentally, both were affected. So, I’m glad that I came here during those times.”
As well as playing the viola, conducting and engagements in music pedagogy, you have pointed out that the violin is your primary form of communication. Could you tell us more about what you mean by that precisely?
The primary source of communicating in the way that the first tongue [language] that I learned as a child, a toddler, was Russian. I then later learned other languages, but Russian is my main language, my mother tongue. And, for me, the violin is the same as my mother tongue, because I started so early, before I was even five. I started conducting when I was 24. I later started to play the viola, so I have done different experiments. I started teaching. But the violin will always remain my main instrument.
The more you study, the more you add to your versatility, it’s like a fingerprint. It’s still you, but there is more information. It’s like DNA…You can’t say I’ve done it, now I can enjoy myself. No, you are always learning. You are always on the road, experiencing life because life is a journey
How have you balanced your commitments to music and your family? Both require a special kind of dedication, discipline and much love.
My mother was a choral conductor for children. She created a school within an orphanage in Siberia. She created music for the school and was director of that school for many years. She was, and remains, the main source of inspiration for me. That’s partly because she was a teacher of vocals, and my instinct was to choose an instrument that’s also close to a vocal. With the violin, I could imitate the human voice. I couldn’t do that with piano right away, because piano has a more percussive nature. The violin is singing, and that was always singing for me. I based my education on listening to many opera singers. There is something really intimate about the violin, those four strings, the one body of the violin, that forges this instinctive and instant connection with a player. If this is missing, there is no connection. Probably the more sensitive instrument is the human voice, but next to that is definitely the violin, when you hold it next to your body. The violin is definitely an extension of the body, and the bow is an extension of the arm. So, when I teach students and see someone playing in a way that’s not harmonious with the body, then I tell them to try to connect themselves instantly like glue. It is so extremely difficult, easy to say but difficult to do. It’s all down to technique. We can talk about the magic of music, but without technique comes nothing. The violin is a very subtle instrument. It requires a great teacher. If you don’t have a great teacher, you can’t just make music. Even if you feel it so well, the required connection will be lacking.
In the Soviet Union, where I grew up, it wasn’t always easy. Most of the time it was very hard work, because you always had to deliver results. It’s not like my kids – you know that I have three children. One is still a baby, only six months old. My two girls play cello and piano, and they make music because they just love it. I didn’t make music just because I loved it, it was my way of expressing myself; it was a necessity. I thought my violin and my bow were my route and passport to the world. With the violin I could go and travel, and I definitely wanted to travel and see the world. If you talk to children in this way today, they don’t understand. They wonder what’s wrong with just taking a flight somewhere. In those days you couldn’t, but you could if you were a violinist.
How important are versatility and curiosity for a musician (you were a choral singer as a boy)?
Yes, I sung a little bit in my mother’s choir. I will tell you the parallel: you go to the doctor, to a dermatologist, he checks your skin, but he knows nothing other than the skin. Would you trust a doctor like this? I don’t think so. You need a doctor that knows how to be a general practitioner. Maybe he doesn’t know everything, but he will know how to identify the source of the problem. That’s why simply playing the violin isn’t good enough. I always had to study, and I still do. I continue educating myself with teachers. When I was 20, I knew practically nothing other than the violin, and I felt very claustrophobic already, although I had a career and performed 150 concerts a year during that time. I felt that I needed to slow down and embark on new studies. That’s why I started experimenting with baroque violin, playing period instruments, I was very curious about that. I then subsequently started playing the viola, learned how to conduct, with a teacher.
What is really special about Rostropovich is that he could change my DNA while we were performing. No other conductor did that to me. All I needed to do was look into Rostropovich eyes and I would know how to play. When I listen to those recordings now, I sometimes cannot recognise my own sound. And that’s a very good thing, because I learned from him, took his DNA and mixed it with mine. That was total magic
I initially had many years of studying with teachers. My first teacher for three years was Vag Papian, who was a student of the legendary teacher Ilya Musin in Saint Petersburg. I then studied for seven years with Yuri Simonov, who comes from a different school, but still a Russian one. So, these years of study, plus the experience of working with orchestras, gave me a lot and I don’t regret spending so much time investing in my studies. Now when I play the violin, when I play a Brahms sonata, I know that the longest scene is just a collaboration of the violon and piano, for me it’s a symphony. So, the more you study, the more you add to your versatility, it’s like a fingerprint. It’s still you, but there is more information. It’s like DNA.
It will always change according to experiences. Being a musician is a journey, like being a doctor, you always study, you advance. You can’t say I’ve done it, now I can enjoy myself. No, you are always learning. You are always on the road, experiencing life because life is a journey.
Do other artists (musicians) and arts influence your interpretation?
Very much so. When I listen to somebody, I can always learn something very special that I didn’t previously have. And you can’t have everything, which is why it’s important to stay curious about everything. I see one technical element that somebody has and I say ‘okay, I should try this’. Other artists may also inspire you, and also you learn what not to do from them. And that’s very important, you know. You look at somebody and think ‘okay, I shouldn’t be doing that’.
I love jazz especially. You see, I can’t listen to classical music when I want to relax, because I will start paying attention to everything.
What made your collaboration with Rostropovich so significant; and do you still think your recordings with him represent the best of your career?
Absolutely so! I do value the recordings I made with him and rate them as being among my best. Because of this precious collaboration, Rostropovich was like my musical father and I collaborated with him for 17 years, until he died. He is a direct link to composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, under whom he studied. He was so friendly with many others, like Benjamin Britten. All the compositions I recorded with him and learned from him, it’s like learning from source, and what can be more precious than that?
This duet with the piano and violin is like a dance between a woman and a man. The violin has the female role, while the piano leads because violin has a horizontal line, as a mono voice most of the time, but the piano has vertical harmony and that’s why it leads. The violin rhymes and shines like the cherry on top of the cake.
So, luckily, I also documented it in the recordings. What is really special about Rostropovich is that he could change my DNA while we were performing. No other conductor did that to me. All I needed to do was look into Rostropovich eyes and I would know how to play. When I listen to those recordings now, I sometimes cannot recognise my own sound. And that’s a very good thing, because I learned from him, took his DNA and mixed it with mine. That was total magic. There are only a few people in the musical world for whom time stands still when you talk to them or play with them. Rostropovich was one such person. Such concentration of mind, where everything becomes so harmonious. With him you felt eternity, something that was so truthful.
With a view to your upcoming performance in Belgrade, could you tell us more about your collaboration with brilliant Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski? I can say with certainty that the Belgrade audience expects much more than an exceptional performance.
Simon is a truly exceptional soloist in his own right, very individual. His individuality inspires me. In such a repertoire as the one we present to the Belgrade audience, such as Mozart and Prokofiev, you need not only a violinist with piano complement, but you also need two partners on stage. Very often, and mostly in cembalo music piano leads, and that’s why I always say that the piano and violin form an incredible duet. Two contrasting instruments, one, the violin, has more of a singing nature, while the other, the piano, has more of a percussive nature. They both strive to come together and be harmonious. As conflicting as that is, it is the greatest repertoire that has been written by so many composers and we are very looking forward to presenting it to this great audience.
However, this duet with the piano and violin is like a dance between a woman and a man. The violin has the female role, while the piano leads because violin has a horizontal line, as a mono voice most of the time, but the piano has vertical harmony and that’s why it leads. The violin rhymes and shines like the cherry on top of the cake. But without the grand foundation, without this vertical that the piano provides, the violin cannot be at its best. Without a great duo partnership, we can’t realise the best of the score. That’s why Simon is a great soloist; he brings so much to the realisation of the score.
How does a world-class musician relax without music?
Family, for me, is the greatest source of inspiration. That’s why I relax with my kids.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career to date?
There are always challenges, big or small. I think that learning something new is always the greatest inspiration, but also a great challenge. It is like taking on a new profession, starting to conduct, starting to play the viola. I experimented with baroque violin and even played an electric violin on a few occasions, while I even studied to dance tango for one project.
What is important for a musician is that you need to have such a small ego. Just big enough that you can go on stage and fit and go through the concert
All the challenges come along the way when you want to do something new. When I started teaching, it was like a new world to me at the beginning. I didn’t have to play anymore, but I had to explain my vision. So, these are the challenges and I’m sure that more will come.
How do you judge success; and how do you protect yourself against that notorious trap known as “hubris” in English, or “gordost” in Serbian and Russian, against which no human being is immune?
I think that music is so challenging, and life itself, that there is no space for this, no time to think about this, because most of the time you are so busy. What is important for a musician is that you need to have such a small ego. Just big enough that you can go on stage and fit and go through the concert.
What advice would you offer a young musician emerging in these perilous and peculiar times?
If you love music, do everything you need to succeed. If you want to have a success, if you have talent and you have love and passion for music, then I think God will lead you where you need to be.
By Ana Ćirica