Leonidas Kavakos performs at the Mariinsky Concert Hall on Saturday.
Published: June 20, 2008 (Issue # 1383)
For The St. Petersburg Times
The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos brings his 1692 Stradivarius to the city this weekend to perform Henri Dutilleux’s 1985 violin concerto L'Arbre des Songes at the Mariinsky Concert Hall.
His first violin may have been nothing more than a token Christmas gift from his father but today Greece’s Leonidas Kavakos is one of the world’s most distinguished and versatile virtuoso violinists with a packed concert diary.
A regular at renowned international festivals, including the Salzburg Festival, the BBC Proms and the Ravenna Festival, Kavakos comes to town this week to perform at Valery Gergiev’s Stars of the White Nights Festival. Saturday sees Kavakos performing Henri Dutilleux’s 1985 violin concerto L’Arbre des Songes at the Mariinsky Concert Hall.
The winner of the 1991 Gramophone Award for the first-ever recording of the original version of Sibelius’ violin concerto, Kavakos performs a stunningly diverse repertoire spanning centuries of classical music. His programs feature works by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Stravinsky, Schubert, Ravel, Sibelius, Debussy and George Enescu as well as cutting edge contemporary composers such as Dutilleux — all played on a Stradivarius made in 1692.
The violinist regards L’Arbre des Songes as one of the most fascinating concertos of the 20th century.
“Dutilleux has a unique sense of orchestration and color and a wonderful ability of designing these colors,” he said.
Kavakos initially came across the Dutilleux concerto after a friend’s recommendation, and was immediately enchanted by the piece. Learning the work turned out as somewhat of an adventure for the 41-year old musician, however, as he was drafted to the Greek army in 1996. Kavakos was already engaged to perform the concerto in Minneapolis, Minnesota — after completing his service — so the need to practice was essential.
The military authorities granted the musician 90 minutes in the evening (during dinner time) for rehearsals and assigned him a humble room with a small window and no electric light for the purpose. The violinist did not complain about the spartan conditions as long as he had the time with his musical instrument.
“My love for this concerto was so great that I would have learned it in any circumstances, and in this sense, although Dutilleux’s was a very complex score, I did not mind the darkness,” Kavakos remembers.
He talks about this part of his service fondly, recalling the light coming into the room from the street, the beauty of the concerto and the chance of artistic escape from a military environment in which he felt lonely and alienated.
Born to a family of musicians — both his parents and his grandfather played Greek folk music — Kavakos grew up in an artistic atmosphere in the house with music all around.
“Music is heavenly by nature but when it gets to the learning stage is the most demanding, even painful thing, especially for a little child,” he said. “Children enjoy experiments but suffer in any conditions that require strict discipline. My parents were very smart, and simply allowed me to play with a violin as if it were a toy for a year, when I was about five years old. Then, slowly, we moved on to the lessons.
“Music was a natural choice for me indeed — because of the early exposure and the environment I grew up in. But my parents never forced me into becoming anything.”
Kavakos said he “always enjoyed the different ages — being seven, being 12, being 15 — and this is what I am very thankful to my family for.”
Kavakos’ first shot at international fame came in 1985 when he won the Sibelius competition. Three years later Kavakos triumphed at the Paganini competition, and plum foreign engagements followed.
A key to Kavakos is his diverse repertoire.
“As a musician one has to be aware of all the different eras and aesthetics of the music, which is why it is beneficial for a performer not to confine themselves to one or two ‘key composers’,” Kavakos said. “I seek to expand my horizons and enrich my expressive possibilities as widely as humanly possible.”
Such an approach helps the performer to understand the legacy of the music of the past.
“We have to imagine that all the great 20th century composers were looking back to their predecessors — Mozart, Haydn or any other composers — and using these reflections when trying to make a step forward,” he explains.
“I see classical music legacy as a living organism, a chain, and no part of this chain should be ignored. In other words, if I play Dutilleux it gives me a deeper insight into the works of Ravel or Debussy. The same would be fair for the works of, say, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.”
Every year in Megaron, Athens’ premiere concert hall, Kavakos organizes a classical music festival, as he has since he launched the event 15 years ago. Focused on violin and cello works, the festival attracts some of the world’s finest musicians, including, for instance, Gergiev and pianist Alfred Brendel.
The festival was born in the same year that the venue saw its inauguration with the aim of highlighting new music, including contemporary Greek classical music performed by internationally acclaimed soloists.
The Athens festival is about changing attitudes and pushing boundaries.
Cello music — a largely unexplored part of the classical repertoire, compared to, for example, symphonic works — has been the festival’s special focus. Brahms, Shostakovich, Ravel and many other great composers wrote a wealth of cello pieces but concert managers do not seem to consider them marketable, and these masterpieces remain unplayed.
“Starting from scratch we have built a wonderful and faithful audience,” Kavakos said.
Greek culture is crucial to understanding Kavakos’ performing style.
“The sounds, the language and the culture that I grew up with all affect the way I play and the way I perceive music as an art,” he said, adding that his artistic being and approach to the music-making derived naturally from being Greek.
“Ancient Greek culture and philosophy were anthropocentric. I very much admire and share this focus. The human dimension of music is very important for me when I study the score. A score is so much more than a chain of notes. Classical music is full of colors, moods and life, and I use the anthropocentric essence of ancient Greek philosophy as a tuning fork to discover these hidden treasures in the score.”
As Kavakos point out, Greek philosophy is not about giving answers but rather about posing the right question — here he sees a connection to the mission of classical music.
“Greek philosophy teaches you to look at things from different perspectives and to interpret words and events; Interpretation is invaluable for classical music — and a wealth of angles and approaches here is equally crucial here as in philosophy.”
With the world becoming more and more cosmopolitan, and performing arts schools in classical music, opera and ballet becoming increasingly more competitive, many critics have noted that young people tend to concentrate on a handful of places to learn classical music.
“Everyone thinks about the famous names [of schools], best managers and career opportunities first,” Kavakos said.
“The great thing about the past was that practically every European country boasted its own wonderful school with its unique performing style, sound, identity and culture. Now everything revolves primarily around London, Munich and New York and we are losing a precious diversity of sound.”
Since October 2007, after having held the position of the principle guest artist for the previous six years, Kavakos serves as artistic director and conductor for the internationally renowned Camerata Salzburg orchestra, with its venerable traditions and excellence in the repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelsohn.
For Kavakos, the social role of music has always been meaningful. With his arrival in Salzburg last fall, the orchestra launched an already hugely popular education program where pupils sit between the members of the orchestra during specially arranged open rehearsals absorbing the sounds, the skills, the philosophy and the atmosphere.
“The most rewarding element of being involved with this amazing orchestra is about expanding the possibilities of interpretation and expression,” Kavakos recounts. “We are pushing the boundaries with the orchestra by performing Ravel, Honegger and other exciting composers new to them, and hoping to create new possibilities for the orchestra to express itself.”