Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2005
Sunday Calendar; Part E; Pg. 33
"String Theory, Stretched"
Violinists Leonidas Kavakos (right) and John Holloway take progressive approaches, infusing their playing with the fire of Gypsy folk music and the excitement of jazz improvisation.
By Adam Baer
In an urban sprawl where the term "eclectic" brands the musical zeitgeist, from the studios of KCRW to the multi-genre live performances that pepper Southern California, a concert series centered on a progressive German record label would still have been a welcome addition. Alas, ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher and the UCLA Live staff could not agree on the content for a proposed Royce Hall series — "Elective Affinities: An ECM Festival" — and the series, scheduled for last month, was canceled in December.
The shows were to have provided a foray into the distinctive blend of classical, jazz and so-called "European new music" that ECM produces. Long a critical success, the Munich-based company — known for its stark art-photo covers and live, full acoustics — consistently presents seasoned innovators such as the Hilliard Ensemble, Keith Jarrett and composer Arvo Pärt alongside adventurous newcomers.
As luck would love it, though, Angelenos can still hear a pair of ECM iconoclasts live this week — the same night, in fact, but at different venues. On Tuesday, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos will play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra in Walt Disney Concert Hall. And across town, at the Roosevelt Hotel, British Baroque fiddler John Holloway will perform the music of Francesco Maria Veracini with cellist Jaap ter Linden and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen.
Though not yet American household names, both musicians offer idiosyncratic yet consistently enlightening interpretations. The problem is obvious: Hearing one means forgoing the other...
The Gypsy connection
An Athens native, grandson of a prominent
folk fiddler and currently principal guest artist with Austria's Camerata Salzburg, Kavakos, 37,
came to European prominence in the late 1980s after winning the Paganini,
Sibelius and Naumburg competitions. He didn't, however, pursue the life of an
international prodigy, performing one big concerto around the world each
successive year. Rather, he played concerts, as he put it during a recent
telephone call from Greece, only "when I felt I really
wanted to share" a new piece or program.
Which is why American listeners are just starting to know him. "I never believed in rocket-like careers," he said. "An artist has to develop and needs time to do that. I let this evolution come gradually. I am in the right spot now to play for people. I don't feel like I have to try to achieve or pretend."
In much the way Latvian violin paragon Gidon Kremer works with his own chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, Kavakos regularly skirts the traditional soloist's life to collaborate with Camerata Salzburg as both programmer and conductor. "I have a need for expansion and think the violin repertoire is in certain ways limited," he said. "Working with an orchestra gives me also the possibility to actively work on repertoire I love while helping my growth as a violinist. The left hand helps the right one. It is not a career move. It is a musical need, and the kind of work I can only gain from."
That attitude led the young Kavakos to follow his 1991 Gramophone award for a BIS CD of the Sibelius concerto by recording chamber music with the likes of edgy violist Kim Kashkashian; the two teamed up to perform music by the Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian for ECM last year. In 2003, his first solo ECM record, pairing sonatas by Ravel and Enescu, won praise for its unabashed Gypsy spirit.
Next month, Kavakos will travel to Budapest with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to perform Bartók's Second Violin Concerto. Later in the month, in Athens, he will debut John Tavener's violin concerto "Mahashakti," which was written for him. He is also celebrating the release of a Stravinsky/Bach CD that, he said, exemplifies the principles for which his label stands.
"ECM is about a complete recording experience," he said. "We discussed the order of the works on this latest CD over and over because Manfred cares for you to listen to it as an album, from start to finish." More important, Kavakos said, Eicher has "an intuition" for finding exciting repertoire combinations and ways to present his records. "He is the definition of an artist," the violinist added. "I don't think there's anyone more spontaneous, improvisational and willing to risk."
Baroque with a jazz sensibility
Holloway, for his part, wouldn't necessarily call the music he specializes in "classical" — even if it has survived more wars. The 56-year-old violinist, known for championing such previously uncelebrated composers of the Baroque era as Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, is a bona fide pioneer of the period-instrument movement. He initiated the first complete recording of Handel's chamber music on authentic instruments in the late 1970s and subsequently performed as concertmaster under such distinguished Baroque conductors as Andrew Parrott and Roger Norrington.
Today he teaches at the Dresden Hochschule für Musik in Germany and devotes himself to thematic solo and chamber projects, such as the Veracini program he will play with his partners at the Roosevelt. "The label for Italian Baroque music is 'beautiful melodies, wildly virtuosic,' and the label for German is 'serious counterpoint, intellectual,' " he said from his home in Dresden. "Veracini combines both. His music is at the level of Bach's sonatas and partitas in terms of violinistic demands and musical vision."
Unlike many other period-instrument musicians, Holloway has a mysterious way of and interest in turning fringe music into entertaining and enlightening experiences for listeners who might not know their Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. "There actually are people who want to hear something new," he said. "They may have grown up with the standard repertoire. Or they may come from the jazz or rock end, after hearing what some people can do with 17th century music and becoming excited by the improvisational character and infectious rhythmic drive.
"What my modern-instrument colleagues do have to accept is that there is a kind of listener who doesn't necessarily want giantism, massiveness and density all the time," he continued. "They want more lightness of touch, light and shade, more human scale. It's a known fact that performances of Mahler and Wagner have been getting slower and bigger and thicker and louder for at least 100 years, and there comes a point where it just all gets a little bit too significant."
Another of Holloway's gripes about contemporary violin performance style is the collective obsession with producing a long, loud "singing line." "The word 'cantabile' means singing; in order to sing you have to breathe, and in order to breathe you have to interrupt the line," he said. "Nobody tells singers they can't breathe. But instrumentalists go to endless trouble to produce a continuity of sound that no singer can accomplish. We're being machines, and irrespective of Baroque performance style, it makes me unwell.
"One of the most disturbing things about violin playing over the past 100 years has been the fear of silence. Yet it's the silences which define the sounds."
The "jazz connection," or "sounding improvised," characterizes Holloway's way with early music. That approach is especially helpful when he's playing scores by a "classical" composer such as Veracini, who was known for improvising on the spot. "We in 'classical music' tend to assume that great jazz musicians or improvisers go onstage with empty brains and wait for inspiration," he said. "This is nonsense. They practice. They learn the great solos of their predecessors. They program the internal computer. And in performance they hope that, in the inspiration of the moment, good parts of what they have stored will come out in a funny order or different shape.
"They've prepared themselves. And I don't think we should forget that we have virtually no chance of really knowing what in detail Veracini did with his own sonatas — whether he played the text we have or whether he played something completely different. Even though there are figures on the score that look like ornaments, they're written down. I play those parts of the music like ornaments. It's the decoration on the structure, not the structure itself."
"When we started the company in 1969, I recorded music that I wanted to listen to, and since then the label has developed organically," he said. "I don't like definitions that categorize music as 'classical,' 'jazz,' 'world.' I just look for music that moves me."
Translation: Whichever spontaneous "classical" ECM fiddler one chooses to catch Tuesday night, it would probably be wise to leave the powdered wig and opera glasses at home.
* * * *
Two places at once
Walt Disney Concert Hall,
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Price: $15 to $125
Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.org
What: John Holloway, violin; Jaap ter Linden, gamba; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Price: $39 and $44
Contact: (213) 477-2929 or www.dacamera.org
* * * *
The fiery fiddlers: Selections from the two violinists' discographies
Stravinsky/Bach. Peter Nagy, piano (ECM)
Maurice Ravel/George Enescu. Peter Nagy, piano (ECM)
Sibelius Violin Concerto. Lahti Symphony; Osmo Vänskä, conductor (BIS)
Tigran Mansurian: "Monodia." Kim Kashkashian, viola. The Hilliard Ensemble. Münchener Kammerorchester; Christoph Poppen, conductor (ECM)
Sonatas. Jaap ter
Biber: "Unam Ceylum." Aloysia Assenbaum, organ. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord (ECM)
Biber/Muffat: "Der Turken Anmarsch." Aloysia Assenbaum, organ. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord (ECM)
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: "Unarum Fidium." Aloysia Assenbaum, organ. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord (ECM)