NEW YORK – The invitation from the Onassis Cultural Center for the Profiles presentation with renowned interviewer Paul Holdengraber announced “A rare opportunity to hear Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most prominent violinist in the world, reflect on his life and oeuvre.”
Kavakos, who was named Gramophone’s 2014 Artist of the Year, first gained international attention in 1985 when he won the Jan Sibelius Violin Competition as a teenager. Three years later he won the Paganini and Nuremberg competitions.
The free event which was co-presented by Carnegie Hall at its Resnik Education Wing a few days prior to Kavakos’ concert which was co-presented in turn by Onassis was fascinating.
Kavakos now also loves conducting, and he shared his insights on his training and evolution as a violinist and about the composers he brings back to life.
Asked about the Romantic period, Kavakos explained that “human emotions needed more space to be expressed, so the powerful boundaries set by classicism had to be broken” by giants like Schuman. He acknowledged that after playing Schuman’s music he is completely exhausted.
The audience gained insight into the difference between a technically perfect instrumentalist and a genius who seizes the souls of his listeners when Kavakos referred to the dialogues and conversations between the instruments in orchestral and chamber pieces and the way he completely immerses himself in the pieces he plays. That comes as no surprise to concertgoers.
Kavakos said developing his interpretations of music is like being in communion with great persons.
And like topics discussed and often rediscussed among friends through the years, he constantly revisits his interpretations of pieces.
His musical practice is also his life’s philosophy. Just as the musician constantly questions and re-evaluates himself and his relationship with a piece of music in order to perfects his art, so a person changes and finds ways to become a better human being.
There were hints of a mystic dimension to Kavakos’ genius when he explained that the synonym for interpretation – hermeneutics – derives from the name of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek Gods, suggesting a place for divine inspiration in his creativity.
His listeners get tastes of from his choice of pieces for concerts. He loves to play pieces that end in whispers that open into a dramatic and breathless silence.
When he spoke about the pieces he and pianist Yuja Wang selected for their upcoming concert, he compared the passionate yet more restrained Brahms with the fiery Schuman who mentored him. In that context, they sought to build to a climate, so the they will counter tradition and perform the pieces in reverse chronological order.
Holdengraber did no need much coaxing to draw out the thoughtful and articulate musician. He pushed in one respect, however, to the audience’s delight.
It appeared that Kavakos was prepared to play only once in the non-musical auditorium – Holdengraber persuaded the musician to play his beloved Stradivarius a second time.
One of the conversation’s highlights was exploration of the mysteries of the amazing instruments created by the great 18th century violin makers. Kavakos called Stradivarius, whose creations modern technology cannot reproduce, an absolute genius.
Sparks flew for a moment when Holdengraber blithely referred to the material of the magical objects as mere pieces of wood.
”They were alive!” Kavakos reminded that violins come from trees, which breathe and have roots in the Earth.
Holdengraber is not one to pull back from his declarations, but he quickly moved to erase the offensive word.
After the lecture, the intense but affable musician remained to chat with his fans.