How does a person continue performing, over a four-decade career?
It's all about loving what you do and nurturing a lifelong spirit of curiosity about music and music-making, said Elmar Oliveira, who hit the world stage in 1978 with his gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition and continues to perform, record and teach today.
The first violinist to receive an Avery Fisher Prize, Oliveira has a considerable discography, stretching over three decades and ranging from Beethoven to modern composers. He is one of the foremost connoisseurs of the instrument, having likely played more Strads and Guarneris than any other living violinist, but also championing the fine violins made by living makers. Currently he plays the 1729/30 “Stretton" Guarneri del Gesu as well as several contemporary violins.
For his latest project, he's taken up the Violin Concerto by Robert Schumann, recorded live with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra which plays in Vero Beach and Stuart, Florida. The recording includes a conversation between Oliveira and the orchestra's conductor, Stewart Robertson.
It's a slightly unlikely piece. Schumann's Violin Concerto has made little headway, in terms of popularity, in the 150 years since its composition in 1853. This is likely because its dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, never performed it publicly. Also, both Clara Schumann, the composer's wife, and Johannes Brahms kept the work secret, declining to publish it along with the composer's other works. Thus the work has remained somewhat obscure and less examined than others of the same era.
Schumann said that the theme of the concerto's second movement was dictated to him by angels; specifically, the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert. Composed less than a year before Schumann's suicide attempt and complete descent into madness, the piece seemed, to those closest to him, a product of that madness. That second movement, though, is one of the most divine moments in the piece.
I spoke to Elmar Oliveira over the phone, while he was in Florida, where he winters and teaches at Lynn University. We talked about his career, about teaching and performing, about fine instruments and about the Schumann Violin Concerto.
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Laurie: Where were you born, and what made you take up the violin?
Elmar: I was born in Connecticut; my family was Portuguese. My parents and both of my brothers were born in Portugal, and I was the first American-born. My father had the incredible love for the violin. He was an amateur; he picked it up on his own. He was an amateur mandolin player first, and then he played the violin. When he was nine years old he heard the violin in church, and the sound never left his being. So it was almost like an obsession, as if no other musical instrument existed except for the violin! (He chuckles)
Laurie: At what age did you decide to play, and what made you want to play?
Elmar: First of all, my brother, John, was a professional violinist, and he was 11 years older than me. He played in the Kansas City Philharmonic at that time, then he played in the Houston Symphony for almost 20 years. He was actually one of my first teachers, and I heard the violin all the time. I probably heard the violin in the womb! If it wasn't my brother practicing, it was the long-playing records being played, or the radio -- but the violin was constant in the home. Consequently, I already could whistle and sing all the violin concerti, all the sonatas, all the short pieces -- because I had heard them. Actually I started in the public school system, which was a really great thing at that time, and unfortunately we have none of it any more. That was in Naugatuck, Connecticut. I started learning the violin rather late, actually -- I was nine years old. I actually started in the school with a violinist who was a pupil of George Enescu, and was also my brother's first teacher. I developed very, very quickly, once I picked up the instrument. At the end of a year I played my first recital. I was 10 years old, and I remember I played Brahms Hungarian Dances, Mozart Turkish Violin Concerto, and all kinds of little short pieces -- it was quite something for one year of study.
Things just progressed from there: I won my first competition when I was 14 years old, and I played with the Hartford Symphony on television for that particular competition. Then two years later, I won the Young People's Concerts competition and played with the New York Philharmonic, and it just kept going. The big deal was when I won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1978.
Laurie: That was a very big deal, not just because it was the Tchaikovsky Competition, which carries so much prestige, but also because of the political environment at that time.
Elmar: The story I heard was that Leonid Kogan, who was the head of the jury at that time, actually had to call Brezhnev and speak with him and say, "You know, there's this American violinist, and I don't think there's any way we're not going to be able to give him a gold medal…" and that's what happened!
And you have continued to play, to have a successful career for the last 35 years. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes people burn out pretty young because it takes so much work and dedication. How have you been able to sustain your inspiration?
Elmar: I think it all has to do with the love of the violin, the love of music, and the love of what you're doing. It also has to do with your curiosity about what to do and how to develop as a violinist and as a musician.
Also, I've learned so much over the years from my teaching -- not only about how to teach my students: how to get them to play properly, to advance and to try to be artists -- but also about my own playing. It's this constant studying, delving into the scores, the composers, the concertos and the sonatas, and having to be able to communicate that to my students. And of course, there are all the different performances over the years. For me, there's never anything boring about it; it's always just constantly demanding: both what it is that you see in the musical score, and what you see in the violin playing.
Laurie: How long have you been teaching?
Elmar: I was in my late 20s when I started teaching. I came back from the Tchaikovsky Competition, and one of the things that I did do was teach. I've taught in various different places: Binghamton University, Cornell University, Manhattan School of Music, SUNY Purchase. I've given master classes all over the place: Curtis, Peabody. And of course now I'm associated with Lynn Conservatory of Music at Lynn University, and it's just really fantastic.
Laurie: You like teaching, obviously. Not all performers do!
Elmar: I could not live without teaching. It's so much a part of my being, of my soul. The thought of getting really gifted students to go to the next level of playing means so much to me; I couldn't live without being able to help young players do that.
Laurie: Something I noticed in your bio for Lynn University: you talked about your teaching philosophy, and you said that you liked to nurture the proper psychological approach to performing. That intrigued me. What is the proper psychological approach to performing? I'm a violinist myself, and I know that I have felt a whole range of feelings when performing.
Elmar: One of the biggest issues is: How do people perceive walking out on stage and playing a concerto with an orchestra, or a recital with a piano? What are they thinking of when they go out there? Of course, everybody is nervous, and how does one deal with nerves? There are so many different issues. The first: where the concentration is, when you are walking out there to perform. If the obsession is with the nervousness, then the concentration is not on the playing, it's not on what you're doing. So one of the key things to do is to learn how to focus on what you're doing, not on your nervousness. Concentrate actually on the playing, be able to start something and, no matter what you're feeling in terms of nervousness, be able to let go of (the nervousness) as quickly as possible and immerse yourself in what you're doing, whether it's concentrating on the musical aspect or the technical aspect. In my case, I feel that there's never a moment in performance where those two things don't go hand-in-hand. So this is what I try to impart in my students. Also, I try to get them to do a lot of performing. If you do it once a year, it's quite different from doing it 20 times a year.
There are just so many issues with the psychological preparation of going out on to a stage and performing, I can only talk about maybe a tenth of the things that you really need to talk about with your students.
Then of course there's the psychological issue about what performance means to an individual student. Some people are only obsessed with "success," and that may be one of the worst things about performing. Because it's not about personal success, or what you achieve and how people perceive of you. It's about the big picture: Where are we all going, with music, with performing? The ultimate goal is to be able to understand what it is that you're playing in a very, very complex way, and to communicate that to your audience.
Laurie: I would think your perception of the audience must have something to do with it, too.
Elmar: I feel that one never plays for one's self. Although one sets particular goals that one wants to achieve for oneself, the ultimate thing in performance is to have the sense that the audience is 150 percent absorbed in what you're doing. Because otherwise, you might as well just play in your living room.
Laurie: Do you remember your first encounter with a really fine instrument, and what that was like?
Elmar: I suppose, the first really great instrument that I played on was the instrument I was loaned to go to the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Holroyd Strad -- it was a really great instrument. Even before that, I was loaned the Empress Catherine Stradivari, to play my New York debut, when I was 19 or 20 years old. That was a great instrument also. When I played on that, of course, my entire sense of playing was very different than playing on a mediocre instrument, or an average instrument.
I'm of the perception that an instrument does not have to be a Stradivari or a Guarneri or a Guadagnini or a Vuillaume to be a fine instrument. It could be made in England, it could be made in Africa, it could be made in China -- everything depends on the sound of the violin, what it does for you in a hall, and how it feels in your hand. Those issues are the most important issues. Whether a violin projects in a hall -- for a soloist that's a very important thing. Rostropovich used to say, and I think it was absolutely 100 percent on the mark, (his unaccented American English takes on a Russian accent) "I don't care what cello you give me: Give me a loud cello, I put quality in."
There's such a great truth about that. Just think, pianists have to travel and play on whatever piano is available to them. A pianist who has a great sound and knows how to produce great sound could be playing on a mediocre piano; it still sounds great.
Laurie: But there's still a difference. Right?
Elmar: Of course there's a difference. Because a great instrument, in terms of quality and response, can actually enhance your playing. You can learn from your instrument.
Laurie: In what way?
Elmar: Sometimes you have to do certain things on a particular instrument to make it work; whereas on a great instrument, you might do it differently and all of a sudden you realize that something in your technique just stepped up two notches. A great instrument can change the way you approach something. You learn, all of a sudden, something about a particular stroke with the bow, how you do it on a great instrument, very different than how you might do it on a mediocre instrument -- and you might have been doing it wrong. So that's how you learn from playing on a great instrument.
Laurie: You have played on a lot of fine instruments -- how many Strads have you probably played on in your life?
Elmar: Prior to me, I think maybe Ruggiero Ricci had played the most great instruments anywhere. But I think I finally beat him on that! (He laughs) I've played, performed and recorded on so many instruments -- the Bein and Fushi project that I did, the Library of Congress collection -- just so many instruments! It's been quite an education and a great experience for me.
Laurie: What do you find they have in common, or they don't? Where there any surprises?
Elmar: I find that they're all different. There are never two instruments that feel or sound exactly the same. The great instruments all have their great qualities, and they all have their drawbacks, as well. It's not like you pick up a great Stradivari or a great Guarneri and all of a sudden your problems are solved. There are things about the instrument that you have to learn to coax out of it.
Laurie: Some people say that sometimes a Strad or a Guarneri is actually harder to play.
Elmar: Sometimes that's true, sure. Therefore ease is not the only thing you should be looking for, when you play a great instrument. There are so many different qualities. Of course, ease is one of the essential things that you would like to have. You'd like an instrument that you could put in your hands and you just play and it feels very comfortable. But there are other issues, like sound and timbre and quality of darkness or lightness of the sound, malleability of the nuance of the sound, whether an instrument can respond to different bow pressures and speeds and all kinds of different things.
Laurie: A number of years ago, you performed with the Pasadena Symphony, and I was in the orchestra. I remember that everybody thought you were playing on a fancy instrument, and then you said, "No, it's actually a $12,000 instrument from Salt Lake City!"
Laurie: All the violinists in the orchestra were saying, "What?" and looking at this instrument. So I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are on the current state of violin-making. Are the moderns just as good as the old masters? Is that even a relevant comparison?
Elmar: Here's what I'll say about contemporary makers: I'm perhaps the greatest champion of contemporary violin makers, as far as a player is concerned. Because I've owned so many of them, and I've bought so many of them, and I've supported many of the great modern violin makers, from Joseph Curtin and Gregg Alf at the beginning, through John Young and even the Chinese makers. What I'm finding, in the last 30 years, is that the level of making of contemporary instrument makers is at the highest peak that it's ever been since the Golden Age of violin-making in Cremona.
Elmar: There are a lot of reasons for that. I think that one of the biggest reasons is that over the last 30 years, all of the big violin-making schools have cropped up and people have been able to go and study and work for two, three or four years, in these school workshops. In that amount of time, the knowledge that we've gathered about violin-making has been so extensive, in terms of the graduations of the great instruments, the varnish, the kinds of wood that were used, the workmanship, how different things were accomplished by the great classical makers, in terms of molds and carving and all kinds of such issues. There's never been a time like this! I think that the fine violin makers that are making instruments today can only be surpassed by the greatest classical makers of Cremona of the 18th century. The people who are making instruments today absolutely do compare to a lot of those makers.
Laurie: And for you, without the question of whether one is better than the other, is there a difference that you can generally talk about between a 300- or 400-year-old instrument and an instrument from today?
Elmar: I think the basic difference is how the instrument sounds under your ear, and if you're a really sensitive player, you're looking for color and nuance in the sound. On certain (modern) instruments, it's closer to the old Italian instrument sound than others, but it's something you have to sort of produce on a new instrument. On an old instrument, a lot of that is automatically there in the sound. I think that this has entirely to do with time. With how much an instrument was played, how much time is given to change, to absorb all the climatic differences that go on. Just imagine that the Stradivaris and Guarneris have been around for more than 300 years, and these instruments are being made last year -- they're comparable to some of these instruments that have been around for over 300 years! I think that's one factor that you can never discount that one factor, when you're playing on a new violin: time. Time is so important.
Laurie: Does it help that an instrument has been played on by many people, or by certain people?
Elmar: I'm a firm believer that the instrument takes on the identity of the player, so if it's a really good player playing an instrument, it should sound better going from one player to the next. If there's a bad player in there, you have to get the bad vibrations out. I really believe it!
Laurie: I think to non-violinists, we all sound kooky, but just about every violinist I talk to nods their head in agreement.
Laurie: To turn our attentions to Schumann, what made you decide to dive into this rather complicated concerto by Schumann, and how long have you been playing it?
Elmar: I grew up listening to an old recording that I had of (Henryk) Szeryng, an old Mercury recording with Antal Doráti. I always had an attraction to this concerto because of that recording. I felt that when this concerto could be played really, really well, it was very successful on a lot of different levels. And the second movement of this concerto is one of the greatest second movements of any Romantic concerto.
Laurie: What makes it so?
Elmar: There's a certain intangible, Romantic, nostalgic quality about it that you can't put your finger on, but it's so beautiful. He described the theme of the second movement as coming to him from the angels, and that's exactly the way I hear it. I feel like it's something that a human being can't really produce. It's got to come from somewhere else. And as kooky as that sounds, I think that most of the great music, of Brahms or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, I think it does come from somewhere else. Of course, you can analyze it: This was a theme that he developed this way because the tonic goes to the third and blah blah blah -- but that doesn't tell you where the inspiration comes from.
Laurie: It was a concerto that I wasn't familiar with, and it almost sounded like Mahler or something to me.
Elmar: I know! First of all, this concerto is the unique language of Schumann. I'm a huge fan of Schumann, but when you go back and you look at the very few works that he wrote for the violin, both sonatas are enigmatic. It's not some kind of music that you can sit down in a concert hall and listen to comfortably, as you would listen to a Brahms symphony. There's always something about it that makes you think, 'How did he do this, why did he do this?' That's what attracted me to the concerto.
Laurie: What would you say to the idea that he wrote it that way because he was insane? It was, after all, among the last pieces he wrote before being committed to a sanitorium.
Elmar: I would say that's a totally insane idea. He knew very well what he was doing. There were moments when he may not have been so clear, but I feel very strongly that when he wrote this violin concerto, he was in a total state of clarity. Everything seems to work, to me. It's just a question of how much you want to build into it and try to find what it is that works in the piece.
Laurie: If I were wanting to play this piece, what are some of the particular technical challenges that I'd face?
Elmar: It's very un-violinistic; it's much more like piano writing than it is like violin writing. So the challenges are there, first of all, to overcome the technical issues that Schumann writes in the score. For me, they're all solvable. I feel like they're all solvable, but it's not the kind of solvability, if that's a word, that you look at it and it comes to you right away. You have to sit down and look at it and figure out what the best way is to express musically what he wrote in a very un-violinistic way.
Laurie: So this is a challenge.
Elmar: It's a big challenge. Much less in the first movement than in the last movement, but there are sections in the first movement where there are extremely problematic spots for the violin. It doesn't play itself, not by any means.
Laurie: Something you were saying in the conversation that comes with the album is that the last movement is virtuosic, but not in a way that necessarily the audience is going to see it as virtuosic. It's not like Paganini, where everybody drops his jaw and says, 'Look what he's doing!"
Elmar: Absolutely! Yet it's no less difficult than Paganini. In fact, some Paganini is more idiomatic and easier to play than this!
Laurie: Well, Paganini was a violinist! Still, I was reading about this concerto, and has it really been played only as seldomly has they say? Did it really have these long periods of time where no one played it?
Elmar: Yes. It was not played because Joachim nixed it, and Brahms nixed it, and Clara Schumann nixed it, for whatever reasons. My understanding is that Joachim's private performance with Schumann there was not good at all. And it's very easy, when the performance is not great, for a violinist to say, "You know what? It's not a great piece." It's very easy to say that.
Laurie: Not my fault, your fault.
Laurie: But it sounds like it wasn't even played very much in the 20th century!
Elmar: It's not made its way into the standard repertoire, for whatever reason. I think because it is problematic and so people shy away from it. I think that the violinists that are a little more adventurous don't feel that way. They feel that this is a worthy piece, and I'm going to go ahead with it, I'm going to make it part of my repertoire. A few people have. Kremer has played it, and Frank Peter Zimmermann and Joshua Bell, but very few and far between.
Laurie: Is it difficult for the orchestra? For example, the syncopation issue in the second movement.
Elmar: That's a challenge. I think the biggest challenge for the orchestra is the ensemble between the orchestra and the violin solo. Because the physical writing is rather mainstream, even for Schumann: you have pretty much the violin doing what it's doing and then in the tuttis the orchestra plays whatever it needs to play. It's not like Brahms Concerto, where you have underlying thematic material in the orchestra and the violin is doing something, it's just mostly violin, tutti, violin, tutti.
I would just say that, you were asking me if I've played this concerto a lot. Actually, this is the first time I've played it. And it's the first time that this orchestra, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, has recorded a CD, so it's their first CD. And I think that's pretty important because the caliber of the orchestra is very wonderful, yet nobody's heard of it.
Laurie: What made you decide to record it live, instead of in a studio?
Elmar: I love live recording, I just feel that live recording has an element that's very hard to capture in the studio. When you're on the stage and there's the chemistry between the orchestra and the conductor and the audience -- I don't think that can be replaced.
Laurie: It's a little more risk and excitement.
Elmar: Absolutely. Everything you hear that's done in the studios these days is note-perfect and everything is together, so you really don't know how people play. For me, even if something isn't perfect, it really gives you a sense of performance, live recording. And I just love that.
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