Playing the violin requires technical accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter. "The greatest marvel is just off the worst disaster," Yehudi Menuhin used to say.
While playing, the violinist should have a perfect trust in his technique, a security and peace of mind so he can focus on what is most important. Yet this quietude, this security shouldn’t prevent one from making music. "That's the permanent ambiguity of the violin, and that is what's so beautiful about it, what's interesting. This is one of the most difficult challenges," said the French violinist Augustin Dumay. I met Augustin Dumay when he was in New York to play and record the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Orpheus Orchestra.
The tenth of a millimeter on a violin implies hard work. This permanent obsession of being as close as possible to perfection is the common capital of all violinists. "All violinists one way or another are forced into it, aware of it. At the same time they maintain a certain defiance against it,” said Dumay. "The tree shouldn’t hide the forest. The tree is this form of technique and perfection, and the forest is the music. Always keep the awareness that it’s this forest that is the most important even if sometimes we get the tree in front of the eyes.”
When he sees that his students are too much "on the tree" – purely in the technique – he "moves" them a bit and tells them to look back, where the forest lies, where what is really interesting lies. "That said, we all have our tree, and we must work our tree. Because otherwise there is no question of being in the forest," said Dumay.
Musicians are often very focused on their work and lack a global view of their surroundings. So focused are their lives on music that their life experiences beyond it rarely enrich their musical insight. Musicians tend to live crazy lives and work constantly, always in relation to themselves and their particular interests. The pursuit of perfection is the subject of a musician's life. During his life a musician will likely return to a work incessantly each time finding new solutions and different angles. The possibilities are limitless.
Dumay, who has not recorded for seven years, does so non-stop these days. "At a time when everyone complains that the disc is dying, quite the contrary – in my life anyway – the disc is very much alive these days," said Dumay.
He declares he loves recording because it allows him to set ideas, to “fix” ideas. "It does not mean that these ideas are inscribed in marble and will no longer evolve, but in any case I think we should dare to say what we think and fix it for a moment.” For Dumay the fact that today the disc is less commercially present is irrelevant. What matters is their presence in the musical life for future archives. We must think of the future. "I think it's a number of testimonies that perhaps in centuries people will be happy to go back to. If only in order to understand the evolution of musical interpretation through the ages," he said.
When he is recording, Dumay tries to ensure that his expression of music is also a testimony of its evolution and a personal expression of his own life as a violinist.
The materialization of the music, the fact of fixing it, should by no means render a less lively interpretation or merely a standard interpretation. That’s the great risk of the disc: to lose the substance and ideas of the music as a result of excessive care for the form.
Indeed a musician should never try to do something original or different solely for the purpose of being original or different. On the contrary, this is the best way to produce something very banal. "At all cost, I think we must make this life, this evolution, our life, our evolution to come across effectively in the recording. I think we simply must dare to express what we think. We have a huge capital of records: how many violinists recorded the Brahms concertos, the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn? Hundreds. Recording should not be overwhelming, it has to be liberating.”
For musicians nowadays it’s a great challenge not to betray our own musical ideas. Too often people choose to do what is politically correct in order not to displease. If one really wants to go far one has to forget about success. "In the future great personalities of the musical world are going to resist the temptation just to please," said Dumay.
"We don’t do music for the lady in the third row or the gentleman in the first balcony, in any case. No more than an officiant celebrates a religious service for the people who are there! He does it for God, ” said Dumay who tries to convey this ethic to the young musicians.
"It's a little bit against the current of today’s values. We live in a period in which you have to please, one of unbridled marketing in which image is so important. Of course everyone is affected by this phenomenon. But for us musicians, I think we need to keep our eyes looking in the right direction, that is, rather there [he points upward] than in front of us at the audience. It is best to keep our eyes on - everyone can call it as they want - God, Mozart, Brahms." We have to get the people in the audience to understand this phenomenon and look in the same direction – upward.
In general, there is not enough accountability from musicians about the future of music. "I think we musicians must do everything to help the new generation. We have to find the extra hours to devote to the idea of continuity. Whenever I have the opportunity I try to dedicate myself to younger musicians,” said Dumay. "We must not let the marketing people put a mustache on Mona Lisa to ensure that we look at her. It's an essential thing; it’s our role to defend the music. If we are not careful, in the coming centuries classical music will be what Egyptology became, that is to say something exciting but practiced by very few persons.”
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The City of London Sinfonia has invited the New York based violist to be part of its Émigré Series. On April 29th, Ljova will join the orchestra to perform his own music alongside the City of London Sinfonia.
Ljova gave a concert of his music in Montreal. There was the IAMA conference going on at the same time and many concert organizers and promoters were in town. One of them, Matthew Swann, was the director of the City of London Sinfonia. “After the concert he “tweeted” about it. I responded to his tweet and that began the conversation. I guess that’s how things work now. It’s great because they have this wonderful focus on émigrés and émigré composers and émigré experiences,” says Ljova.
Ljova was born in Moscow and came to New York with his parents when he was eleven. His father is a famous Russian composer with a very established career in Russia. He came to New York to pursue his career further, to do something different. It was a very unstable time in Russia in the 90’s, nobody knew what was going to happen. “It was unstable politically and financially. It was a weird time artistically and it was a weird time to be Jewish. So my parents thought it would be a good moment to leave and to try something new,” says Ljova. While living in New York, Ljova’s father started a Russian-American theater and a Russian-American film festival. He collaborated with American librettists and directors in various productions. For 30-40 years he toured the US with his wife who is a writer and a translator. “It was a very productive time but it was also with difficulties. When my dad came here he was starting from scratch while back in Russia he was an incredibly noted composer who sold millions of records in Russia. The émigré experience is not easy but it’s definitely interesting.”
New York and London are cities of émigrés. There are of course native New Yorkers and Londoners but most people are from somewhere else, everybody has a story. Everybody’s family went through a period of struggle adjusting to a new country, adjusting to a new culture. “In New York it’s perhaps a little easier because people share so much of a common experience here, experience of moving, experience of leaving their home and trying to find home here. I came here when I was eleven and I feel that the Upper west side of Manhattan is my home. Now at this point I have lived here for 25 years,” declares Ljova.
Ljova says the reason why he chose to play viola has to do with encouragement. From his experience, much of the teaching method of the Russian school of string playing leads to humiliation. “That never worked for me I was always completely frustrated by that. I felt locked somehow by it. I didn’t want to become a violinist because it was such an atmosphere of discouragement and competition. There were so many notes to learn and not enough time to play hockey. I wanted to quit very much.” When he arrived in New York, Ljova didn’t know any English but received really great encouragement from his English teacher in school. He learned very quickly and for a time he thought he would maybe become a writer. It was a very encouraging experience for him. When Ljova decided to quit, instead of selling his violin his father traded it for a viola. He had already paid for Ljova’s second semester at the Manhattan School of Music preparatory division and suggested Ljova finish the semester on viola. “Right away it was a totally different attitude. The viola students in the orchestra were that much more collegial, that much more pleasant, there was no competitive atmosphere. It was very much an atmosphere of positive reinforcement. The other thing is that as a violist I was necessary. I felt in demand. I was playing chamber music right away, which is not something you could dream of as a violinist until you are very good. I went to summer camp as a viola player. I sat first or second stand in the orchestra right next to the conductor. It was wonderful.”
In 2006, Ljova released an album of multi-track viola pieces, which he wrote for various filmmakers he was working with at the time. “These were not really pieces that I wrote; they were pieces that I improvised in my apartment with one microphone.” He didn’t have a quality synthesizer so instead he used the viola. He used the viola for melody, harmony, base, rhythm: he used it for everything. It became a sound, a sound that people very much liked. Eventually, ensembles such as the Brooklyn Riders or the Enso String Quartet asked him to write out these improvisations and make arrangements. That is how things started out for Ljova as a composer. On the 29th of April, the City of London Sinfonia and Ljova will play some of this earlier repertoire.
After the concert, Ljova will stay in London for 10 more days. They are going to do some outreach concerts. On the 9th of May, they are going to give a concert at Cadogan Hall also, featuring Ljova’s music but more geared towards families and children. “As my wife and I have children, as our friends and fans get into the age of having children I started to think more about children and family programing. If children are able to experience the music at a concert rather than sitting at home, I think that’s a real blessing for the families and for the musicians. An audience of children is the most receptive audience in a way. They don’t judge, their only requirement is that it communicates.”
Ljova finds it very hard to turn down projects. “I keep getting into these situations where I kind of surprise myself. For example I am doing this project in Tennessee writing bluegrass music. What does a Russian Jewish boy from Moscow know about writing bluegrass music for oboe and bluegrass? Not as much as someone who lives there but I bring kind an outsider perspective to this, an émigré perspective if you will.”
More entries: February 2015
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