London-born Japanese violinist Daishin Kashimoto never really planned to be a concertmaster, but he has greatly enjoyed being just that, with the Berlin Philharmonic, since 2009.
Now in his mid-30s, Daishin began his career as a child prodigy. He was accepted at age seven to Juilliard pre-college, and as a teenager he won first prize in major competitions: in the Menuhin Junior International Competition (1993), the Cologne International Violin Competition (1994), the Fritz Kreisler Competition in Vienna (1996) and the Long-Thibaud International Competition in Paris (1996).
Landing the Berlin job was an extension of his penchant for chamber music -- a chamber music friend (who just so happened to be a Berlin Phil concertmaster) told him he should try for the gig.
His latest recording project shows that he certainly hasn't given up on chamber music: he just released a recording of all 10 of the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, with Russian pianist (and many would say "genius") Konstantin Lifschitz. (iTunes has their recording on sale for $9.99 through May 25 -- not bad for 10 sonatas!)
I spoke with Daishin over the phone a few weeks ago, from his home in Berlin, about his early influences, the culture at the Berlin Philharmonic, and his partnership with Konstantin Lifschitz in the Beethoven sonatas.
Laurie: What made you want to start playing the violin, and how old were you?
Daishin: I started when I was three and a half. My mom played the piano, and my dad just wanted me to learn an instrument. So we had lots of toy instruments at home, as well as my mom's piano. I was just fooling around with all these instruments as a baby, and apparently I played with the violin most of the time because, my mom says, with the violin and the bow, I was able to use two toys at once! So that's how it all happened.
Laurie: I noticed that you've lived in a lot of places and studied in a lot of places: born in London, then living in Tokyo, the United States, Germany. What have you gained musically from the different places where you have lived and studied?
Daishin: Well, it's interesting because I started (violin) in Japan. Of course, I was a baby! I'd already moved to New York by the time I was five. But I remember my teacher in Tokyo (Kumiko Etoh), making sure that I, and also my mom, took this thing seriously. If you're going to do it, do it the whole way. Try by getting better, not for the fun of it. That's kind of the stance she had. If you're going to study with me, then take it seriously; it wasn't just a hobby kind of thing to do. And my mom never wanted to force me to become a professional musician, but she always took it very seriously. She didn't want to have any regrets. Of course, when I was a kid, she took it much more seriously than I did! As Asian moms usually do! (He laughs) That really hasn't changed over the years, I guess!
Then we went to New York, and I was at Juilliard, pre-college, meeting a lot of kids my age every Saturday, playing in orchestra, getting lessons, doing solfeggi, and doing all the basic musical training. I remember always loving not just the music, but also just being together with these people. We were all trying to achieve a goal, one that seemed really far away. It wasn't about getting there, it was about the journey. That was something that was special to me, I really loved that time there.
Laurie: Who did you study with there?
Daishin: I was with Miss DeLay and mostly with Miss Naoko Tanaka. Then I moved to Germany when I was 11. I was first in Lübeck, in the north, studying with Zakhar Bron, the famous Russian teacher, until I was almost 19.
Laurie: That must have been extremely different from, say, Dorothy DeLay.
Daishin: Oh absolutely. Different worlds.
It was also a big decision for the family. In summers we would come to Europe for about two months for master classes and private lessons with different kinds of teachers, just so that I would get to know Europe. Then Mr. Bron said he would like to teach me on a regular basis, and that I should come to his class in Lübeck. I remember, there was a family meeting, and my dad asked me, do you really want to go to Germany to study with Mr. Bron? And I said yes, I felt that it was the right thing to do. And that was it! My parents kind of had to split up, because my dad still had to stay in New York and earn some money, and my mom had to take me to Germany. So it was a big investment from their side. I remember telling myself that, if they're going to let me come to Germany to study, then I really have to try to become a musician.
Mr. Bron was fantastic, and I was privileged to have eight and a half years with him. So this was a huge difference.
When I was 18, I moved to Freiburg, to the south of Germany, to study with Rainer Kussmaul, who is the former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. This was also very different, a German kind of school, compared to a Russian school (even though it was inside Germany, Mr. Bron was of the Russian school). So yes, I've had a lot of different influences. I was lucky to have been in New York, just by chance, because my dad was working there at the time. It's life, you never know what's going to happen.
Laurie: How long have you been concertmaster in Berlin, and what made you decide to go for that job?
Daishin: I've been here four and a half years. It was actually my friend and colleague, Guy Braunstein, who came up with this idea of me applying for the job. He was a concertmaster here in Berlin, and I was playing a lot of chamber music with him, and just being friends as well. He told me that the former concertmaster, Toru Yasunaga, was leaving, and that I should apply. I thought, what is this guy talking about? (He laughs) I really couldn't see myself doing this kind of job. It wasn't that I didn't have self-confidence; it's just that I hadn't ever thought of the idea of playing in orchestra until then. Of course, I would always listen to concerts, to these incredible symphonies, and I always wanted to take part at some point. I thought, what better place to learn these symphonies, than here in Berlin? So with this in mind, and with the urging of my colleague -- those things got me applying for it.
Laurie: So you had never played in orchestra before?
Daishin: Only in school orchestra.
Laurie: How do you like it, now that you've been at it for a while?
Daishin: It's a very different experience. It's a different kind of playing, it's a different kind of music-making. But not necessarily better or worse. It's just a different kind of thing, and of course, there are some incredible concerts that's we've done. This feeling of teamwork is something really new to me which I really love. I'm really enjoying it.
Laurie: I was a little curious about the culture of the Berlin Philharmonic, because I saw a video blog, in which you were supposed to play the Prokofiev Concerto, and they started by playing the Mendelssohn! Are they always silly like that?
Daishin: Pretty much, yes! (He laughs) You can feel that they really enjoy their work, that every day they come to rehearsal with pride, but also with this touch of enthusiasm that you don't find in other orchestras around the world. So it's a great working atmosphere.
Laurie: What is it like to work with conductor Sir Simon Rattle?
Daishin: He's also one of those very fun guys! He also likes to do lots of silly jokes as well, and a really sweet person. It's always a pleasure; he rehearses fantastically with the orchestra.
Laurie: I also saw another video where you were doing an interview for a promotion on Youtube, the Berlin Phil Live Lounge. Do you see the orchestra making a lot of efforts to get into the 21st century and use technology to reach new audiences?
Daishin: Ever since (conductor Herbert von) Karajan, this orchestra is known to be a modern orchestra, or trying to be modern. Another project is the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall on the Internet. These things are fantastic achievements. Of course, we also take tradition very seriously, and I think it's important that we do.
But it's also nice to have this approach to the modern world, and also to the younger generation. We started these late-night concerts, Late Night at the Philharmonie, that start at 10:30. So after a normal orchestra concert, there is a smaller concert, without a break, with mostly fun or modern music, with orchestra musicians, even sometimes with Simon Rattle. The tickets are much cheaper as well, more for the younger kind of audience.
Laurie: How's it going over?
Daishin: It's great! In Berlin, there are so many young people, and it's very global as well, so many different nationalities and backgrounds. So it's like a global exchange, these late-night concerts. They're fun.
Laurie: I also understand that the American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley is coming to the Berlin Phil as concertmaster. This leads me to ask, how many concertmasters does the Berlin Philharmonic have?
Daishin: There are three positions. It sounds strange, but we are three first concertmasters, with the word "first" in front, and then there's one concertmaster, which is kind of like an assistant in America. It's three equal bosses, and one underneath.
Laurie: So he will replace Guy Braunstein, the violinist who convinced you to audition in the first place?
Laurie: I watched the video that Warner produced about your Beethoven Sonatas recording with Konstantin Lifschitz. I wondered, where did you do this recording? It looked like a slice of heaven!
Daishin: It was incredible, we had three sessions, and the first one we did in Switzerland, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, in the mountains. It was just incredibly beautiful. Every time we would take a break we would just go outside and there was nothing around except mountains and fresh air. Then we did the last two sessions in Berlin.
Laurie: Something you said, in that interview, was that Beethoven has a lot of challenges, I wondered if you could elaborate on that. What are the challenges for the violin, and how do you approach it? This is a massive undertaking, to do all the sonatas.
Daishin: It is crazy, crazy project. But it's also a life-dream for a violinist, doing all the Beethoven sonatas, next to doing the Bach. In fact, I had just done a tour of Japan with the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas, which was an incredible experience. I felt that the next step for me could only be the Beethoven Sonatas.
Laurie: Why is that?
Daishin: I don't really know yet, but I think that doing Bach as a complete cycle is something you should do once, before you get too old to play these things. But Beethoven is a project which is not an end product for me. This recording is more of a statement of where I stand right now, how I feel this music right now. I know that later in my life, I'll probably see Beethoven from different sides, in a different way. It's going to be a lifetime thing.
Laurie: Do you remember the first Beethoven Sonata that you ever played?
Daishin: It must have been No. 1, or No. 5 (the "Spring"). Usually it's the "Spring" that you start with. I never played it as a kid; I was already more than 10 when I played Beethoven. I know all these small kids playing Beethoven No. 5 when they're six years old, but I didn't do that.
Laurie: What edition of the Beethoven Sonatas did you use?
Daishin: We used the Henle, the urtext. But of course, there are so many question marks about the material. Not everything is probably originally Beethoven; probably some of it is from editors. Some things Beethoven crossed out himself. Beethoven was also not that strict with what he wrote; he was a bit naughty, I guess. For example, he would write the same phrase twice, but would mark something different -- a dot forgotten or a slur forgotten. So we kind of had an ongoing discussion of how to understand or interpret the material.
Laurie: How long did that take you to put it together? It sounds almost like an academic study, as well as a performance.
Daishin: It is, but then luckily we've been playing together a lot, and playing these pieces together. It was a growing process.
Laurie: How many years ago did you meet Konstantin? How did you decide to do this together?
Daishin: The first time I met him, I was 12, actually. I've known him a long time; 22 years ago I met him for the first time, in Switzerland. He was playing and I was playing in a young musicians festival. He is a few years older than me, so he was probably 14 or 15. I remember listening to him and thinking, wow, there are really some geniuses out there! I was just incredibly amazed.
We played together for the first time probably about 12 years ago, starting with the Beethoven 9th Sonata, the "Kreutzer" Sonata, and some other pieces. Then we started playing together regularly.
Laurie: Something I noticed is that Beethoven calls these sonatas, "Sonatas for piano and violin," with piano first. Can you speak to how pianistic these are. How important is the piano?
Daishin: In the earlier sonatas, it's really obvious that it's a sonata for piano, with violin accompaniment, in brackets, let's say. But as you go to the later opuses, you see how the power balance gets different and gets more equal. For me, it already starts with the Spring Sonata, where the balance begins to shift. And then you have the Opus 30s, with Sonatas 6, 7 and 8 -- those are already almost equal. Then of course, the "Kreutzer" is completely equal. It's interesting to see how Beethoven's composing developed, in not-that-many years.
Laurie: Do you feel the violin writing is a bit pianistic as well, or no?
Daishin: Most composers that played the piano, they write pianistically. All the Brahms, it comes from the piano. Beethoven was the same. Maybe Mozart was a bit different because he was so good at playing the violin, but Beethoven wasn't famous for playing the violin. I know that he could, but he wasn't very good at it. And Brahms was a great pianist. So all these composers, I'm guessing they all started composing on the piano, then just assigned the music to the violin.
Laurie: It's not like Wieniawski or something.
Daishin: Exactly! Wieniawski would be very violinistic -- more difficult, but more violinistic. But I think it doesn't really matter, because it's all about the music.
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Daishin Kashimoto plays the Händel/Halvorsen Passacaglia with cellist Jing Zhao:
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