Fighting the Violin

Talk with Maxim Vengerov

A competition is about establishing human contact. Otherwise it can become a very ugly event

2 minutes reading left

Jolanta Brózda-Wiśniewska: Why have you decided to become the Chairman of the Jury of The Wieniawski Violin Competition?

Maxim Vengerov: I was asked four years ago by the Director of the Competition, Andrzej Wituski, to take this very honourable role. I have known the Competition since I was a very little child. For me, it is one of the greatest competitions for violinists. I am proud I could take the position of the Chairman and create the artistic side of the competition.

Do you like judging?

Maxim Vengerov,
photo: Wieniawski Association archive

No, I don’t. To evaluate someone’s talent is a huge responsibility. That is why I needed to take on board highly professional people that have wisdom to recognise a real talent. The members of the jury are not just violinists, they are great violinists. Among them there are also fantastic teachers. All of them have well established careers as soloists. It is very important for me to have people who not only understand the theory, but also know the practical side of playing. Almost all of them went through a few competitions themselves and they have experience in judging.

There is also a conductor in the jury.

At the final stage we will have the legendary conductor Yuri Simonov. He is also viola player, so he understands string instruments. He worked for 17 years as a principal conductor of The Bolshoi Opera Theatre in Moscow and he is also my conducting teacher. I think the future of all instrumentalists is not only to play their instrument, but also to conduct. In the 20th century soloists’ and conductors’ roles were separated, but now more and more instrumentalists want to conduct. It is a bit like at the time of Paganini and Wieniawski. They conducted when there was a need for conducting, they composed when there was such need and they could have also led an orchestra. They were doing all this equally well. As a Chairman of the Jury I want to get close to that tradition of versatility. So at the third stage, participants have the opportunity to play with another soloist.

International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition

For over seventy years Henryk Wieniawski has lent his name to international violin competitions. The year 2011 will see the fourteenth edition of the event held (since 1952) in Poznań.
See online broadcast schedule.

You mean “Sinfonia concertante” for violin and viola by Mozart?

Thanks to that we will be able to hear the musician from a different angle. Good playing is not enough anymore.

So you think musicians should be more versatile today?

Yes, absolutely. Secondly, this is the Wieniawski Competition, so we should lift up to the good traditions and good standards. Wieniawski set standards for us for the next ten centuries at least.

This is a very ambitious perspective.

No, it is something normal. But it takes time and awareness for people to realise that when you know how to conduct, you play in a much more interesting way. That is why I stopped solo playing for three years to improve my conducting skills.

Your initial idea was to conduct the final stage, but you have changed your mind. Why?

I withdrew from the idea of conducting because now I am very close with all participants. I want to make sure everything is run as fairly as possible. I think if I conduct, it can distract the players. I am no longer neutral, they all are now a part of my soul. For a conductor, we need someone who is absolutely neutral.

You have your own experience as a participant of competitions.

I won two major competitions: The Wieniawski and Lipiński in Lublin when I was 10 and Carl Flesch in London when I was 15. I have very good memories from them. They were an ultimate test for me as a violinist. Especially in London, I noticed what my strengths and weaknesses are. I could only realise it when I was playing among others. I had to compete. It was extra pressure for me.

Extra pressure… It does not sound very pleasant. All these young violinists will have to face it.

I have been very lucky to travel to nine cities and listen to two hundred young people who took part in pre-competition auditions. It was necessary to select the best of the best, the ones who are really ready for the competitions. A lot of great talents did not pass. It does not mean they are not able to take part in the competition. It was just not the right time for them. I would like to assure our audience, that the competition will be very interesting – with great personalities, talents, brilliant technical skills.

After all these hours of listening, do you have any general thoughts on the young generation of violinists?

Every generation faces the problem I would like to talk about now. I also had it. When I was 15, 16, I deliberately decided I would not be discovering anything new. Not because I did not want to be myself, but because I wanted to learn what my predecessors had achieved. I meant great violinists I could listen to live or on the recordings: Heifetz, Oistrakh, Kremer, Perlmann. I spent a lot of time listening and polishing my taste. Also, I studied orchestral music. I used to take the score and 10 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth. Then I was thinking which one I liked the best and why. I was getting knowledge from the outside world. It was like packing an empty bag, filling the gap. I was very talented from the very beginning and I could play well at the age of 9. Technically, I had the same level as I have now because I started very early, at 5. But I lacked the knowledge about the history. Only when I had enough luggage, I said to myself: OK, I can move on and let myself find my own way. And this is an on-going process. You can never say: I have got enough, now I can become a teacher. Great teachers must be great students as well. You can never get bored if you always study.

I must admit that when we hear a young violinist, pianist or cellist, very talented and skilled, very often something is missing. And that is the message. The message comes through the sound. Sound is the carrier of energy and information. Many young musicians do not realise that the more they study, the more effective is their sound and only then their interpretation will profit. My suggestion is: do not be detached from the past. Every new movement, if detached from the past, will only be a la mode and will be quickly forgotten. The tree cannot be detached from its roots.

You are ready to meet and talk face to face with every participant that did not succeed after the 3rd stage.

Not only that. I already listened to almost 200 musicians and I spoke to everybody. I think a competition is not about telling people: you are good, you are not and you are nobody. That would be brutal. I think it is very important to establish human contacts. It would be good if these 53 young people forgot about the competition and noticed there is so much they can learn from the others. That includes members of the jury. We are all in the same boat. Otherwise competition can become a very ugly event.

When you talk about “the human face” of a competition, you remind me one of your interviews. You said that you hated the “hamster on the wheel” kind of career. Unfortunately, this attitude towards playing and working affects many people, not only musicians.

At the end of the day, our life is not measured by one concert, one day, one competition. It is about the whole course of our human existence. When we will be dying, we do not want to ask ourselves: why on earth did I play the violin? I had brilliant career, a lot of money but I did not enjoy my music. What can be worst?

You do lots of things: you play, conduct, teach and you work for charity organisations. Do you think music is not enough to have a happy life?

It is enough and it is not. I am at the turning point of my life. I am married now and we are expecting a child. I am involved in a lot of beautiful music projects but nothing can be compared with the expectation of the new life.

What do you like and what you do not like about the violin?

I like things which I do not like at the same time. You have to fight with the violin all the time. It goes exactly against nature. The natural position of the hand is to keep it down. If you lift it up, you should go back down. We walk with our hands down. The cellist position is pointing down, while the violinist is pointing up. But if you fight it through and find this really narrow road where you are incredibly relaxed and in tune with the instrument, other musicians and the concert hall, your soul is lifted and you go to heaven.

Cooperation: Daniel Wiśniewski