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From Two Worlds: Ilya Kaler talks to Jeremy Siepmann

April 16, 2014

Ilya Kaler

Ilya Kaler has always been his own man, even before he was a man. As his playing suggests, he follows his instincts, trusts them, but never imposes them on others. His unforced individuality never morphs into idiosyncrasy. Instinct never precludes intellect. He is not just a feeler but a thinker. And unlike most world-class virtuosos, he can remember a time when music was not central to his life.

‘It was always all around me. My father was a violinist in one of the Moscow orchestras, so I used to hear him practising. Both in the home and in concert I heard a lot of music. But as a little boy I was attracted and distracted by a lot of other things. I loved music in general, but for some years I actually resisted playing the violin, which I started at 6 (my father’s idea!). Only in my teens did I capitulate. But I always loved orchestras better than anything. I never saw myself as a future soloist.’

But by the time he won three of the world’s top violin competitions, he yielded to the evidence. And his audiences have been reaping the rewards ever since. He has never, however, been just a soloist, or just a performer. Early on, he discovered the joys of teaching—and that teaching itself is a form (and a source) of learning.

‘It gives you a whole new perspective—on yourself, and on music, of course. It forces you to deal not with your own problems but with your student’s (though of course you do deal with your own, too, indirectly, as you dissect and analyse, as never before, things that you may have taken for granted, unexamined, for many years). The whole process activates and stimulates parts of your brain which in other circumstances might not be involved—or not to such an extreme. After a week of intensive teaching you go back and find yourself addressing the same problems in your own playing—and discover new solutions. Teaching has also taught me to economize—to structure, to compress the whole process of working; accomplishing in an hour what I might formerly have done in several. Importantly, too, teaching sharpens and deepens your recognition of the psychological element of performing. Many teachers neglect this because they don’t spend enough time on stage themselves. Only an experienced performer can pass on to students the wisdom of the trenches!’

And how, I wondered, if at all, do Kaler’s pupils today differ from him and his colleagues when they were students?

‘Oh, a lot. In my case, it’s not only a generational but a cultural thing. I grew up in what was in many ways a completely different world. The Soviet Union of my youth was very isolated—culturally as well as politically, though not as much as in previous decades. We had very limited access to recordings, especially western recordings, but sometimes we did get to hear visiting orchestras and soloists from the West, so we had at least some idea of the world outside. The prevailing trend in the musical education of that time strongly put the emphasis on the artistic part of music-making, not just on virtuosity—on the importance of nurturing your own artistic voice as a performer. And something of that trend still exists today, especially when it comes to soloists. But the digital revolution has pressured musicians everywhere, I think, to aspire first and foremost to cleanliness and efficiency, and a kind of “please everybody” attitude to music. Today, controversial interpretations—interpretations with a pronounced individual character—are considered too risky. And the huge rise in competitions plays a part here. When you have to please a great number of people at the same time (and not just audiences but judges as well), when you sincerely believe that your career can depend on the outcome, well of course you’re going to be very careful how you go. But this is taking its artistic toll. Increasingly, I find, students don’t know basic things about the music they’re playing. They learn the score, which they play very literally and efficiently, and often very superficially, but they don’t want to spend time really getting inside the music; identifying themselves with it. So they become more executants than artists. I realise that sounds very strong, but it’s how I feel.’

Chamber music is a vital part of Kaler’s life—not least for a very special kind of joy that is unique to the medium.

‘Absolutely! Before the founding of our trio, I played a lot of chamber music, but not in permanent groups. It reaches its peak in the summer festivals where I play with my colleagues in quartets, quintets, sextets and so forth, but my alliance with Alon Goldstein and Amid Peled has been a very special experience. We’re a relatively young group, having existed together only for the last five or six years, and it’s been a fantastic time for us all. There are special rewards in playing piano trios—not like a string quartet, which has been described as being like a four-way marriage. The trio is more of a combination of three equal soloists in a musical conversation with each other. It’s a kind of musical laboratory, in which you develop with and learn to anticipate your partners, and produce, despite all the preparatory work, a really spontaneous experience. It’s a really fascinating thing, when you’re in-flight, so to speak, in a concert, and someone suddenly does something they hadn’t planned on doing and the whole interpretation changes as you react to it. It’s like a real conversation. No doubt—playing in this trio has made me a better musician.’

Despite the benefits of being part of the piano trio, with its wealth of repertoire and incredibly rewarding sound world, one aspect of this particular instrumental combination is often problematic: While the piano and the violin are powerful, penetrating, brilliant instruments, the noble cello, with its rich, autumnal hues, is not. It’s easily swamped, and composers haven’t always helped.

‘One thing we do to alleviate the problem is to have the cellist facing the audience, rather than facing me, so we communicate in a kind of sideways fashion, and his sound projects straight at the audience. But you’re right, the emancipation of the cello is an abiding problem. Haydn’s famous ‘Gypsy Trio’, for instance, has a very shy, timidly written cello part. Obviously Haydn in this case didn’t want the cello to show up more—which is a little ironic since it was he more than anyone else who emancipated the cello in the medium of the string quartet. But even in the Dvořák trios, including the great F minor, Dvořák often makes it very hard for the cello to come through. Yet it contains a lot of important material which really mustn’t be submerged. So we have to be careful to favour the cello occasionally. Sometimes, even when it’s written forte in the score, I have to play piano in order to accommodate the cello. But this is really the kind of challenge you meet in all chamber groups: not to obey all the markings literally, as a point of principle, but to listen very carefully to the balance—particularly as regards the cello.’

Was Dvořák a master of the medium, in the order, say, of Schubert or Ravel?

‘I would say in the F minor and the Dumky trios, yes, definitely. The other two are lovely pieces, but they don’t represent the maturing of Dvořák’s style, with its wonderful Slavonic sound world, such as you get so vividly in the ‘Dumky’ trio, which is also structurally very interesting: it’s really like a suite. That said, it’s hard to put your finger on the shape, the form of this piece. With its six contrasting movements it comes across as a kind of musical kaleidoscope. The F minor is written more along the lines of Brahms. In fact it has some very strong Brahms overtones to it. But in these two trios, especially the F minor, Dvořák reached his absolute pinnacle as a composer. That trio can easily be put in the same class as the Schubert’s, or some great Beethoven trios, or the Brahms trios, come to that. It’s absolutely fascinating to do all four of the Dvořák’s trios because you can see the path which he travelled as a composer. In his youth, he was torn in different directions between different influences, falling under the spells of Liszt, then Wagner, then Brahms, and all of these, in their different ways, are reflected in his own unique style. It’s easy to hear Schubert in Dvořák’s music, too. Both of them, of course, were great melodists, and lived basically in the same country, Austro-Hungary, where music was almost floating in the air. It was very easy for both of them to catch the essence of those long, soulful Slavic melodies, and the beautiful interplay between major and minor keys. It’s very important to be aware of all these strands, because it gives another dimension to the music. You can relate to something beyond the particular piece you happen to be playing.’

Many people have spoken of a ‘graying’ audience for classical music, observing that there are many fewer young concert goers than there used to be. As a performer, as a musician, is Kaler concerned about this?

‘Not to any great extent. No, actually. I think it probably has more to do with how concerts are presented than with any direct response to the music itself. Concerts are still, on the whole, very formal. Long ago it became a kind of social experience—more than that, a class experience. When people become successful, when they mature, and make enough money, and have a certain connection with culture, many feel, even today, that traditionally presented concerts are a good place to be. It enhances their status. Also, ticket prices are often so expensive that many young people are effectively shut out. But there are important exceptions. When you go to Latin America, for instance, to South America, you find lots of young people at concerts. More young than old, in fact. Yes, the ticket prices there are lower, but there just isn’t the same tradition of seeing concerts as some kind of social event, that this is a prestigious thing to do. So no cause for concern there!’

Like most performing artists of his stature, Kaler has spent a lot of time in the recording studio. How significantly different is it from performing in concert?

‘This is a difficult question, because recording for me has been a big psychological problem, a very difficult and tortuous process. Even when I may feel at the time “Ah! This is how it has to be”, it’s only a little later, sometimes very little later, that I wish I could record it again. Immediately. And that chance, of course, virtually never arises. But whenever I do have the opportunity, sooner or later, to rerecord something, then I take it, at once. Of course the whole business of recording, the whole process, has been in many ways transformed since I began. Today’s digital technology is quite different from the procedure in the Soviet Union back in the 1980s, when I made my first recordings on LP for the Melodiya label. The old way was much more unforgiving. It took longer, too. And I think that when it takes a few days to make a record, your standards somehow go up. Sometimes, I have to say, when I hear my old recordings with my ‘modern’ ears, I have difficulty recognising myself. Recording is really a very exacting discipline. It makes you expect more of yourself—to strive for cleaner, more precise, more articulate playing, even when you’re not recording. So this, too, is part of my creative laboratory.’

And what of the future? Is Kaler an optimist?

‘I am, actually. Yes. But this ties up with what I was saying earlier. I hope there’ll be some changes made in the presentation of music. Classical music has got stuck in certain formats which increasingly alienate large audiences. The big exception here is opera, but this isn’t as pure a medium as instrumental music, what with the inbuilt drama, the sets, the costumes and colours, the different stagings and so on. Just compare this to the sight of a traditional orchestra: all the players reliably in white tie and tails, much of the audience, too, dressed up, all fancy and formal—all concerts look the same. That’s fine with me, but I’m trying to project these concerns to a younger generation which feels more wary about this. And I’m happy to say that more and more groups, even orchestras, are experimenting with the way they look on stage, the way they bow etc; and it seems to me that many of the early music groups are leading the way in this respect, even as they try to be historically correct. Actually, I like the idea, which is probably not very practical, of appearing in different dress according to the character, perhaps even the period, of the individual piece being played. But, of course, this would be a tall order, especially on tour!’

Especially for women, who have enough trouble as it is! But on his own turf, Kaler has nothing to worry about. His playing alone is so richly communicative, to young and old alike, that he has no need of such artifice—despite the appeal of the idea.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Recommended releases:

Ilya Kaler Biography & Discography


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