A Music@Menlo Meet the Artist interview
Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival & Institute
July 12 – August 3
Under the artistic direction of David Finckel and Wu Han, Music@Menlo is based in Atherton, California. Each year a carefully-chosen theme forms the basis of the summer festival, comprising concerts, artist-curated recitals, lectures, a training institute, and free public events. “Incredible Decades” is the theme for 2019, tracing 300 years of musical evolution from Bach to the new millennium. For more info, visit: www.musicatmenlo.org
Who or what inspired you to take up the cello, and pursue a career in music?
My first inspiration lies of course with my parents, both musicians. With a pianist mother and a cellist father it was inevitable that I was exposed from an early age to classical music and to the cello. In particular, I remember the concerts of my dad’s orchestra I attended as a little kid – the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeni Mravinsky. I still harbor a dream to become a conductor one day. Another name that was always present was Mstislav Rostropovich, whom my father greatly admired. A student of Rostropovich’s student himself, my dad made sure that Slava’s stories and recordings reigned supreme in our household.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I already mentioned my parents, but I would like to stress three more influences that changed it all. One of them was Alexander Fedortchenko, my first teacher and an amazing Russian pedagogue, who showed me that to become a good cellist one must have fanatical passion for the cello as well as determination and discipline, and must develop a solid foundation.
Another big influence was the legendary Yale School of Music Professor Aldo Parisot, who showed me that to become a great cellist one must learn to free oneself from the constraints of the cello, and while drilling tirelessly etudes and exercises, paradoxically, to work on the most natural approach to the instrument. The ultimate goal is the immediacy of musical discourse – Jascha Heifetz and great vocalists were always glorified in our lessons.
Finally and no doubt most importantly, David Finckel and Wu Han. As a model cellist, and a student of Rostropovich, David has had a great influence on my playing, which is too complex to codify. I think the most important aspect I try to live up to is his constant search of solutions on and off the instrument: one must always keep exploring and pushing the boundaries of our craft. And Wu Han together with David, taught me that the sky is the limit, that only fear of failure leads to failure, that being a great musician is much more than being a great cellist, and that nothing is more important than serving Music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Learning how to overcome my own sense of perfectionism. I know that this might sound almost silly, but at times we musicians set such high standards for ourselves that not living up to them becomes a terrible thing in itself. My playing and my career moved to a new level once I realized that the key to successful performances lies not just in perfecting one’s technique and pure hours of practice, but also in redirecting the mental state that controls it all, and reigning in the mind.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
When it comes to recordings, one of the most exciting projects for me has been the world premiere recording of complete works for cello and piano by Lowell Liebermann in collaboration with pianist Hyeyeon Park. It was a rare opportunity to discover and learn these works – four sonatas and a short piece – and to know that a wider audience now is able to hear this music in our interpretation. Also, I would hope that other cellists, when learning these works from now on, might be influenced by the musical choices we made in the studio, since it is the only recording available. This project also led to us to commission one more sonata from Mr. Liebermann, which we will premiere in May 2020 in New York as part of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center “Art of the Recital” series.
One of the proudest performance moments was a marathon Carte Blanche recital that I gave at Music@Menlo Festival in 2018. I felt that our programming was exceptionally fitting the festival’s theme of “Creative Capitals” with works by well-known composers like Boccherini, Beethoven, and Chopin, and also exploring almost unknown repertoire by master cellists Davidoff and Piatti. Since I had free reign in choosing the program, it became a three-part marathon with two intermissions, but we got to tell a very cohesive story and the audience responded to this.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
To survive in the modern classical music world, one must be able to play all styles and composers well, and when I get repertoire requests, I never shy away from a challenge or from an opportunity to expand my artistic palette. Now, we cannot ignore that there always will be works that speak deeply to every musician, due to their experiences and upbringing. I personally think that one of my strengths lies with large-scale and technically demanding works: concertos and chamber works alike. When I was in my early teens, I had an opera phase, when I was completely in love with Italian operas by Verdi and Puccini. I wonder if that might be the reason that I enjoy large-scale singing lines. I also don’t shy away from virtuoso showcase pieces – they have been relegated to secondary roles within soloist repertoire in recent decades, but I love them nonetheless and they are amazing for my technique and the general audience seems to really enjoy them too.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
When it comes to chamber music programming, most of the decisions come from the festivals and series that I play at, often in consultation with the artistic directors. When it comes to my own recitals, I tend to think creatively, and always bring works that provide thematic unity to the program. Also, when one decides on a recital “theme” the result is often very satisfying to play, and by sticking to a theme I would learn new repertoire because of it. Just a recent example: to fit a “Hungarian” recital theme I discovered the Sonatina for cello and piano by Kodaly, a work that I otherwise would not have learned.
I am also very lucky to serve as the co-artistic director of Apex Concerts – a chamber music series at the University of Nevada, Reno. I love programming and making personnel choices and am absolutely thrilled to explore programming ideas that take the audience on a journey and give a sense of unity, exploration, and discovery to every concert.
Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love to bring my best to every venue I perform at, and when I am on stage, no matter where I am, it will always be my favorite venue. Now, I have to say that there are two venues that I really love. Perhaps it is because both of those venues were early dreams when I was in my formative years.
As a young kid I moved from Russia to Spain, and I dearly love everything about that country. One of my dreams at the time was to play in the National Auditorium in Madrid. I thought to myself that if I ever get to play there, it will mean that my choice of the cello as my life’s companion was not a fluke, and I am in the right profession. I still remember as one of the most moving days of my life when I finally gave a recital in that amazing place.
The other dream-venue is Alice Tully Hall. Chamber music has been my passion for many years and I am extremely fortunate to be able to walk time and time again onto that magical stage with my colleagues from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and partake in some of the most transformative music-making.
Who are your favorite musicians?
The ones who love music more than they love themselves.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
If I had to choose one it would be taking part in a performance entitled “Cellists of Lincoln Center” in Alice Tully Hall in April 2017. I was scheduled to perform the Sonata for Cello Solo by Ligeti as part of that evening program, and it was truly a life-changing experience to play it not just in front of the sold-out crowd, but also knowing that some of my most esteemed cello colleagues, many of whom I have been looking up to for many years, were backstage. The evening ended as an encore with a performance by all of us of my own arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s “Now Lettest Depart Thou.” It was an unforgettably special day that I cherish forever.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To know that what I accomplish in my life will have a positive impact on the future of music and on future generations. To move hearts and minds when I perform and to engage people unfamiliar with classical music. And more practically those goals are well accomplished by running a festival, a concert series or a concert organization: this way I can share the beauty of our art form with an ever wider audience while creating opportunities for my colleagues.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
You must know that there will be room for you. That you must set clear goals and pursue them. You also must be flexible and know how to reinterpret setbacks. Young musicians are often the ones that face the steepest competition, and it can be really discouraging. If you are too narrow-minded, if you decide that everything in your life hinges on one audition or competition, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you realize that every determined step you take in life will lead upwards, then you are bound to find success. The greatest mistake that I see is aimlessly running in circles, or waiting for a magic moment. One must keep walking to get to new places.