Erika Raum, violinist

Erika Raum is a violinist with ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto), which has quickly become one of Canada’s leading cultural ambassadors. The group has a core membership of piano, strings, and clarinet – all the players are senior faculty members of the Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School – which is supplemented by guest artists drawn from the organisation’s most exceptional students and alumni.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I come from a family of musicians, dating back to my grandmother, who was a Syrian immigrant to the United States in the early 20th century. She had something in the neighbourhood of 8 siblings, many of whom were musically gifted, but there was only so much money to send everyone to school, least of all the girls, so unfortunately she missed out. Although one of her sisters studied violin atJuilliard. She herself was a very fine pianist of both jazz and classical music, and received several degrees once her children were grown. My own mother, Elizabeth Raum, is an oboist, and a renowned composer. My father is a trombonist and was a professor of theory. My husband is also a composer, and my four kids are now embarking on their own musical adventures, mostly in jazz/rock. In order to fill in some of the missing instruments in the family band, my husband’s lock-down project has been to learn the drums. Meanwhile I’ve been in the garage trying my hand at the electric bass. Some of the skills transfer somewhat…. we’ll see how badly I fall apart in front of real live listeners though.

Who or what have been the greatest influences on your musical career?

My greatest influences have been this extended family which, oddly enough, is beginning to include my own children. I didn’t expect that! I was also very fortunate to study with Lorand Fenyves, the great Hungarian/Israeli/Canadian violinist and pedagogue. His influence is felt by just about every string player in Canada of the last 50 years. I can hear his imprint on just about everything I play.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m probably most proud of ARC’s Fitelberg recording. His music is hard to compare to anything else; very quirky. So it was especially fun to be among the first musicians to discover his work. There are no rules or expectations established yet, beyond what’s on the page. That’s a real playground for creative musicians, and happily, the ARC ensemble is made up of exactly those types. I’ve learned so much from each of them, and nothing is ever out of bounds.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I very much enjoy playing new music, either newly composed, or newly discovered. My training with Fenyves always emphasized the supremacy of the written word/note— and insisted that our inspiration should always come from the score, to the degree that past interpretations needn’t be consulted.  Of course, that’s a very idealistic concept meant to be taken with a huge grain of salt. We naturally should, and do take all sorts of cues from the great interpreters who have come before, as well as from our colleagues. But what happens when there are no previous interpretations to consult and you’re creating for the first time? That’s the fun part. Before Fenyves, my greatest musical influence was my mother, a composer. I did a lot of writing in my early years, which she considered just part of the business of becoming a complete musician. So there is always a tiny piece of me that, while struggling to get around the violin, is mercifully thinking a bit more like a composer, trying to tell a story. All of this is of course just wonderful if you’re playing Brahms and Beethoven too, and I cherish every opportunity I have to do so! I just think there are so many who do it so much better.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I get a lot of inspiration from teaching. When you practise, you tend to be very goal oriented. And when you rehearse, your colleagues certainly don’t have time to listen to you wax on about augmented 6ths. But when you’re working with young musicians, it’s all about discovery. The whole point is taking the time to delve into all aspects of phrase, harmony, character… you name it. That interaction allows you learn what may be true and universal, and what might turn out to be some of your weaker notions. It’s a process that strengthens the perspective of all parties, and it’s a great defence against artistic stagnation.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

As much as I’ve appreciated some of the great halls ARC has performed in (Wigmore, Concertgebouw, for instance) I’m someone who is basically a homebody. I love my comfort and familiarity, and I’d just as soon play chamber music in a friend’s living room. That’s why I feel so lucky to teach where we have two magnificent halls— Mazzoleni and Koerner — at the Royal Conservatory. I have such great memories of all the concerts I’ve played there over the years, plus I feel like I could literally walk out in my slippers, and it would be totally fine.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A concert that stands out in my memory was the final round of the Szigeti International Violin Competition. I was performing the second Bartok violin concerto, in Budapest, obviously in front of probably the most knowledgeable audience I would ever encounter for that music. It was utterly terrifying, and I can assure you, I did not peak a moment too soon! But it also earned me some faith in myself, something I’ve drawn upon many times subsequently— that assurance that I won’t wither under pressure. I bet if you ask any musician, they have a similar formative sink-or-swim moment.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring musicians?

I think the most important thing to remind aspiring musicians over and over again is that performing music is about connecting with other humans. Of course we have to play to a high standard, convey the composer’s intentions, and hopefully bring something fresh to the music…. but most of all, I just think it needs to be authentic, and happening in real time. Nothing bronzed, or replicated, no matter how skillful ever affects me the same way as does a committed, live performance given by a living soul.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audience/listeners?

As far as growing the audience, I have great faith in the material. If we have trouble attracting audience, Beethoven is not the culprit. I think we have to remember the importance of connection, and extend it to the whole concert experience. Performers have been talking to audiences more and more over the past few decades, letting them peak behind the curtain a bit, and that’s been a great start. More recently, a lot has been made of programming— that a successful program is not just the three best pieces that I happen to be playing right now. Like any coherent artistic experience, it should be curated such that that there is a story— a beginning, middle and end so to speak. We could do much better at that. We’re also, as a tribe, becoming more and more willing to blend genres, and styles and instruments without our previous strict adherence to programming conventions. I believe the next generation of musicians is becoming enormously versatile. It’s incredibly impressive.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I remember doing a tour of B.C. many years ago that was extremely… lightly organized. Most everything, the pianist and I had to do ourselves— hire the tuner, get the programs out, lighting, take care of any coffee afterward… and there was never any guarantee there would be an audience because of the lack of publicity, etc. I remember feeling just so grateful that people actually came! It was the first time in my life that I thought about it from their point of view— like, they’ve been working all day, made dinner for the kids, cleaned up after dinner, got a sitter, and now they’re going to drag themselves out in a Canadian winter to hear a violin recital? It better be something memorable!!

What is your most treasure possession?

My most precious possession is obviously my violin. I tried to think of something more surprising, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I mean, the only truly precious things are creatures with souls. The only inanimate object I possess that may possibly qualify is my beautiful three hundred year old Grancino.

For Jewish composers banned during the Hitler years, the quality of their music generally had little if anything to do with their exclusion. It was the Reich’s unhinged ‘racial’ ideology that defined them as artistically worthless. The musical casualties were enormous. Literally hundreds of composers fled Germany, Austria and Nazi-occupied territories. Many died in their 40s or 50s, their music lost to the world.

The acclaimed ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) has worked to right this wrong, building an international reputation with its research, recovery and recording of these suppressed and marginalized composers in its three-time Grammy nominated “Music in Exile” recordings.

On August 28th,  ARC Ensemble is releasing a new disc of music by Walter Kaufmann. This CD represents the first recording devoted to the 20th century composer’s works and is the fourth in the ensemble’s Exile series.

‘Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann’ features Erika Raum (violin), Marie Bérard (violin), Steven Dann (viola), Thomas Wiebe (cello), Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet) and Kevin Ahfat (piano), with special guests Jamie Kruspe (violin) and Kimberly Jeong (cello). Released on the Chandos label. More information

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