Simone Gramaglia, violist

Simone Gramiglia is violist with Quartetto di Cremona

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I started to play a string instrument quite late. As a kid, I played the piano and the recorder. When I was 16 I felt I would like to start playing the violin but Osvaldo Scilla, violinist at the Milano Conservatory, told me I was too old for the violin and suggested I play the viola. This was my first big stroke of luck. I got my diploma six years later under the guide of my beloved maestro Luigi Brusini, in Genova, and started to think what I could do next. I then had the chance to meet Bruno Giuranna and Mikhail Kugel with whom I studied for three years. This was my second stroke of luck. At 25 my best-friend Cristiano asked me if I would like to play in a string quartet with him. It happened during the interval of a concert somewhere in the United States where we were touring and performing with Salvatore Accardo and his Chamber Orchestra. I never understood if answering yes to Cristiano’s invitation was luck or not, but since then I have devoted myself to string quartet playing. That was exactly 20 years ago. Since then, and thanks to my path with the Quartetto di Cremona, I’ve met a lot of people who inspired me.

I cannot forget Piero Farulli, the violist of the Quartetto Italiano, our first teacher who instilled in me a pure love and respect for this job and for the Beethoven string quartets and his universal message. How could I not mention Hatto Beyerle, who taught me a lot about the classics and rhetoric and who told us that, as Italians, we will always be late, even when being on time…(!). Nor can I forget Rudolf Sudbrach, our first German agent, who contacted us as he liked the name ‘Quartetto di Cremona’ and – being curious – checked who these four Italian boys were. He did a lot for our career in Germany. And I still remember the joy we had when we got the Borletti-Buitoni Trust (BBT) fellowship and more recently the Franco Buitoni Award. BBT helped our career a lot.

I must also mention Francesca Moncada di Paternò, a Sicilian princess, who always supported our quartet and then, enchanted by the string quartet world, founded the wonderful project “Le Dimore del Quartetto” to support young gifted string quartets from all over the world. And, of course, all the musicians with whom I had the luck to collaborate: the wonderful maestros from the Emerson Quartet, Lynn Harrel with his incredible and majestic sound and beautiful vibrato, Eckart Runge always singing on the cello, Antonio Meneses, Angela Hewitt, David Orlowsky and his sublime clarinet, to name just a few. From every musician I got ideas, inspiration for my musical life.

And of course Ludwig van Beethoven. He changed my musical perspectives and I found myself very different after I performed and recorded all his quartets.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Since I started to play in the Quartet, my colleagues and I have had to face many challenges. The biggest was to stay together for 20 years. Not easy. And not because we had musical fights. Of course we discussed musical issues many times, but it wasn’t a problem. We always came to an agreement. The most difficult thing of playing in a full time string quartet is the living together. We have been lucky enough to pass through fights and conflicts by being able to sublimate everything in a smart, calm relationship. We understood there are lines that must not be crossed.

Another big challenge was to face what is generally considered a “failure”. I personally don’t like this word as I don’t think it describes correctly what really happens – but it’s how we all generally consider, for example, not winning a competition, losing a concert or not getting something we worked so hard for. These moments are crucial. And it’s also crucial how the group lives them. If the quartet can survive a failure (and of course one’s career is full of failures) then the chances to have a good career are stronger.

Of course there is then the economic challenge. I don’t want to talk too much about it but there is a joke which describes it very well. It more or less says: ”Do you know how to finish a long string quartet career with one million pounds in your bank account? Just start it with three million”!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

When I think about my performances or recordings the feeling I get is that each one was special in some way. I put something unique into every performance.

Of course something could have been even better played. But this, I think, is the common destiny of every true and humble artist: you can be happy but never satisfied.

It’s the same for recordings. You put your whole self into them but often, when you listen to them years later, you think you should record the pieces again as you would change many things. Anyway, I often remember with my colleagues of the Quartet our debut at the Wigmore Hall many years ago. It was great performing in such a temple for chamber music.

I personally remember the beautiful performances we had together with Lawrence Dutton, the violist of the Emerson Quartet. I had a lot of fun playing with him. Such a fantastic artist. And the one we gave in Santa Monica was really something I will never forget.

I also cannot forget when we performed in Genova the second movement of the Schubert Quintet with Lynn Harrell. And my debut as a soloist with the Paganini Sonata per la Grand Viola, with the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova. Never felt so much tension, even after having performed many concerts with the Quartet.

Talking about recordings I think Italian Journey, the Beethoven Quartets, the Schubert Quintet with Eckart Runge (we played on the Paganini Strad Quartet) and our last recording of Italian Postcards are the ones I love the most.

I’m also bound to say an all-Paganini recording I made in duo with guitar.

Paraphrasing a saying from Napoli I could say that “every recording and every performance are a “piece of heart””.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Difficult question to answer.

I would say that with my quartet we love and feel “at home” when we perform the Beethoven String Quartets or Schubert’s, for example.

Of course we are always happy to play Italian music but we also feel comfortable with Debussy and Ravel.

Mozart took time – so delicate and difficult. We also love to play Haydn. I consider him a great genius and after many years I still find it amazing to perform his music.

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

This is something very important in a musician’s life.

I have a nice family with two daughters, Bianca and Nanù (a golden retriever), and I spend as much time as possible playing with them. Bianca is one-and-a-half years old and she loves to stay with me when I practise, sometimes showing me how to properly use the bow…

I’ve started to write my first novel, a noir. The title will be “Quartet Tragedi”. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it in a couple of years.

I also love philosophy, reading books and to study in general. I’m very curious. I always want to know and live more – about every aspect of life.

I wish I could travel and meet people all the time. Nothing is more inspiring than meeting people and sharing thoughts, laughter, good food and great wines!

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

In my quartet we all discuss together the repertoire. Not always easy – especially when we have to choose what to play in the next three years.

We try to combine pieces we like with a thread in order to give a musical sense to our programmes. Possibly we like to play at least one contemporary piece every season and to always practise new pieces. We also love to perform with other musicians so we try to include in our programmes something with other instruments.

When I perform as a soloist I like a wide variety in my programmes in order to show the beauty of the viola. In this case it’s much easier to choose a programme.

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

For sure Wigmore Hall in London, the Auditorium of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, the Konzert Haus in Berlin and the Konzerthuset in Stockholm. They all have a special and wonderful acoustic that makes performing just perfect!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think we musicians should bring music everywhere and to everyone and try to communicate the beauty of it in a very natural and sincere way. And we should talk about it with the same enthusiasm we use when we play it. To children, for sure, but also to people of every age.

It’s never too late to start loving classical music but we should firmly believe in this mission. I don’t think we need to become jesters or clowns, as I often see some doing, sadly. We don’t need to dress like teenagers to show music is for everybody or to act like fake popstars. Beauty just needs to be communicated in a simple and honest way.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I cannot forget the Quartetto di Cremona’s first concert in the big hall of the Elbphilarmonie. A full house, total silence and the Schubert Quintet together with Eckart Runge, former cellist of the Artemis Quartet. The Schubert Quintet always talks to me – that time even more. It seemed to me to be able to touch the deepest meaning of life just playing it. For a while I understood why Beethoven wrote “music is a revelation higher than any wisdom or philosophy.”

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being able to do in life what I really love: play well, honestly and with all my heart. Then I could define myself as “a man of success”. Doesn’t matter how rich I will be or how many people will applaude me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Concreteness, motivation, constancy, passion, clarity of thought and a big sense of humour: being able to laugh at themselves or in an unpleasant situation is crucial to enjoying life and being able to make a career.

And, of course: never, ever give up!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully I’ll be still playing in quartet, teaching (maybe moral philosophy) and living between Europe and the Bahamas…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being able to live the present moment with no regrets for the past and a great enthusiasm for the future. And always with my viola, of course.

What is your most treasured possession?

My deep love for life. My grandfather passed it to me. Every day of my childhood he told me how beautiful life is. And he profoundly believed it. So do I.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m in love. With a woman. And with Cieli d’Italia, the beautiful piece my friend Nimrod [Borenstein] wrote for the Quartetto di Cremona.

‘Italian Postcards’ (Avie AV2436) is released on 20 November 2020 and features repertoire by composers who loved and were inspired by Italy. The recording was made possible by the quartet’s Franco Buitoni Award and marks Quartetto di Cremona’s 20th anniversary.

Simone Gramiglia is violist of Quartetto di Cremona, Professor of String Quartet at the Walter Stauffer Academy, Artistic Director of Music With Masters and “Le Dimore del Quartetto.

Since its formation in 2000, the Quartetto di Cremona has established a reputation as one of the most exciting chamber ensembles on the international stage. Regularly invited to perform in major music festivals in Europe, North and South America, and Far East, they garner universal acclaim for their high level of interpretive artistry.

“BBT Fellowship” prize winner in 2005, the Quartetto di Cremona received by the Borletti Buitoni Trust also the “Franco Buitoni Award” (2019 edition) for its constant contribution to the promotion of chamber music in Italy and around the world.

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