Maia Cabeza violinist

Maia Cabeza, violinist

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 grew up in a musical family (my mother is a flautist and my father played the clarinet when he was young), so it was kind of a given that I would play an instrument, even if just for fun. I started the violin with the Suzuki method and was hooked on music at quite a young age. I remember particularly enjoying the sense of community and social interactions that I was exposed to during musical activities. Along the way I was extremely lucky to have several great violin teachers, including Richard Luby in Chapel Hill, NC, Ida Kavafian and Joseph Silverstein during my studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, Antje Weithaas in Berlin, and Rainer Schmidt in Basel. They all
played an integral role in my musical development, but I’m also grateful to have countless inspiring chamber music partners, mentors and colleagues from whom I continuously learn!

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

There are certainly all sorts of challenges, but one thing that I have struggled with in the past (and still do!) is juggling my schedule and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I don’t actually believe that this popular term quite applies to my profession since music is, for all intents and purposes, my life. Still, it can be tricky to tread the fine line of having a rich and thrilling performance schedule versus, for example, having to prepare too many difficult pieces in a short amount of time. I find that it requires a lot of careful planning and self-reflection to achieve the right balance, and of course we are always changing, so what might have worked last year is not necessarily going to apply in a different moment!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my second CD “Folk Roots”, which was released with Genuin Classics a couple of years ago. It features various solo and chamber works by mostly 20th-century Central and Eastern European composers who were all strongly influenced by folk music including Janáček, Schulhoff and Bartók, among others. This is music that speaks to me deeply, and it was particularly important to me to include some lesser known works such as Sandor Veress’ Solo Sonata and Enescu’s Airs in Romanian Folk Style. I was lucky to have great musicians and friends as collaborators on the CD, pianist Zoltán Fejérvári and percussionist Alexandros Giovanos. There is always the danger with recordings that while aiming for technical perfection you end up missing some of the spark that would be there in a live performance. However, I feel
that we gave everything we had and am honestly happy with the results!

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

That’s tricky! I’d like to think I’m a pretty versatile musician, but I have a particular affinity for classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn. As a member of Spunicunifait, an ensemble which studies and performs Mozart’s string quintets on period instruments, we strive to highlight his genius and wit and bring out the theatrical elements and gestures which are so often overlooked. Of course it’s subjective, but I believe our approach really makes his music come alive.

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

One of my favourite things about my job is that I get to travel so much and constantly experience new places. I love to explore, and walking around town and suddenly seeing a building that takes my breath away, being touched by a particular work of art in a museum, or trying a delicious food in a local restaurant can all be sources of inspiration. Having social exchanges with all kinds of people can also be enriching, especially if they come from a different cultural background.

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

For many of my projects, repertoire is chosen by presenters and managers. However, I also have several opportunities every year to make my own choices, and I really enjoy that. I usually try to programme a good mix of pieces which are new to me plus something familiar, and aim to include less frequently performed works or music by underrepresented composers. I also enjoy the challenge of constructing thematically cohesive programs with pieces that complement each other from a historical and/or musical perspective.

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

I don’t really have a favourite venue, actually. Some of my most fulfilling musical experiences have taken place in houses, schools, churches or outdoors, so it’s not really about the hall for me. That being said, of course great acoustics can enhance the performance and I’ve had the privilege of playing in many beautiful halls. If I had to pick, for chamber music it would definitely be the Wigmore Hall. It’s just perfect and creates a real sense of intimacy. For orchestra I would probably say the Berlin Philharmonie. It sounds great, I have many memories from my time in the Berlin Philharmonic Karajan Academy (when I basically lived there), and it’s also an impressive, timeless work of architecture by Scharoun.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

This is a large topic with many elements, but I feel that one of the core issues is that we as classical musicians simply take ourselves too seriously. This is not to say that what we do isn’t important or that the music we play is not incredibly valuable. It’s just that there is a lot of extra stuff around how it’s presented that can certainly come across as elitist and off-putting. In my opinion, traditions such as not clapping in between movements (which is anyway mostly historically inaccurate!) and extremely formal and outdated concert dress do nothing to serve the music, but rather intimidate people who might otherwise be open to coming to concerts. Many people don’t know how much they enjoy classical music because they don’t dare to give it a chance, and are often surprised by how much it moves them once they do. Music is about expressing and transmitting emotion to others, so any format that can help open up a dialogue between performer and audience is hugely important. The other main thing is education. This has been said a million times, but I really do believe it is absolutely crucial. All children should have the possibility of receiving free music lessons in school as well as workshops and affordable access to concerts. Apart from the fact that it’s proven to be developmentally beneficial, being exposed to music at a young age can absolutely shape one’s future and help foster a life-long appreciation for this art form.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are so many, but one unforgettable experience was when we performed a fully staged and memorised rendition of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with Aurora Orchestra at the BBC Proms, not once, but twice within 5 hours. It was exhilarating (and a bit exhausting)!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Personally I feel that I’m successful when I manage to fully immerse myself in the music and convey not only my own emotions about the piece, but those of the composer as well. If even just one person is touched or moved by what they heard, it means the performance was successful in some form. In a broader career sense, I would define success as reaching and maintaining a level where you can choose only the projects and concerts that really attract you.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

I would encourage cultivating and cherishing the joy in what you do, because it is likely to be threatened by various external circumstances, and it is absolutely the most important thing to hold onto for a gratifying life in music. Also, practice! But not too much!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I think there is a toxic culture of judgement and perfectionism prevalent within the classical music world, especially at the highest level. This leads to huge amounts of unreasonable pressure, and many musicians struggle as a result. I think we have to investigate why this happens and how to improve it, but there seem to be quite a lot of negative assumptions surrounding this issue, so the first step would be to break down the stigma and start a conversation.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Chamber music with friends and loved ones in a beautiful place with amazing food.

Maia Cabeza appears at this year’s Winchester Chamber Music Festival. More info

Canadian-American violinist Maia Cabeza enjoys a multi-faceted performing career as a chamber musician, soloist and orchestral leader. She is currently leader of Aurora Orchestra as well as Principal 2nd in Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Kammerakademie Potsdam and is regularly invited to guest lead various orchestras. She is also a member of Spunicunifait, a chamber ensemble dedicated to the study and performance of Mozart’s six string quintets on period instruments. 

Maia is 1st prize winner of the 2013 Leopold Mozart Competition and 2nd prize winner of the 2018 Johann Sebastian Bach Competition and has performed as a soloist with several orchestras including the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Augsburg Philharmonic, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra and Munich Radio Orchestra, among others. 

An extremely passionate chamber musician, she has performed at festivals such as Marlboro and Lockenhaus as well as being a regular at Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music. She has had the opportunity to collaborate with musicians such as Kristian Bezuidenhout, Vilde Frang, Nobuko Imai, Steven Isserlis and Anna Prohaska, among others. 

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Inage credit Kaupo Kikkas