Leonidas Kavakos: Thoughtful Virtuoso

Lisa Houston on November 3, 2015
Leonidas Kavakos (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
Leonidas Kavakos (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Coming this November for a trio of concerts at Davies Symphony Hall and one at the Mondavi Center, renowned violinist Leonidas Kavakos will join the San Francisco Symphony to perform a work with which the Greek star has become closely associated, the Sibelius violin concerto. Fitting, given that the Athenian-born Kavakos began a round of major competition victories by winning the Sibelius Competition when he was not yet 20. 

A slew of prestigious engagements under the world’s greatest conductors followed, accompanied by numerous recordings, and being named ECHO Klassik instrumentalist of the year in 2013 and 2014 Gramophone Artist of the year. 

Kavakos is conducting more and more these days and will finish off his busy year leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Haydn, Mozart, and Dvorák, followed by the Bamberg Symphony, with whom he will also perform, playing Bartók’s Portraits, Op. 5. 

He spoke to SFCV from his home in Athens, as the nation took a holiday.
What is the national holiday being celebrated there today?

The 28th of October we celebrate the resistance against the Germans and the Italians during the Second World War when we were, so to say, asked to give up and we said “no.” It’s a big, big holiday. We have parades, and the army is there. Everything is closed, and it is a little more relaxed. Not for me, of course, because the rest of the world is working, so it has been busy, but at least I can be here at home.

You play such a range of repertoire, you just came from Shostakovich, now Sibelius, and you’ll have several completely different programs before the end of the year. What is it that draws you to maintain such variety? Are you a restless soul?

No. Normally I try to plan carefully. It doesn’t always come in the ideal way.  But one tries at least to plan things with a certain kind of logic at a pace one can deal with. Otherwise it’s torture. "Variety is important because I feel if I play too many times or for too long periods the same kind of repertoire, one almost becomes comfortable with the repertoire."

Variety is important because I feel if I play too many times or for too long periods the same kind of repertoire, one almost becomes comfortable with the repertoire. Being onstage is never easy, but if one repeats the same repertoire, one becomes easy with it. For me, I might lose, let’s say, the sparkle. That something that one cannot control, or expect that comes during the performance. Therefore I will try to plan to play, certainly quite a few concertos during the season. There are pieces I play regularly every season because they are pillars in the understanding of the musical progress of a musician and there are others that come every now and then that I like. But there is always a balance.

When you conduct, does it bring out a different part of your personality? Is it more introspective being soloist.

Yes, It is as you describe it. Totally. The production of sound and the production of music is much more than just the personal energy. It is a sort of interaction and exchange of energy. Because even if I’m playing as a soloist with an orchestra onstage, there is this kind of aura that we create together and we project to the audience. For that kind of aura, one cannot be too introverted. One needs to be there and get motivated and all this interaction becomes something that excites the audience. 

When one is a conductor, on the other side, it’s about motivating the people that you have in front of you. It’s all about that. Of course synchronizing them as well but the motivating is the most important thing. In a way, for a conductor, it should be as direct as playing an instrument because the orchestra is an instrument for the conductor, but of course it is a totally different nature of an instrument. That is something that excites me a lot but also helps me to grow as a person and as a musician. 

I’ve heard you speak about the world being very reliant on this financial model, as opposed to a humanistic one, and the need for a shift there. Can you talk about the importance of music education in that shift?

Not only music. Humanistic education includes all the forms of art. Fighting and human nature have not changed since ancient times. It was always like this. Stories full of wars, full of conspiracies, full of hidden strategies and politics and so on. The big difference and danger for our time, is the humanistic side of education was more or less always, until very recently, an extremely important part of bringing up the new generation. 

The other horrible element in our days is that wars now are not even about fighting. It is about a certain kind of technology that kills before someone can even defend themselves. And that creates an enormous inequality and an enormous lack of respect for human life. We see situations like this ISIS, which is not only not showing respect for life but showing absolute disgrace of life, unless that human life is a slave of a certain kind of religion that does not even teach this kind of behavior and hatred. It’s a fanatic way of acting. "I think we are very close to a catastrophe. Because I feel we are not respecting what we have been awarded with which is the present of being alive. Music and the arts teach all about this." 

I have to say, all religions have been fanatic at a certain point. The Christian religion was extremely fanatic when you look at the beginning of its time. We know, especially here in Greece, many of the antiquities were destroyed. They called them pagan and therefore they had to be destroyed. 

Unfortunately we live in a very dangerous way today. I think we are very close to a catastrophe. Because I feel we are not respecting what we have been awarded with which is the present of being alive. Music and the arts teach all about this. 

You’re a third-generation violinist. Would you share a memory of your grandfather’s playing of folk music?

My grandfather, unfortunately, when I was able to understand and feel my surroundings, he was already too old and was not playing any more. In fact, he stopped playing the violin as soon as my father went to the conservatory because as a folk musician the violin was placed against the chest and as a classical violinist the violin is placed against the shoulder. And when my father, who started in my grandfather’s band, went to the conservatory to learn to play the violin in the classical way, my grandfather thought, “it’s better that I stop. Then he doesn’t see me playing against the chest.” He only played the lute from that time on, so I never saw him play. 

But I saw my father and through my father saw a number of people playing the folk music. The great thing is, they play in weddings, they play in holidays and celebrations. It’s not like a concert. If there’s a wedding, the band could go on for three days, or three hours, and this is a disaster. Because the longer they play, the more money they make. There is no fee prearranged.

Imagine going to a concert today and you have absolutely not announced any kind of piece. You start from something and you see how the audience reacts and somehow get a feeling and go on to the second choice and the third choice, and you keep going until the audience doesn’t need any more and they start going. If you ask them to write the scale on a piece of paper, they have no idea. But they understand what the people around them need and how to drive them into a certain mood. 

And if they take an order to play a certain song, they have to play it. There is no chance you’re going to say, “well, I didn’t practice this today,” or “I didn’t prepare,” or, you know, “my colleague doesn’t know the piece.” You just have to do it. 

This kind of spontaneity is something that is a great element that is important to bring it into the classical music performance, but it cannot of course come in this way. It has to come in a totally different way because the classical music concert today has a value that is absolutely, for me, irreplaceable, which is that it’s the last remaining place we have today where there is a communion. A communion in silence of people who, it doesn’t matter where they come from, what they believe in, what they speak, what they ate, how much money they make, it doesn’t matter.  It’s just a communion with the message of the music that we carry onstage, which is the message of whoever the composer is.

And that all happens in silence, away from the bombarding of the advertisement, whether it is acoustical or optical, whatever, it is all over the place, once you walk outside your home you see it everywhere, you practically cannot walk in peace. And somehow in the concert hall, this is still the place where this happens. It’s like a very unique church, and I think this is something we need to preserve as much as we can. I hear people saying, “We need to go out. The audience should not come to the hall, we need to go out.’ "We need to give the audience the possibility to get in touch with the music, but in fact they will never get in touch with the music as they should if they don’t come to the concert hall and experience the silence out of which the music comes, and into which it is ending."

We need to give the audience the possibility to get in touch with the music, but in fact they will never get in touch with the music as they should — that’s my feeling, maybe I’m wrong but that’s my feeling — if they don’t come to the concert hall and experience the silence out of which the music comes, and into which it is ending. This is extremely important and isn’t about coming to hear one classical music concert. It’s about what does the classical music offer today that is different from what you find anywhere else in everyday life. 

Do you use imagery for your music? For example, for some of the really fast arpeggios in the first movement of the Sibelius? 

I would say I allow for this and look for this while I’m practicing something. While I’m onstage I’m not doing that. What I’m really trying to serve when I’m onstage is the structure of the music and I have to be aware of this so it’s not about what kind of image I see. With a concerto, I would not be alone onstage. I have an orchestra and a conductor and we are all working with a certain purpose. We have to all be aware of each other. That awareness, when it really works, creates a kind of freedom so you feel like you’re actually saying your own story, but this is never the case. 

In the absolute wisest Greek language, the word for interpretation is the word hermeneia.  The first part of the word contains the part Hermes, and Hermes was the messenger of the Gods, he was not the message. 

For me, the success of an interpretation is, in a hall that seats 2,500 people, you have 2,500 different images, and each one is free to understand the message the way they want to understand it. It’s not imposing my message on the listener who comes here. 

Many times, even in theater, you can overplay a role, or over-act. You try to be, as we say, more Catholic than the Pope. In symphonic music, or instrumental music, this is extremely easy and very tempting. If you have a nice sound, and you had a good day, you can just do whatever you want onstage and people would still admire you. At least I would walk off stage that day and say, “yeah, but…” 

Many times with great composers of our time, you will play their pieces and you will ask them “is this what you want?” and they will say, “yes, that is also nice, feel free.” That’s because they also conceive what I’m trying to tell you. Even their composition is not their property. That is the beauty of it. That is why the music is alive for many centuries. Nobody will ever be tired of Sibelius concerto of Beethoven concerto or Beethoven symphony or whatever because everybody is free to translate it and interpret it and accept it in their own way. There are as many ways as there are people, and that is the essence of it.

It feels like we’ve looped the conversation around to the value of human life.

Totally. This is what the arts are. The arts are representing that the mission of humans is to approach the divine dimension and we have these incredible minds, every now and then, that act as big suns. They will bring this light to the world for thousands of years. We, the less-talented people, or the less blessed, or whatever, we are supposed to try to even conceive one millionth of that kind of truth. This is the mission. 

If one approaches life in this way, I feel that it’s a very healthy way. It’s a way of humbleness and respect and openness. This is the problem that we are becoming more and more dogmatic. Everybody will call it a free world, but it is in fact not free. We are much less ready to accept and tolerate something different. The big companies are trying to conquer the last smallest village so that everything looks the same. But that difference is the beauty of it and why should we not be able to understand that?

Music and the arts, but especially music, because it does not include, let’s say, a particular shape or structure. It’s not like a painting. It’s not like a text. It just let’s everybody be free, and it makes everybody aware, and in this awareness, maybe we have a better future.