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5.6.09

Sometimes the Beauty Isn't So Obvious - Interview with Violinist Carolin Widmann, Part 1

Salzburg’s New Mozarteum is an impressive building, surprisingly aesthetic for its bulky size and rigorous modernist concrete look. It contains a good sounding concert hall (Solitaire) with a spectacular view over the Mirabell Gardens over to the Mönchsberg. Waiting for violinist Carolin Widmann, I hear sounds coming from the Solitaire upstairs that evoke a group of musicians testing the exact breaking point of a piano, cello, and violin. It turns out to have been Widmann and company practicing Matthias Pintscher’s work Svelto. From the piano rooms in the back, faint sounds of a student practicing the same Schumann phrase over and over round out the delicate cacophony.

Finished with the rehearsal, Widmann looks exhausted and the sniffles indicate a cold on its way. I ask if she might not have something better to do than this interview now and whether she might like to reschedule. She perks and insists on the interview with surprisingly believable enthusiasm. Her zest does not wane for the next 50 minutes we spend in a clattery little café. The immediate, candid, and unpretentious charm of this rusty-red-haired artist with happy freckles is, if anything, enhanced by her appearance: Sweatpants, no makeup, and perfectly gorgeous.

We chose to speak in English since she splits her time between London (“life, pleasure”) and Germany (“work”), where she has a professorship at the Leipzig Conservatory that Mendelssohn founded in 1843. With an apologetic aside to her enlarged carbon-footprint, she extols the pleasures of being able to jet back and forth between European countries so easily. After shifting around the oversized Pintscher score, which is too large to fit on the table, and musing over the three dozen different variants of coffee being served in Austria (including the contemptuous looks one incurs when caught hesitating too long faced with the overwhelming amount of choices), we talk about Salzburg audiences. At her performance that opened the 2008 Salzburg Festival, 20 percent of the audience left during the first movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, disapproving of the music. The rest stayed, screamed, and gave standing ovations.



How difficult is it to get people to listen—much less like—real modern music if so many have problems even with the “classical” Messiaen? But Widmann doesn’t find that to be a problem at all, having experienced precisely the opposite. Obviously her audiences, knowing that Widmann stands for heavy doses of the contemporary amid her more traditional repertoire, expect some adventurous music and don’t represent the average concertgoers. But how does one convince the middle-ground listener—who is curious but unexposed and possibly still struggling with Bartók, much less Morton Feldman?

So far that’s not been too much of an issue for Widmann. Even the reaction of conservative audiences—presumably not those who run away mid-movement—surprise her positively with encouraging feedback, as they had a few weeks back when she played a mixture of Bach and Boulez to an audience at Schloss Elmau near Garmisch. The presenters were afraid of her programming choice, fearing spectacular failure. “In the end, I got nine curtain calls—and that was a hardcore Boulez program.” (Is there a non-hardcore Boulez program? “No, probably not.”) “You just have to present it right and not put it in a little apologetic corner; as a contemporary-music fig leaf.” She mocks a music festival that advertises contemporary-music recitals, tucked away at 11 at night, with the slogan “Only for the Curious.”

“Sure you have to be curious” she moans, “but to say only for the curious—I mean, that really sounds like ‘please don’t come’.”

“Perhaps I’m just ignorant of the people who hate modern music, but I receive so many e-mails of support.” She kept one e-mail in her Blackberry, though, that opened expressing general interest in attending one of her recitals but then changed its mind mid-sentence, ending with an unkind assessment of her repertoire, abrading her for all that “shitty contemporary music.”

“Maybe” she suggests, “that’s the ‘middle ground’ that you talk about. The people who suffer through Messiaen in 2008, who can’t take it anymore.” And if 95 percent of all listeners draw the line at or just after Bartók, she is sorry for that, but “I can’t help it.

“I can empathize with anybody who knows nothing about something else. I know nothing about a hundred-thousand things. But what I cannot empathize with is ignorance. And I am sorry to say that so many of those people are completely ignorant and they don’t listen with the openness that they would need and with the openness that they would claim to have for a Mozart symphony. And I believe that they are not even open to the Mozart symphony; they just shut off.

“Funny enough, I find that people who have nothing to do with music are much more tolerant and much more excited than people who go to classical concerts. Those are the worst. For example: when my CD came out, I played in a techno club in Berlin. I played Schumann for them, explaining that this guy is really amazing and that we have a lot in common with the emotions he expresses. They listened like the best audience. Drinks in their hands, smoking, sure, but they were absolutely amazing. I don’t care about the ritual of the concert atmosphere, either. Who cares if they hold beer bottles as long as they listen? So much music was written to be had with coffee and cake—it’s entertainment. We shouldn’t be afraid of entertaining, even if what we entertain with is ‘difficult.’

“And no, I don’t just do what I do because ‘enough’ people like what I do. Even if everybody hated it, I’d still do it, because I love it. Because I find that so many pieces are so ingenious—take the Six Caprices of Sciarrino or the Berio Sequenzas: absolutely on one level with Bartók or Ysaÿe. So for me, it’s essential to do it and I can’t care whether people like it or not. Early in life I was really tested with failure about where I wanted to go. And through this failure I learned that you cannot depend in your conviction and opinion on other people’s opinions. In not being recognized you have to define very carefully what it is that you believe in and what you do. And there were times when people didn’t like it—it was ungrateful at times. But now they seem to like it.”

When I suggest that people don’t listen to Mozart for the same reasons they listen to Pintscher—“Why not?”—she points out that’s perhaps the starting point: listening habits. “Whenever I get the choice of a recital program, I like to mix works. When you do a Debussy next to a Schoenberg, people go ‘Whoa! It really is the same.’” I point out that early Schoenberg, or Berg, or even Berio are not in the same difficulty league as, say, Brian Ferneyhough. At the mention of Ferneyhough’s name, Widmann wrinkles her nose and admits that she has plenty of difficulty with some contemporary music, too. “It might surprise you, but I have trouble with a lot of it and I think ‘why am I here—and do I have to spend any of my life’s time to play it?’ And very often I think ‘No, life is too short, I shouldn’t waste my time on it.’”

But being at the frontier of modern music also means holding back in judgment until one really knows a piece and can reasonably decide whether it is worth further exploration or not. The filtering job that history has done for us with classical music from past times still needs to be done for contemporary music, which makes judging and choosing more difficult. “I know that there are many pieces out there that might not survive for posterity, but I am playing them. Because I have to, because I don’t know until afterwards whether it is worth keeping.”


Part I --- continue to Part II