Culture

Ensuring Each Note Has Meaning

Irina Bagauri
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“In the West everyone thinks that I had an unhappy childhood, however, I remember that time as a very happy period. I had an intense childhood and had many friends. That played a big role in my life.” That is how Liza Batiashvili, one of the most in-demand violinists of modern times, began talking about her early childhood years spent in Georgia. She was born to a family of musicians in Tbilisi and started playing the violin, as she says, by imitating her father’s students. Her family then moved to Germany in the early 1990s and it was there that Liza Batiashvili chose her profession of a musician.

Liza Batiashvili is a musician of emotion. Despite her young age, her name is associated with quality. She is known throughout the world as a deep and sensitive musician and has been invited to perform with some of the greatest musicians on the largest stages. As childhood often leaves the longest-lasting mark on a person’s life, we started our interview with her recollecting her early years:

“My most vivid recollections of childhood are associated with my father, his concerts, his pupils visiting him for practice, and also the dolls that he used to bring me from abroad. I spent a lot of time playing with those toys and it was at that time that I first started thinking and realizing that something special was taking place in the West, where those dolls were manufactured.

“I was born in a very interesting period. It was during the final years of the Soviet Union and communism, the turning point when these things began to fall apart. I was ten years old at that time and I vividly remember Georgia’s intensive fight for independence on April 9 [1989, when an anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi was dispersed by the Soviet Army, resulting in 20 deaths and hundreds of injured]. After moving to Germany, politics totally dropped out of my life because very few people show interest towards politics, in general, in Germany. However, the period of adaptation was rather difficult; it proved especially difficult for my parents. We missed the Georgian climate and the warmth of human relations very much. The German mode of life starkly differs from that in Georgia and we appeared unprepared for that.”

The country you live in – Germany – is distinguished for its musical traditions. You interact with many colleagues of different nationalities and from various schools: you were raised in a family of Georgian musicians and your husband, François Leleux, is a famous French oboist. What is the difference between the Soviet and Western schools of music? Is there anything that you studied in Germany that you would not have been able to study in Georgia?

“In general, I was of a more European type from the very beginning because I was not very fond of the Soviet style of performance, even though the bases which my first teacher – my father – gave me were very important. The Soviet school had a very strong technical base, but as regards an interpretation of the classical repertoire – Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven – I actually learned all that in the West: the perception of music here totally differs from the Soviet system. I spent quite a long time, of course, in finding my style, but I could feel that Germany was the homeland of these composers. Even though I had played the violin since childhood, there was a period in my life when I was not 100-percent sure about my future choice. However, the musicians and teachers I met here made it easy for me to take the decision to continue playing the violin.”

What is the approach towards the technical side of music and the process of practice? Is it compulsory in Europe for children to practice eight hours a day as is customary in the Soviet school of music, regardless of the fact that such a workload is undesirable for younger children?

“No, this is not the case here at all. In my childhood the music and the technique were two very separate things. I only realized in Germany that all this must come together. Here people spend much less time on practicing, but when they do practice, it is much more targeted. Fortunately, time has changed much. In my childhood the Soviet, European, Asian, and American schools each differed from one other very much. Now people travel so extensively that these differences in signatures are becoming less apparent. I think that this is a very good development: we no longer have different schools, but we have musicians who have learned something everywhere.”

The staff of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are a paragon of how amazing people can work together in team to make miracles. In general, unity is a characteristic trait of Germans; this can be well seen in their football too.

The musical instruments she has been entrusted with are also distinguished. She performed on stage with a violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari for many years. The instrument she was just recently handed was crafted by Giuseppe Guarneri, Stradivari’s contemporary and a legendary craftsman of string instruments. Apart from the fact that they produce amazing sounds, playing such historic instruments doubles the responsibility of a musician:

“I have played several Stradivari violins and can say that the better the violin, the more intensively you have to work because the instrument demands it. The Guarneri violin I play now is even more interesting for me. I think this is an instrument which will advance me further. Such a violin helps a musician to express their talent and emotions to the fullest extent; and it adds hues to your performance that the audience can appreciate.”

To a question as to how she prepares to master a new piece of music and from where the depth that distinguishes her performances from those of other performers comes from, Liza Batiashvili replied:

“When I play Shostakovich or Prokofiev, these are, of course, directly linked to our Soviet past and the people who experienced that regime. This is easier for me because I remember some things from that life. As regards the classical repertoire – Brahms, Beethoven – their music carries those hues and feelings that exist inside all of us. The most difficult thing for a musician to do on stage is to convey what he/she wants to say to the audience. The process of expressing oneself is associated with numerous technical and emotional difficulties. Emotions come not only from one’s own experience, but are also the result of hard work: working on yourself, practicing consciously, developing intellectually. All this helps to ensure that, while on stage, each note has meaning.

“Whenever you are performing a piece of music, it is I think necessary to have information about its author, though often contact with the author is established intuitively. I often fail to explain why this is the case. For example, the music of Schubert and Brahms makes me very happy. I like performing them. Although I might not be very familiar with their biographies, I somehow associate them with my character. Today it is very difficult to play Bach – a couple of days ago I recorded a CD of Bach – there are so many diverse interpretations of this composer that it took me quite a while to find the key to his creative works.

“At first glance, I do not have any favorite composers; today, musicians must be very versatile. We play everything – musical pieces by baroque, romantic, classical and modern composers and, naturally, we must be fond of whatever we play, otherwise we will fail. But, of course, Brahms, Bach, Schubert, and Mozart were geniuses, their compositions incite such awe in me that I have a constant feeling that we, ordinary people, mean absolutely nothing standing before those who have written such wonderful music.”

Liza Batiashvili Photo: Anja Frers / DG
Liza Batiashvili cooperates with leading world orchestras and her relationships and communication with these people, and their assessments of her, are especially valuable:

“One person I always learn something from, and from whom I get immense happiness interacting with, is [pianist and conductor] Daniel Barenboim; Alfred Brendel, who, unfortunately, quit playing but to date remains the most beloved pianist of many Germans, has often supported me in both human and professional terms; Christian Thielemann, a conductor with whom I recorded a Brahms concert, is an absolute genius and a great performer of German music; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra... It is difficult to express in words the charge these people possess and pass onto you. I also want to say that my husband, François Leleux, is very dear to me and is a very interesting musician.

“As regards orchestras, the staff of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are a paragon of how amazing people can work together in team to make miracles. In general, unity is a characteristic trait of Germans; this can be well seen in their football too. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is that sort of a team which makes you feel as if they are elevating you to heaven when you perform with them as a soloist. Working with them is the peak of happiness for me.”

Liza Batiashvili’s schedule is busy until 2016. She travels extensively, but even though the demand for her is great, she often has to turn down offers. She tries not to perform more than 60 concerts a year. Otherwise she thinks that she will not be able to offer the same quality of performance to audiences, and no less important for her is the time she spends with her children.

“For me, personally, happiness is not in performing many concerts, but to perform on those stages where I want to perform. Naturally, I could do 150 concerts a year, but in such a case I would not be able to have a family. My attitude towards family is something that I inherited from Georgia. Of course, they have children here [in Germany] too, but they view their careers as more important and create families at a later age. For me, however, despite my busy schedule, it was very important to have children and it is important for me to be with them too.

“As regards my favorite audiences, Berlin and New York are the two cities where I am most glad to play. This is something that everyone would say, but I really mean that. I have many friends in both cities; the people there live with interesting music and, more importantly, Berlin and New York have very free, undogmatic listeners who – although having the opportunity to attend amazing concerts every day, and they indeed do so – are way freer than the audiences in smaller cities and countries who sometimes have excessively critical and conservative approaches to music.”

Although Liza Batiashvili spent three years living near Paris in France, today she is living in Munich again. In recent years we have often seen her in Georgia as well.

“I spent three positive years in France, but soon I realized that Munich, where my husband and I had chosen to live, was more favorable for our family. I have traveled to many countries and I think that Germany is an ideal country for musicians and artists.

“Even though I am Georgian, and this is something noted in every article written about me, I have always felt that the Germans have supported me most in my creative advancement: morally, with stipends, and by seeking sponsors. This country is very important for me, it was this country that helped me to embark on this path.

“In Georgia the situation is a bit difficult; many things are changing. There was a period when I developed very close links with my country. From 2005 to 2010, I wanted very much to arrive in Georgia to play; to support the Zakaria Paliashvili Central Music School, which, of course, I still continue to do now – not only because my mother, father and I graduated from this school, but because this is a school that Georgia must preserve. I am sorry that it is in a difficult situation today, regardless of the fact that it was given a new building. Georgia and the Georgian language are also important for my children. I try to take them to Georgia at least once a year. Although they are growing up in Europe, and will probably stay here forever, it is necessary for them not to forget where their mother is from.

“I also deem it necessary to perform Georgian music. I often play miniatures by [Gia] Kancheli, [Sulkhan] Tsintsadze as well as compositions by [Aleksi] Machavariani. I think that I must support, as much as I can, the continuation of these musical traditions.”

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