Georgian Violinist to perform with New York Philharmonic: Lisa Batiashvili on Violins, Ukraine and Gergiev
02 February, 2015
Georgian Violinist to perform with New York Philharmonic: Lisa Batiashvili on Violins, Ukraine and Gergiev
Politics Is Personal, and Professional

The New York Times report about Lisa Batiashvili, the 35-year-old Georgian violinist who is this season’s artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic and will perform Barber’s Violin Concerto with that orchestra this week. Accrding to New York Times, she “is an eloquent musician. In concert and on award-winning recordings, she has captivated critics and audiences with her natural elegance, silky sound and the meticulous grace of her articulation. There is a laserlike directness
to her playing that enables her to transmit concentrated emotions without a trace of affectation or theatrics: the musical equivalent to laparoscopic surgery.

In conversation, Ms. Batiashvili exhibits many of the same qualities. Soft-spoken but determined, she speaks as openly about the political responsibilities of an artist as she does about her personal relationship to Bach’s music — the subject of her latest recording and of coming performances with the Philharmonic — and the unhealthy obsession of the violin world with the instruments of Antonio Stradivari.

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“Culture has a lot of power,” she said during a recent interview in New York. “It’s about having a positive or negative influence on the world.”
Ms. Batiashvili tested that power last September, when she was invited to perform with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev. Mr. Gergiev has close ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and had signed a letter endorsing his country’s annexation of Crimea. He had also thrown his weight behind Mr. Putin’s policies in 2008 in the conflict with Ms. Batiashvili’s native Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, where Russia has stationed soldiers.

Ms. Batiashvili, who has vowed not to perform in Russia, was conflicted: “I didn’t want to be part of this whole society of musicians who actually disagree with him totally about his position, about his support of Putin, but don’t ever say anything.” So she agreed to play in the concert but prepared a gesture of protest that was characteristically elegant. She commissioned an encore for solo violin from a Georgian composer, Igor Loboda, titled “Requiem for Ukraine,” which she performed after her concerto — as Mr. Gergiev stood in the wings.

In a telephone interview, Juliette Hurel, the principal flutist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, recalled the performance as “really moving” and described a deep silence that settled over the auditorium. “When she spoke to the audience before playing, I could tell she was very emotional,” Ms. Hurel said. “I know her as a friend, and I saw she had to take a few deep breaths. Afterward, I said to her, ‘It is fantastic to have the courage to do that.’ ”

Ms. Batiashvili said that after the concert, Mr. Gergiev, “poker-faced,” invited her to dinner. She showed up late, finding him at ease, surrounded by friends, telling stories. He invited her to play with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, of which he is the general and artistic director, she said. “I didn’t tell him no to his face,” she said. “Then two days later, I passed a message through my agent refusing.”

Nino Gvetadze, a Georgian pianist who lives in the Netherlands and has also turned down opportunities to play in Russia, called Ms. Batiashvili a role model. “We all have our agencies and impresarios that advise you to do certain things,” Ms. Gvetadze said. “For some people, it’s very difficult to turn these engagements down. But it’s about how you want to build your career, whether you want to sacrifice your ideals for the sake of a step up on the career ladder. Lisa has been really clear about her choices.”

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For Ms. Batiashvili, Western audiences and arts presenters, by attending and booking concerts by Russian artists who are vocally loyal to Mr. Putin’s policies, are complicit in the repercussions of those policies. Why, she asked, is Mr. Gergiev such an important figure in the music world? “Because the Western countries have been so supportive of him,” she said. And that fame, she added, is exploited by Mr. Putin.

In a follow-up telephone interview last month, she elaborated: “With this Western civilization under attack from all sides, it is not right that artists who benefit from its freedom, its democracy and the richness of its cultural institutions should take sides with a system that is the enemy of that civilization.” When I told Ms. Batiashvili that the following day Mr. Gergiev was to accept a Ford Honors Distinguished Artist Award on the behalf of his Mariinsky Orchestra from the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society, she reacted with a dry laugh. (Mr. Gergiev declined to comment for this article.)

Ms. Batiashvili’s career took off at a steep angle when, at the age of 16, she won second prize in the Sibelius Competition and began to give upward of 40 concerts a year, even as she continued her studies. By then, her family had moved to Germany — a country she was drawn to after falling in love with the victorious West German soccer team during the 1990 World Cup — and she eventually made her home in Munich. At 23, she met her husband, François Leleux, an exceptionally poetic oboist; they now have two children.

On her recent CD “Bach,” Ms. Batiashvili and Mr. Leleux team up in the exquisite double concerto for oboe and violin as well as in a moving rendition of the aria “Erbarme dich” from the “St. Matthew Passion,” in which Mr. Leleux plays the alto solo on oboe d’amore.

“We are always on the same page, not only in the private life but also musically,” Mr. Leleux said in a phone interview. “If you look at the harmony of Bach and the incredible perfection in the construction of his music, it is important to be able to play this music with a very light articulation and at the same time not disturb this amazing balance which Bach — and only Bach — had. For that, you need a very special sense of aesthetic of sound and phrasing in relation with the harmony. I must say that Lisa has always had these qualities since I’ve known her. What is absolutely exceptional in her playing is the incredible balance between expression and respect for the text.”

But Ms. Batiashvili said it took time and experimentation for her to feel ready to record Bach. When she did, she said, “something spiritual happened to me — people are religious or not, but Bach makes you believe in something for sure.”

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Last August, she and Mr. Leleux performed at the Prinsensgracht Concert, part of a large open-air festival in Amsterdam. Just weeks earlier, nearly 200 Dutch citizens had been killed when a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over a contested area of eastern Ukraine, and the mood in the country was somber. Ms. Batiashvili dedicated “Erbarme dich” to the victims. During her short speech to the audience, she said: “I realized what an incredible strength and power this music has. At that point, Bach became for me a symbol of surviving. His music gives me a lot of strength.”

Onstage chemistry is important to Ms. Batiashvili, not only in performance with her husband but also in the interaction with a conductor. (It’s a point Ms. Gvetadze also made with regard to politics when she said: “It’s very difficult to make music with people who you know think radically differently. When you make music, you have to become one.”)

Among the conductors she is especially close to, Ms. Batiashvili cites Christian Thielemann, whom she likens to “a racecar”; Daniel Barenboim (“a grand master”); and Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, whom she calls “an amazing conductor because I feel so comfortable playing with him.” When that dynamic is off, she said, “it’s difficult to do what you want to do: You’re not carried; you have to drive the car yourself.”

As artist in residence with the Philharmonic, Ms. Batiashvili said she has relished the chance to build on a deep relationship: In April at Avery Fisher Hall, she will perform her 50th concert with the orchestra. During that run of concerts, she will perform the American premiere of a double concerto for violin and oboe written for her and her husband by the French composer Thierry Escaich. In March, she will make her New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall in a program with the pianist Paul Lewis.

Ms. Batiashvili is committed to new music and has recorded works by Magnus Lindberg and by Georgian composers including Giya Kancheli and Sulkhan Tsintsadze. But she feels equally comfortable responding to the consistent demand for performances of the standards.

“I don’t sit down before a concert and decide to do something differently,” she said. “Usually you have your own feelings, and if you have a good conductor and orchestra you go with the flow. If you free yourself from fear, it will always be authentic.”

To achieve that freedom, Ms. Batiashvili said, also requires the right instrument. She has found hers in the form of a 1739 Guarneri del Gesù violin lent to her by a private collector. She was never as comfortable with her previous instruments, including two Stradivarius violins with impeccable pedigrees. “These great violins have so much personality,” she said. “It’s almost like meeting a person. It’s either in conflict or in harmony.”

To young performers eager to get their hands on a first-rate instrument, she has a message that may be just as valid when it comes to making music and building a career. “It’s not about holding a Strad in your hand,” she said. “It’s about finding your own voice,” the New York Times informs.



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