"I Always Wanted to be a Cellist": Julian Rachlin In Interview
By Jens F. Laurson
In an this extensive and casual coonversation Jens F. Laurson and Julian Rachlin cover such topics as the challenges of romantic involvement with fellow musicians and discuss the Lithuanian-born violinist's love for other instruments and collaborations with actors.
I have only one excuse for being over half an hour late calling violinist Julian Rachlin for an interview at his Los Angeles hotel: “She was very charming, and very pretty, and needed to be walked home”. Incidentally, it’s an excuse that Rachlin — very amiable himself — immediately understands. “Although”, he adds laughing, “I’m a little bit jealous.”
This opening leads us a bit off-topic, in that we talk about romance among artists, something about which Rachlin knows a thing or two, having formed a couple with the equally talented and successful violinist Janine Jansen until a few years ago. Slightly behind on my classical music gossip, I had — somewhat embarrassingly — missed the fact they had split; a fact well disguised by their continued amicable chamber music-making.
So we go on about whether the positives of being with a partner who really understands the life, challenges, demands and pleasures of being a top-level soloist outweigh the possible friction of being with someone engaged in the same field. Rachlin’s response, initially phrased, “Eventually, it’s all about love,” sounds clichéd. But then, matters romantic often skirt cliché, and so do truisms. “For me, it would make no difference whether I’m together with a famous violinist or a banker or a baker; it’s about love and understanding each other.” While we still haven’t quite latched on to whether that all-important understanding is facilitated by doing the same job, he continues that specifically in his and Ms. Jansen’s case “it was great because there was never jealousy, because that is not at all our character…”
And he continues in more general terms that that’s one of the great virtues of the whole young generation of violinists, “because for several years now, there has been a tradition of musicians having chamber music festivals and inviting each other to those festivals. So when you run a chamber music festival and you are a violinist, you need at least another three, four violinists to come. So it’s a necessity that we have a very open dialog with each other. Now not every violinist is best friends with every other violinist; that’s obvious. But still, one of the wonderful things of this generation of violinists is that we really see each other during the year, a couple of times, and we make music together. And we do become much friendlier than some older generations of great violinists were with each other.”
“That’s not to say that we aren’t competitive,” he asserts. “Of course we are, and that’s good. You need it, in a way, because for as much as violin is an art, it is also a sport. You have to be training on a daily basis for many hours, and in that sense it was great to be together with someone like Janine, who is obviously one of the great musicians of today, and it was really inspiring for me. I learned a lot, because absent any jealousy, there was only support.”
Rachlin became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador January of this year, a project that he was introduced to by Sir Roger Moore. Moore is a close friend of Rachlin’s and they undertake different musical projects every year, from readings of letters from Mozart along with chamber music written at that time to more obvious actor-musician collaborations like the Carnival of the Animals or Peter and the Wolf.
“And this year we’ll do a new project which will be the late string quartet of Beethoven’s, op.130 with the Grosse Fuge as the final movement and Roger will read from the wonderful — well, maybe not ‘wonderful’; it’s actually quite sad — Heiligenstadt Testament. This is something I love doing, working with actors—partly because I just love movies, theater, cinema, actors… A lot of actors actually love classical music and obviously a lot of musicians love movies, but we don’t work together very often. So that’s become one of my hobbies, so to speak: to bring together musicians and actors who have interest in the others’ art form.”
“You’ve lived in Vienna since you were three”, I ask, “how much is there still a Lithuanian connection that you feel?”
“Leaving the Soviet Union back in the 70s, my parents had their passports taken away, so my family was not allowed to go back as long as Lithuania was part of the USSR. But when the Iron Curtain fell—or went up?—in 1990, I started going back there on a regular basis; I started working very closely with a wonderful chamber orchestra, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra which has a great tradition and is, objectively, one of the fine chamber orchestras in Europe. I have an especially strong bond with them and that basically lets me visit my original hometown Vilnius once a year. And since I’ve now become a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, I will be doing two to three projects a year in Vilnius. I still have an aunt and an uncle there—that’s not a lot of family left, but I do think it’s nice to go back to your roots even though I don’t speak Lithuanian but only Russian.”
Speaking of his Lithuanian background, I’m naturally intrigued if Rachlin might pick up any of Grażina Bacewicz’s concertos or sonatas, seeing how Bacewicz is nearly as Lithuanian as Rachlin, potentially the country’s greatest composer (assuming they’re willing to re-adopt her) and has written barnstorming violin concertos not yet widely played. As it turns out, Bacewicz hadn’t been on Rachlin’s performing-horizon yet, but his ears perk and before I know it I have my skin-deep knowledge of Bacewicz probed. Ditto when I bring up Mieczysław Weinberg because Rachlin professes his love for the viola repertoire (“I don’t travel anywhere without my viola these days; every recital I play something on it, and it makes up about a third of my performing career now”) and mentions Shostakovich several times.
Rachlin retells the Rostropovich-perpetuated story how Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was supposed to be a Cello Sonata for ‘Slava,’ but then re-conceived as a viola sonata because Shostakovich was afraid dedicating a work to the freshly emigrated cellist. Given that close relationship between Rachlin and Rostropovich and Rostropovich and Shostakovich, given Rachlin’s viola endeavors, and given his assertion that “I’m really, always interested in music that is not quite so popular or not so well known”, the Weinberg sonatas for solo viola—of which world premiere recordings have only just been released—seem another natural fit for Rachlin.
“Can I just mention,” Rachlin tries to squeeze a word in as I ramble on about Weinberg, “that there will be a new piece, kind of a Sinfonia Concertante, although probably not called that; written for violin, viola, and orchestra by Penderecki. That’s the result of me working together with Rostropovich and Penderecki in 2000 when we premiered Penderecki’s Sextet. We’ll have it premiered in 2012 with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I’ll take the viola part, Janine [Jansen] the violin part… although she can play the viola, too, when she wants to. And I wish she did it more often, because she’s great at it. But she’s too lazy. She says she doesn’t want to carry a double case.”
His latest recording project — not yet picked up by a label — centers around a chestnut: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (“the world premiere recording”, he jokes self-deprecatingly), coupled with the Piazzolla Four Seasons and poetry read by Roger Moore, performed with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra. Other projects may include coupling one of the Shostakovich violin concertos with the Bartók Viola Concerto.
Which brings us back to the viola and the reason he plays it: “I’m not a presenting myself as a violist, I’m not a violist; I know that. I’m a violinist; that’s the instrument I’ve been playing since I was three years old. But I’ve never encountered any jealousy among other violists about picking up ‘their’ instrument. Really, anybody who is excellent at what they do should not have any jealousy issues—and I’ve had a great time working with other violists like Yuri Bashmet on repertoire for two violas. Actually, the main reason why I play viola is that my favorite instrument is not the violin, nor the viola, but the cello. It has always been the cello. It’s just that for some reason I didn’t become a cellist. My father is a cellist, and becoming a cellist was always my dream. And I was always saying as a child: ‘oh, this violin business is all very nice, but of course I’ll be a cellist one day.’ It just never happened. So the viola is the only way to approach the cello and I actually try to play ‘cello’ both on the viola and also on the violin. I don’t consider myself a classic… you know… completely a violin-violinist.”
Via Bach Suites on the viola da spalla (as recently submitted, performed, and recorded by Sigiswald Kuijken) we arrive at his own arrangement of the Dvořák Cello Concerto for viola, a self-admittedly “crazy thing” he once did. “Of course it’s not as good as the original” he says almost apologetically, “but Dvořák loved the viola, he was a violist himself, and all his chamber music—oh, I love his chamber music—is very heavily viola-leaning.”
We briefly touch upon about his home town, Vienna: “There is a special quality to living in Vienna, where time seems to have stood still for two hundred years. To be in a place where taxi drivers philosophize to you about interpretations of classical music works and where in coffee houses people argue, highly agitated, about yesterday’s performance of this or that work. It’s nice, it means the music is still—truly—alive in some parts of the world.” By way of the upcoming Toch exhibition at the Jewish Museum, and how they have the most exquisite poppy seed strudel, we move on to his Festival in Dubrovnik, “Julian Rachlin & Friends”.
The Dubrovnik Festival, now a decade old and “on my mind 365 days a year”, takes place during the first two weeks of September in the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, the picturesque medieval sea port at the very southernmost tip of Croatia. “Since I don’t have children yet, I’d say it’s kind of my baby,” says Rachlin tenderly. “I’m in love with the city, I’m in love with the way the city feels, and when the possibility arose to start something there, I just went for it. We started very small, just with one piano, one viola, one cello, and myself—a piano quartet as the maximum and then playing around with all the different formations. And it’s very, very slowly grown since, but it’s still pretty small. One interesting project we have this year, apart from the Beethoven project with Roger Moore, is called ‘The Music Critic.’ We will play movements from famous pieces of music—Kreutzer Sonata, Brahms Cello Sonata, Chopin Grand Waltz, Giya Kancheli, Prokfiev, Yasÿe etc. and have John Malkovich read from reviews by critics and fellow composers that completely destroy and insult these pieces. We have wonderful letters from Brahms who hated Tchaikovsky [not much love lost the other way ‘round, either]. There will be a horrible review of me. Kancheli—who will be there and wrote a work for viola for me—was kind to give us a review where a piece of his was completely torn up… and the intention is not at all to say: ‘look how horrible these reviewers were’, but rather to have a laugh, to explore bad reviews, and to say: In a way, it has always been like this.”
Sounds like fun, if perhaps less for attending critics than the musicians. Apart from veteran composer Kancheli, Lera Auerbach and Richard Dubugnon—two composers Rachlin is very enthusiastic about—will also see works premiered at the upcoming Festival.
The website of the festival has just been updated to include all the information about the Festival concerts and tickets.
Send questions and comments to the Webmaster