By Lawrence Van Gelder
Isabelle Faust speaks with Lawrence Van Gelder about Bach, the path to her Philharmonic debut, and her love for her violin.
This month, “Sleeping Beauty” comes to Avery Fisher Hall. Not on the arm of Prince Charming. Not on the twinkling toes of a prima ballerina. Rather, in the gifted hands of Isabelle Faust, the Sleeping Beauty is a violin. But more of that later.
The German violinist is making her debut with the New York Philharmonic, March 20–23, in the third orchestral program of The Bach Variations: A Philharmonic Festival. “This, for me,” said Ms. Faust, as she was anticipating her debut, “is a very exciting experience, and I’m very proud to be invited.”
In the concerts, led by Bernard Labadie, Ms. Faust is playing the Bach Violin Concertos in A minor and E major. “We haven’t worked together yet,” she says of the Quebec native, who specializes in the Baroque and Classical eras and has earned international renown for shedding new light on the music while paying homage to tradition. “I’ve heard a lot about him, and I’m very curious to come to this orchestra with this conductor to perform repertoire by Bach. It is always nice to have an orchestra that does not exclusively play Baroque music and also to benefit from the influence of a conductor who is very much working in the Baroque field,” Ms. Faust adds.
The feeling is mutual. Explaining how the engagement came about, Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s Vice President for Artistic Planning, explains: “Labadie wanted a violinist who was practiced in historically informed performances but who also has a sound that can fill a venue the size of Avery Fisher Hall. Ms. Faust fulfills both of those wishes, and we had already been looking for an opportunity to bring her to the Philharmonic.”
Of the two pieces she will be performing, Ms. Faust says: “Both of them are absolutely the most beautiful violin concerti I know. The E-major concerto has one of the most beautiful slow movements that exists for the violin.” Along with the A-minor — which she describes as “a little bit more interior” — she considers them to be “clear jewels” that speak to the audience for themselves.
Isabelle Faust, who is married to a Berlin Philharmonic stage manager and the mother of a teenage son, will celebrate her 41st birthday in New York on the day preceding her Philharmonic debut. She grew up in Stuttgart as the younger of the two children of Jurgen and Brigitte Faust. Her father taught high school English, French, and philosophy, and her mother, a pianist, taught in a music school; both parents took up stringed instruments while in their thirties. Ms. Faust’s brother, Boris, her senior by two years, is a violist.
“When I was five,” Ms. Faust recalls, “my parents asked me if I would like to do the same thing as my father. They took me to my father’s violin teacher. I did not learn to read music for the first few years,” she explains, likening her training to the Suzuki method. “He would play the tunes, and I would imitate him and learn by heart.” Then, when she was about 11, her parents found two other young musicians with whom she worked “very intensely,” as Ms. Faust puts it, for five years while she continued her schooling. “Every weekend there were rehearsals and lessons and competitions and successes. We discovered this incredible string quartet repertoire. Our love of music originated in chamber music.”
At age 15 Isabelle Faust struck out on her own, “to see what my solo playing level was like compared to others. I decided to play in a competition, and I unexpectedly won.” After her triumph at the Leopold Mozart Competition in Augsburg, Germany, she remembers, “I suddenly began to play with orchestras, but very carefully and with a lot of time to prepare my solo concerti.”
This brings us to the “Sleeping Beauty.” The name refers to a Stradivarius that, Ms. Faust explains, was forgotten for 150 years, hidden in a private villa in Germany. Brought out from repose, it was played for a few years by a concertmaster in Switzerland until 1996, when it came to Ms. Faust (on loan), who was the first international soloist to perform with it. “When I first got it,” she recalls, “it felt like an instrument that was asleep. It really developed a lot over the first five years.
“We are an old couple now,” she says happily, “quarreling through the day.”
Lawrence Van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to WQXR; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
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