Recordings


1. You have been awarded with Grammy two times and nominated four times. What does it actually mean to get the Grammy in the world of classical music these days?
It is super exciting to win something as high-profile as a Grammy award; it helps a performer to realize that his or her work is noticed and appreciated, and that is important. On a practical level, a Grammy can give audience members and record companies more faith in the artist and encourage potential concertgoers to explore an artist they may not be familiar with. It’s kind of a stamp of approval.

There are many albums that could and should win awards that don’t, for whatever reason. It’s impossible to predict why certain ones will win at certain times, so I am grateful when I do win something, because it is not an experience that is ever guaranteed.


2. Why did you choose Bach as your debut recording? People may think it adventurous.

I’m not sure something is adventurous when it’s what just makes the most sense! I’d played more of Bach’s works than those of any other individual composer at the time of my first album: all of the sonatas and partitas, most of the concertos, and the Brandenburg concerti. I’d also played the Bach solo works frequently in concert, and performance is an important factor in my pre-recording preparation. At the time I made that recording, many people believed that interpretation of some composers was an age-related issue, but I’ve never thought that needed to be the case. One can perform things badly at any age, just as one can have experience with music at any age.

3. In regard to your next CD release, of the violin concertos of Jennifer Higdon and Tchaikovsky, we are interested to hear about how the recording progressed. Can you share with us what ideas and concepts of yours are portrayed in the recording?
That is a difficult topic to put into words. Recordings are so complex in all ways: how they come to be, how they are made, the mindsets of the musicians, and the interpretive decisions required from the artists. In this particular recording, there is also the interesting experience of recording a new piece for the first time.

The composer of the new concerto, Jennifer Higdon, was one of my best and most influential academic teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music; she introduced me to so much of my knowledge about 20th-century music through her class. This concerto is one she wrote for me, something that we were looking forward to for a long time. After I recorded it, while the album was still in post-production, I was touring New Zealand when I got a call that Jennifer’s concerto had just won a Pulitzer. I had never been party to a project that received anything like a Pulitzer before, and it had never occurred to me that that could happen. Everyone was in a tizzy and reporters were asking for quotes, radio stations wanted excerpts of the piece to play on air, and it was total happy chaos across time zones.

The Tchaikovsky is a piece I learned with my beloved violin teacher Jascha Brodsky; I had been familiar with it from early childhood. Once I had learned it, I accidentally took at least a decade’s break from it. When I returned to it, in my mid-twenties, I had the fortune of rediscovering one of the giants of the standard violin repertoire. I remembered what I had learned, but I could also form new ideas of my own. It was a great experience.

And behind the scenes: the producer and engineer on this album are both long-time colleagues, as is the photographer who took the pictures for the booklet.
Whenever I make a recording, I invest a lot of artistic energy into it. That means of course that the concepts and ideas portrayed in it are ones that represent me in general. I try to play the pieces the way I’d like to hear them, and I try to do my best in every step of the process. I think of recordings like concerts: they’re a representation of an interpretation on one particular day. But they’re different in that I can hear my playing played back to me afterwards, so that I become both listener and performer.

4. How did you meet Jennifer Higdon?
I was Jennifer’s student at Curtis in her 20th century music history class – it was still 1990-something at the time. So Jennifer Higdon basically introduced me to my attitude towards the whole body of work from the 20th century – she got me familiar with everything in that whole group of pieces.
Every week she would focus on one or two composers. We had two classes a week, and in each class she would play the music all class and write facts up on the board. We were never tested on the facts of the composers; we were tested more on how well we absorbed what we were listening to. The tests weren’t nerve-wracking; she would ask us compose a theme in the style of one of the composers we’d been listening to, one that really resonated with us. Or, if we were studying percussion one month, she’d ask us to write a piece for percussion, no longer than three minutes, and perform it in class.
It was probably the lowest “fact” class that I’ve taken, and the highest “content,” because when we were listening, we could form our own opinions. We also talked about what we were listening to, as we heard it. If anyone had any questions, we could raise our hands. If there was a particular element, compositional style, or a particular unique aspect of a certain piece, she would point it out as it appeared in the music, as we were listening. Being exposed to this music by a composer was liberating and eye-opening at the same time.
So I had that history with her: that was the first time I was in her musical world for an extended period of time.
Then I did a piece by (Higdon) with some friends of mine at Curtis, called Dark Wood. It was for bassoon and piano trio. That was probably the first piece of new chamber music I’d played in which I knew the person who had written it.

5. We heard that the Higdon was composed for and dedicated to you. Are you enthusiastically undertaking modern works? How do modern works influence your activities?
I have a thorough approach to new works: I perform them many times in consecutive seasons, so that they begin as full a life as possible as soon as possible. This means that I don’t do as many new works as I could, because all of those performances take time, but I feel very good about the new pieces that I do get involved in.
From composers, I learn a lot about creativity and methods. I also find their ideas and company stimulating. Whenever I have a discussion with a composer, or a visual artist or a dancer or actor or (classical or non-classical) musician or sculptor or writer, it makes me think about how I can incorporate their concepts into my interpretive artistic life. I consider myself lucky to have contact with different kinds of musicians and artists; I am a better – and more fulfilled – musician for it.

6. I know that you really enjoy playing some of the lesser-known concertos, such as Sibelius and Schoenberg. How do you feel about playing the Tchaikovsky?
Sibelius is considered lesser-known?
I like to learn as many pieces as possible, as long as I enjoy them to start with. That is, I only avoid repertoire I don’t like at all – and there isn’t much of that. For some fortunate reason, I love most of the violin repertoire.
For me, to really know a piece, I have to perform it a certain amount. Therefore, I’ve worked into my concert schedule many concertos and sonatas that others might not play so often. It keeps me on my toes. Every time I change repertoire, I have to rethink my interpretations, because how I view each piece I play is influenced by the decisions I’ve made in the pieces I’ve played beforehand. That said, I don’t spend just a week on this work and a week on that, hopping incessantly through the repertoire. I need to give each interpretation a certain amount of time to develop, week after week and month after month. That’s only healthy.
Much as it’s important to me to play all different kinds of works, it’s crucial to return to pieces that form the backbone of the repertoire: the warhorses, like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. Returning to great, oft-interpreted music time and time again helps me to understand my growth as a musician. And it’s just so much fun to play something I’ve heard and dreamed of learning from an early age. I feel lucky when I’m onstage playing a concerto like the Tchaikovsky with a great orchestra, for an audience that loves every phrase he wrote.

7. What was the main kick for you in getting in the studio with the alternative band …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, and performing on the stage with other folk/rock artists?
For me, a colleague is a colleague, regardless of musical or artistic genre. I like learning from other artists’ creative processes. Working with non-classical musicians pushes me to improvise and listen in a different way, and that helps me when I return to classical music. I really find myself appreciating the genius of many composers I took for granted in the past. But I am at heart a classical musician and proud of it, and the overwhelming majority of the work I do is in classical music.