Interview with a famous violinist: Wanda Wilkomirska

 

Wanda Wilkomirska is one of the most influential and internationally acclaimed violinists of modern times; even now at the age of 78 she is very active as a teacher, both at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and overseas. I was very privileged to be able to interview her.

What would you say have been the highlights of your career?

I would say there are many, so I can say it is not only “highlight”, it is also like the next step on the ladder; for example, the final concert in Wieniawski Competition which was 1952, when I first time played my Szymanowski First Concerto which later brought me lots of success. That was a highlight. Then, playing first concert in new rebuilt Warsaw, National Philharmonic in 1955. All this kinds of opening; like my first recital, the first recital ever given at the new [Sydney] Opera House.

My first recital in Wigmore Hall in London, when I was 21. My first concert with New York Philharmonic, for example. They are all highlights, and maybe only twice in my long life I had the kind of trance when playing that I only heard the first note – and then 25 minutes later, I heard my last notes, and I heard [cheering and applauding noises]. To open the new Barbican Hall in London with Sir Barbirolli conducting – those things, they are very important.

You studied in Poland, Hungary and Paris. How would you compare the three?

It’s difficult to compare, because in Poland I had several teachers…I graduated very early, when I was…seventeen…I noticed they really prepared soloists. But in Hungary, it was postgrads, and I had fantastic teacher, Ed Zathurecki, he was student of Hubay…and he opened me so many windows. But the last contact, in Paris, was not really like studies…I had a concert in Paris, with National Polish Orchestra, and Henryk Szeryng, he came behind the stage to the Green Room to us, and asked like this, “Why don’t you come and have lessons with me?” I told him, “First of all, I have no visa, and second I have no money.” So he told me, “Look, what you mean no visa, now you are here, you have two more concerts with the orchestra and then the orchestra goes back and you stay here.” And then afterwards, he did some hocus-pocus, I don’t know, abracadabra with the Consulate, that I really stayed for three months…and he arranged for me some little room in some friends’ apartment and I has as many lessons as he could manage.

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Warsaw, Stefan Marczyk | Source: wandawilkomirska.com

That must have been wonderful. – You have played in some of the best concert halls in the world. Do you have a favourite among these?

Well, that’s difficult to say, because I tell you, they are all so wonderful, and I played in so many. Concertgebouw [Amsterdam] is, for example, wonderful hall, and I also adored Royal Festival Hall [London]…it was there that for the first time I heard my idol Vladimir Horowitz playing. I loved Carnegie Hall, it was a symbol. I have to confess that I love Sydney Concert Hall [Opera House]. And the halls which I opened, for example the Barbican [London].

What were your first impressions of the Sydney Opera House?

I was so, so ecstatic that I see this building. I remember when I first was here, they just started speaking about it, it was ’69. That was my first tour here, of 37 concerts, imagine. And then they asked me to come in this opening season. And when I saw it I was speechless.

Warsaw 1962, Wanda Wilkomirska with her brother and sister | Image source: wandawilkomirska.com
Warsaw 1962, Wanda Wilkomirska with her brother and sister  Source: wandawilkomirska.com

How was it working with such great conductors as Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Otto Klemperer, Zubin Mehta, and Sir John Barbirolli? Were they easy to cooperate with?

It was exhilarating…and how it started, sometimes it started with…I would say, with quarrel. I was young, and full of…respect and I felt so humble, when I start with a Klemperer, who says, “Very good, my child.” – In German of course. I was then…nineteen. But with Bernstein, we started, and it was only once. And it was because I already had some self-confidence, self-confidence that I want it so or not so. It was after my debut, and he wanted me for some television concert. We played the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and they took a tempo which was faster than the police allowed. Of course, I managed to play it…but I wandered through this big hall to Maestro Bernstein. I said, “Excuse me, isn’t it too fast? Because it is a kopak, it is a Russian dance.” He looked at me and said, “What do you mean, ‘too fast’? Is it too fast for you?” I said, “No, no, no, Maestro! It is too fast for Tchaikovsky!” …I tell you one thing, it was the last time I ever played with Bernstein.

But Sir John Barbirolli, he wanted me to play with him in Edinburgh Festival, very famous festival, and he wanted me to learn Britten Concerto. I remember first rehearsal. He stopped me after two pages, maybe, and said, “No, no, don’t do this ritenuto, it’s not good.” I say, “Yes, sir.” Then we go on and he stops me again, and says, “I would not do it…leave it, leave it.” And I say, “Yes…yes, Sir John.” But the third time, when he told me again, “My child, no, we will do big ritenuto,” I said, “No, Sir John, I wouldn’t like it, there is not…composer didn’t write ritenuto.” And he said, “Don’t quarrel with me!” Then I said, “Sir John, I’m awfully sorry, of course you are a great musician, and I am a young violinist, and you probably have the right…picture…of this concerto. But I have a picture of this concerto, and I cannot just give everything up. Sir John, would you like to have a soloist who always says, ‘yes, yes, yes’?” He said, “My child, you have something here [indicates head]. We don’t do it [the ritenuto]…” And since then, there was not a season I had no concert with Sir John. And he invited me when the Barbican was opened, to be a soloist. So you understand. Two different reactions from two different people.

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Musikverein, Vienna, with Wolfgang Sawallisch | Source: wandawilkomirska.com

That’s very interesting. You used to judge many important violin competitions in Europe. What sort of qualities in a competitor made you choose them to go into the finals?

You mean when one is in juries? – I tell you something very important. It depends, I’m sorry to say, on who sits on the panel. There are always many people, with different priorities, and different preferences. There are some who cannot forget…some…little unhappy mistake…couple of wrong octave… For me, the most important is to show personality.

And what is your favourite repertoire?

Ah, it is so big, if I start telling you…I couldn’t, I only know one thing: that if the people would leave me on the island, lonely island, and tell me, “You can only have one composer,” I would live on Bach. Because then if I could play only Bach I could play both ways, so fake Baroque …and then Romantic. This is the timeless composer, absolutely timeless. So this kind of chromatic, and dissonances, he allowed himself…you understand…he should be burned like a witch, or something. But I don’t know how I survive without Brahms, how I survive without Bartok, Prokofiev…I love the most – even if Bach is this choice if I could only have one composer – I love the most the 20th century music.

Your recordings of Ravel, Bartok, Khachaturian and Szymanowski make that easy to believe! During your amazing career, have you ever felt nervous?

You should rather ask if I was ever not nervous. I was not nervous as a child. But now it is something totally different. The best times of my life when I really played very well and knew these pieces – I can play violin, and I know this piece – and still, I know nothing…it is…nerves. I remember that my students asked me, “Can you please teach me how not to be nervous?” I said, “No. I cannot teach you how not to be. I can teach you how to play with stage fright…just like you have to learn how to accept things, I accept that I am awfully nervous – I accept it, okay. So I have to play, being nervous. If you cannot play your best because you are nervous…nobody and nothing can disturb you so not to let you play beautiful. You can always play beautiful.”

Thank you very much for your words of wisdom. It’s been really wonderful talking to you.

Appearance emotionalism, a.k.a. the “doggy” theory

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According to Stephen Davies, music is no more expressive of emotion than is the droopy-eared, sad-eyed physiognomy of the basset hound. We read emotion into music (and into the mournful looks of dogs) simply because it resembles the outward appearance of human expressivity. For example, music that is fast and/or makes expansive gestures may seem to be happy, because a happy person often has a spring in his or her step and makes expansive gestures. For Davies [1] and also for Kivy [2], the only genuine emotion elicited by music is the sense of contentment engendered by the listener’s appreciation of the aesthetic properties of a particular work.

Needless to say, the theory of appearance emotionalism has been soundly rebutted by the likes of Jenefer Robinson and Robert S. Hatten [3]. Empirical evidence [4] proves that music is able to arouse emotion in listeners far beyond the joyful feelings of the aesthetician – it can even evoke emotions as subtly shaded as nostalgia, tenderness, and triumph. [5]Nonetheless, musical emotion continues to be an elusive subject. This is unsurprising, as emotion itself is difficult to study or even define. As Fehr and Russell have observed, “everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition.” [6]

But returning to the so-called “doggy” theory of appearance emotionalism…reading about it made me google “basset hound” – one of the results is displayed above. Surely those sad eyes do not lie.

On the denial of death, modern and early modern

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What is death? In our everyday lives, is it ever more than an idea? In our century, it would appear not. In The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance, Robert N. Watson vividly illustrates how abstract mortality has become by using a counterexample:

A few years ago, one of my teaching assistants convinced her husband, an evolutionary biologist, to lend her the human skull from his lab collection so that she could confront her discussion section on Hamlet with the shock of the thing itself, unaccommodated death, a little touch of Yorick in the late afternoon. The class passed the skull around with all due reverence, until one amazed student managed to ask the teaching assistant where she could possibly have acquired it. She, not thinking of course about how it would sound, replied cheerfully, “Oh, it’s my husband’s.” (11-12)

It may be a good joke to us, but it is less so for the students. Death is concretised not once, but twice: first, through contact with the skull itself, and then when the common-garden human fossil seems to become the specific leftover of the TA’s unfortunate spouse.

The fact is, we like to turn a blind eye on death. We are regularly exposed to images of violent death through the media; these distance us from our own mortality rather than making us appreciate its significance. Popular murder mysteries such as Midsomer Murders, Poirot, and Marple shield us from the reality of death – after all, what we seek is the mild thrill associated with the creak of a wheelbarrow being pushed past dimly lit thatched-roof cottages (a wheelbarrow that may – or may not – contain a body). We do not seek to be reminded that one day, our time on this earth must end. Death is entertaining, an amusement. Even when it is not – as in the news – we rarely see past its pixelated representation.

This capacity to deny the reality of death is a survival mechanism we share with our early modern ancestors. The proliferation of death imagery during the Renaissance would seem to suggest that the people of Europe felt a more urgent need to control the fear of death than ever before. During the Middle Ages, artists depicted Death as a coward, emasculated by the triumph of Christ (for Chaucer Death was a “privee thief”), but in the Renaissance Death was portrayed in a more fierce light. Realistic images of skulls, skeletons, cadavers, and so on replaced the skinny black man of previous centuries.

Such memento mori devices were ostensibly designed to perpetuate the fear of death; they were in accordance with the Christian message captured in Ecclesiastes 7:40, “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” Yet these same devices were so ubiquitous that they came to be overly familiar. The idea of death was no longer a threatening one. Mortality personified became so mundane that the reality of corporeal finitude was easily overlooked. Death was even portrayed in the character of the beloved – bridegroom or bride, fondly escorting his or her lover into eternity.

For Ernst Becker, whose pioneering work The Denial of Death has been hugely influential in the field of psychology, the basic human need to forget about death stems from a paradox: “[man] is out of nature yet hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.” [1] But this truth is hardly a discovery of the twentieth century, although the theorising about it may be new. In the late 1860s, Tolstoy wrote that “we are two things – children of the earth here and now, and children of the universe in eternity.” [2] Shakespeare’s Hamlet (who else?) comments that “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” – presumably due to the “quintessence of dust” (alas, poor Yorick).

Whether our fate is that of the embodied soul or the brainy animal, can we ever quite escape the fundamental irony of our existence? Whatever the case, art, literature, and music offer a means of redemption, if not salvation. Even I am overcoming my death instinct in writing this post – after all, what is death? It is a word, a concept, an idea, and while we can keep it that way, it is safe.