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An American Premiere with Leonidas Kavakos and the BSO

Leonidas Kavakos
Courtesy of the artist
Leonidas Kavakos

Saturday, March 5, and Monday, March 14, 2022
8:00 PM

The Greek violinist joins the Boston Symphony as the soloist in the American premiere of Unsuk Chin’s "Shards of Silence" Violin Concerto, and Andris Nelsons conducts Ives and Berlioz’s otherworldly "Symphonie fantastique."

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Leonidas Kavakos, violin

IVES The Unanswered Question
Unsuk CHIN Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille (Shards of Silence) (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview of Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto No. 2 with Leonidas Kavakos using the audio player above (transcript below):

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Leonidas Kavakos, who's back in Boston for an American premiere, a concerto that was written just for you. Leonidas, thank you for spending a little bit of time with me today. I appreciate it.

Leonidas Kavakos You're welcome. It's a pleasure.

Brian McCreath So this concerto by Unsuk Chin was just premiered, what was it, maybe a month and a half ago or something in London.

Leonidas Kavakos It was the beginning of January, yeah.

Yeah. How familiar were you with Unsuk Chin's music before this commission came along?

Leonidas Kavakos I have to say that I was not very familiar with her music, except for the fact that, how I got involved into this work was by an SMS [text] I got from Simon one morning when he was telling me that Unsuk, you know, it was going to write a second violin concerto.

Brian McCreath This is Simon Rattle you're talking about?

Leonidas Kavakos Yes. But she was going to write it only if I play it. And I saw this message, I thought that this is quite amazing, but, you know, quite funny. I did not know whether Simon wanted to flatter me or, you know, he was trying to be more convincing. And funnily enough, the night before I was listening to her First Violin Concerto.

Brian McCreath Written about 20 years ago or something like that.

Leonidas Kavakos Yes. I was actually watching a performance of that on YouTube, which I found, and I found the music quite wonderful. And I was thinking, Wow, this is something that I should play. So then the next morning came this message that was quite a... I don't know what happened. Somehow, the factors aligned in order for this thing to happen in such kind of timing.

Brian McCreath It must have felt like somebody was playing a joke on you almost.

Leonidas Kavakos Well, almost, yeah. So I said, but I said immediately, and of course, I'll do it with pleasure. And I'm very happy to be part of this project. So, you know, I had met her before. She came a few times to my concerts in Berlin, and we had met, but we never had the chance to really meet, you know, more than just say, hi and Bravo, whatever, you know?

Brian McCreath Well, and getting back to Simon's original text, as the story is told, she wanted to write this concerto specifically for you. She found your playing to be so compelling, so ...

Leonidas Kavakos You have to talk to her.

Brian McCreath OK, I won't ask you what she heard, but now that you are playing this piece and you have premiered it and you're here in Boston with it, what do you find in the piece that does perhaps reflect your way of looking at music or your way of interpreting? What qualities are embedded in the piece that you might think of as reflective of your own musical personality?

Leonidas Kavakos Well, I had this discussion with her yesterday. For me, when I look at the score or the work of music for the first time and I try to study it and learn it, what is my primary, let's say, focus point is to try to trace the DNA, the musical DNA of the work. By that meaning, I'm trying to find which are the motives, or which are the ideas that are the principal ideas which are in the composer's mind the whole time, no matter what the music sounds like or where the music is going.

And through this way of thinking, I found very much help later on, when I get to know a bit more of the work, in order to see, you know, how a certain motive is used in different situations and in different places in the work. And many times that also helps to understand how the composer will think behind what he's writing. So, for instance, I found it very obvious in music by Bartók, for instance, where you have very specific material that is used in a very, very different way. I mean, the violin concerto is a fascinating piece. It's all variations of the same theme, three movements and in unlimited differences and colors and variations and so on.

And so, here, I am realizing now - I only played in January, so this is the second time we're playing it here in Boston, second time for me, and it's still very new - so I'm realizing that there is a very simple motive of a half tone, either ascending or descending, that is practically everywhere. And yesterday, I mentioned to her and I said to her, this is so fascinating because, for instance, it's like, I think for us as a Brahms Symphony No. 4, which I just conducted in Paris last week, and where he makes the whole first movement of just these triads. It's as simple a motive as it can be. Or [Beethoven's Symphony No. 3] the "Eroica," the last movement, I was telling her, you know, the theme of the "Eroica" is so, anybody can write. It's totally, in a way, in quotes, allow me to say it's "stupid." But then what somebody like Beethoven takes out of the "stupid," in quotes, motive, and what do they make out of this, is absolutely fascinating. The same with Brahms's Fourth Symphony.

And that is what I traced in Unsuk's concerto. And I talked to her yesterday about this. I said, this is now becoming a fascination to me because the more I listen, the more I play, the more I practice, I understand that this is like everywhere in the piece. And of course, the colors that she creates around it is just absolutely mind blowing. But the motive is steady. From the beginning to the end it's there and this is amazing.

Brian McCreath That's really fascinating, especially because, of course, we weren't there for your London performance. And I wonder if the performances this week here in Boston bring a little bit of a different dynamic to your performance of it now that that understanding has really taken hold?

Leonidas Kavakos Yeah, from my point of view, yes. Absolutely. I have started this journey with this piece, you know, last month. It's, of course, very much the beginning of it. But you know, the more you look at it, the more you understand. And I find that this is amazing. And then she told me that, "Well, yes, and my idea was, let's see how far we can get with these two little notes." And here you have a piece that has an enormous orchestration and such variation of colors and unique combinations that, we're were just talking with Andris [Nelsons] about this, you know, there's a place where there is a combination of clarinets and harmonics on the contrabass. And he said, "You know, I've never heard that color before." I said, "Yes, me neither." And it sounds like singing. It adds such a vocal quality to the notes and the chords, and that is something that one has almost never heard before.

Brian McCreath Amazing. Well, you have sort of anticipated one of my questions, which is that this piece is a single movement, something like 26, 27 minutes long. For a listener, that's a little bit intimidating. I think of a piece like the Liszt B Minor Sonata that's very long, and, as a listener, takes a lot to come along with it that whole time. And I wondered what a listener can sort of hang on to through this piece. You're saying that there's this motive of the half-tone that we should listen for no matter what else is going on.

Leonidas Kavakos It's everywhere, this motive. So my point of view is, what I said to Unsuk, is that sometimes I really would rather not play, just to listen, what you have created, what kind of colors you have created with the orchestration that you have, which is absolutely fascinating. What's even more fascinating is that, you know, when I asked her, "How do you decide about, you know, this or that? Do you, how do you try these chords, or how are you going to write?" I said, "Do you play the piano?"

"Yes, I play the piano, but I never try my music. It just comes out of my head on paper.".

And when you hear the work and you think that it just came out of her head, this kind of orchestration and this kind of coloring and the combinations and the different kinds of, you will see the percussion section is full of instruments, and each instrument in the percussion section means a color. You know, this is just incredible.

Brian McCreath It's a kaleidoscope.

Leonidas Kavakos Totally.

Brian McCreath It's an amazing array of sounds.

Leonidas Kavakos Absolutely so. Nobody will get tired of such kind of colored music because it's not an invitation to hear the concerto in the form that we know it, as, you know, in a Romantic era, or even in the 20th Century era that still has a certain kind of structure and form, but is a totally different situation here. We have a journey.

I mean, there's another great concerto from the 20th Century that has similar form, which is, of course, L'arbe des songes [The Tree of Dreams] of [Henri] Dutilleux. That is another work that is about about 27 minutes long and is in one - it's five movements in one. And it's a journey, and it's a journey with, I think, so many colors and so many different, how can I say, it's like landscapes. It's like, you know, you imagine that one can travel within 25 minutes and, you know, see, like, I don't know, around the globe and see all these different landscapes that there exists. This is more or less something like that. And I find this cannot be... It's demanding, for sure, but it's not at all... I would not imagine that anybody would get tired of this for being so long.