DMITRY SITKOVETSKY: ENESCU FESTIVAL IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENTS OF THIS KIND IN THE WORLD
Interview by Ruxandra Predescu
A renaissance man with a magnetic personality and creative force, accomplished musician, renowned and respected all over the world, Dmitry Sitkovetsky presided over the Violin Jury for the 2020/2021 George Enescu International Competition.
I had not only the occasion but also the joy of a long and captivating conversation with him, about music and musicians, about reinventing oneself, and about magic. What you are about to read below is therefore not an interview per se, but rather some compelling insights into my interlocutor’s passionately stated love for life – with everything it has to offer to an inquisitive and tireless man – and for music. Especially music. But for Dmitry Sitkovetsky the two are synonymous.
I felt that I had defeated the pandemic
Last year you carried out an absolutely special project with the New European Strings Chamber Orchestra (NES) – the Opus Coronavirus, a musical series of 24 preludes, Songs of Bukovina by Leonid Desyatnikov, transcribed by yourself. Everything took place online and you had an audience of over 250,000 people. Tell us a little about this project.
It was a project through which I felt that I had defeated the pandemic, especially because I could immerse myself into my favorite hobby, transcription. I can only practice it when I am at home because that’s where I have the computer on which my Sibelius software is installed, so in the first two months, when we all stayed at home, that’s exactly what I did: transcriptions.
Second, during that time we had the 30th anniversary of the orchestra, which we celebrated over Zoom and, as never before, everyone was available – musicians from all over the world, from Seattle to Moscow. I wanted first of all to do something for them, to have something to do together, to set a purpose, a project. And, even though the musicians who participated did so without pay, I was able to create this proper work opportunity for the team who handled the technical aspects of the project.
We have gained an impressive number of fans on this occasion, many of them from the Ukraine or Romania, because they feel that this is their music.
And it wasn’t our only online project from that timeframe; we also completed a series of interviews with musicians. A little ironic seeing as, before that, we had all hated everything related to online and this type of communication. I’m still not a big fan or anything of the sort; I just read my messages on the smartphone and that’s it.
Bach has brought me immortality
This… hobby, as you call it, transcription, has brought you acknowledgment and respect in the world of classical music. For those who are less familiar with the process, what is transcription?
Look, let’s say a piece has been written for the piano. I transcribe this piece for the violin, which has a completely different sound, so it’s like a new life for the original composition.
My most famous work is the transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the version everyone knows and plays. Bach never wrote them for strings, only for the keyboard; so initially, after I made the transcription people were scandalized. Friends included, who told me it was madness but who ended up performing my transcription their whole lives. And now the violin version is more frequently performed than the piano one, the latter being really, really difficult.
When I’m no longer around, people will probably forget everything I accomplished as a violinist or as a conductor, but they will remember me for this. Bach has brought me immortality! This is good, considering that young people today barely remember the name of a virtuoso, especially if they’re not their contemporary, but at least know the names of composers.
Still, there are violinists whose names have made history.
Who remembers Jascha Heifetz or Yehudi Menuhin today? And it’s a shame because you ought to know your history, you ought to know your heroes, and these people were gigantic. In my opinion – and I gave a talk on this topic – the greatest in the 20th century were Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, and Yehudi Menuhin. The first I didn’t get to meet, but I did win the first edition of the competition that bears his name, in 1979.
I think you need to suffer in your own life to understand composers and their music
What do you think a violinist needs, to be truly special?
Ah, it’s a complicated question, because talent alone is certainly not enough. You need an extraordinary work ethic, close to fanaticism, and you can never stop learning and reinventing yourself. You need to come close to and stay around giants to learn from them. I was lucky enough to grow up among giants when I was little, in Russia, and I listened to them and learned a lot from them.
Unfortunately, however, many violinists, instead of opening up to as much as possible, shut down. They practice and practice, and then they practice some more, but they don’t know a lot about other aspects of life and that limits their personal growth. I think you need to suffer in your own life to understand composers and their music, for example, because plenty of them had very difficult lives, further burdened by the tragedy of having felt and composed ahead of their time.
Gift is very dangerous, it consumes you
It seems as though the success equation is a very fragile balance between assiduous work and gathering natural life experience. How do those who begin their instrument study at a very young age achieve this balance?
Some don’t. There are numerous cases of child prodigies who storm the world and then, as teenagers, disappear because they can’t handle the pressure. Especially if they have parents or teachers who don’t understand they need to ensure this balance. It’s very difficult. Gift is very dangerous, it consumes you. It’s like you have no skin to protect you, you are completely exposed. You absorb everything, you burn everything, so you need to learn how to build an emotional layer that can protect you.
You mentioned ‘an exceptional work ethic.’ Could you please detail?
It’s something I absorbed even without being aware of what I was learning, as I grew up in Bella Davidovich’s house. My father died very young, I probably could have learned a lot about this from him as well, but my mother was phenomenal in this way too. She was never late for a concert or rehearsal, even though she didn’t need to rehearse very much because she was so, so talented! She prepared meticulously, was always punctual, and studied passionately. She never taught me to be like this, she never told me to do things like this, it was just her way of being and that was and is my way of being and my daughter’s way of being too, even though I also never taught her these things.
If you let stress consume you, you will burn before you set foot on the stage
So the bohemian way of life we often associate with artists is a myth?
Oh yes, it’s science-fiction. There’s a lot of work. But I love my work. When people complain they need to practice, I laugh. Are you kidding?! I’m in the company of Bach, of Mozart. But alas, you travel, you are alone for so long. By no means, I have the most wonderful companions! I travel with Prokofiev, with Shostakovich, with Brahms, with Ravel, I am never alone. If I study a score, in my mind there is already music playing, I disconnect and, poof, I am gone.
Work? Booking tickets, finding hotels, making reservations… Those are work, not music. Sure, some concerts can become a challenge from a physical point of view, you grow tired, but it’s natural and I like to think I am cut out for this profession. Mischa Maisky played even three concerts a day when he was 70, you need to be cut out for this.
And not just physically but psychologically as well, to know how to handle pressure, to know how to relax before a concert because, if you let stress consume you, you will burn before you set foot on the stage. Rachmaninoff for instance would tell jokes before he stepped onto the stage and this was misunderstood, it seemed like an émigré’s weirdness, but he was just protecting himself, his emotion, his flame.
2003, first time at the George Enescu Competition
Your first time at the George Enescu Competition and Festival was in 2003. What did you know then about Enescu, the man and the composer, and how do you see the evolution of this cultural event during these 18 years?
I knew about Enescu because Menuhin had told me a lot of beautiful stories about him and viewed him as someone touched by Divinity – the Professor with capital P, so I was surprised to be invited not just as a member of the jury, but as president of the jury.
It was very interesting because three competitions were taking place at the same time: violin, piano – where president of the jury was Lazar Berman, and canto, where the jury was presided over by Christa Ludwig.
It was a memorable experience and we were able to reward a remarkable violinist, Eugen Tichindelean. I met Serban Lupu and spent a wonderful week in Romania. I returned in 2005, in that monstrous building [Palace of the Parliament], and then again for two or three editions. I will come again and next time hopefully I’ll get the chance to see Bukovina.
I know it’s a beautiful area. I also know it’s an area of many gifted violinists, folk players who can perform a piece by ear after hearing it just once. But, to return to Enescu, I have played his compositions a couple of times already and, after so many years of coming to Romania, I can say I understand his music better.
Do you know any other Romanian composers?
Of course, some I have even met here. Then there is that very-very difficult piece… The Ballad?
Ciprian Porumbescu’s Ballad?
That’s the one. I conducted this piece, truly difficult. Oh, and Vlad Maistorovici, whom I met in London.
Enescu Festival is one of the most important events of this kind in the world
How did the Enescu Competition evolve over the years, in your opinion, from the perspective of how the generations of musicians have or have not changed?
First of all, I want to say that both the Competition and the Festival have done an exceptional job of promoting Enescu’s music all over the world, so this is not the best-kept secret. It also promoted Romanian culture, because it’s considered one of the most important events of this kind in the world. You’ve had here the best orchestras, the best conductors; I don’t even want to think how much all this costs! And it’s been happening for so many years that it’s become something everyone aims for – to get to play at the Enescu. I’ve met here some of the most respected musicians in the world.
Would you come back as a member of the audience?
Absolutely! I tried to stay for several days every time so that I could enjoy other concerts, not just those with which I had a professional connection, one way or the other.
What was your experience as a jury member like?
Music can’t be measured or weighed; it has no shape or quantity. It’s ephemeral, it takes a lot of preparation and then, if something magical does happen, you’re very lucky. That’s what we all hope for. Lots of times it doesn’t happen, you’re just playing notes. But great artists are not only in control of the notes, of what they play, but also of what they experience as they play, and what the audience reflects back to them. That’s the magic.
Not everything needs to be for sale
How do you relax, what do you do to step away from music-related activities?
I watch football, I know a thing or two about it; I’m a big fan of Chelsea. But music does relax me. I love to study scores. During the pandemic, I’ve studied works that I will most likely never conduct. It doesn’t matter, I did it for myself. I’ve never conducted Eugene Onegin – what a phenomenal opera! – but I did study the score for my pleasure. Not everything needs to be for sale. This is something I try to convey in my mentoring activities: music is much more than this note or that note, this finger here, that finger there.
I think Mendelssohn should have a statue in every city
For the end, an imagination exercise: with which musician, from all times, would you choose to have a conversation?
Ah, what a challenge! Of course, I’d like to meet my favorite companion, Bach. I’d like that very much. But I think the one I love the most as a person, in whose company I’d like to be, is Mendelssohn. I think he was an angel, the most wonderful soul of all the composers. And the most detestable was Wagner. Not that his music isn’t brilliant. Brilliant! But he…
Mendelssohn was an angel and it’s amazing how someone so spoiled, coming from a very rich family, stayed such a wonderful, remarkable person. At 16 he wrote a composition never outdone by any other composer at that same age, Mozart included. Bizet was close, but no. Why? Not because he was a genius of his time, but because he could listen to his own compositions since he had been 12. His father paid for musicians to perform them, so he was able to listen to what he was composing. How many could say that? Schubert never listened to one symphony of his being performed while he was alive; he died not knowing what his music sounded like. This is so tragic.
To return, I’d like to ask Mendelssohn how he managed not to follow in the footsteps of any spoiled child but instead stay faithful to his calling for music. He wrote one of the most perfect concertos for violin of all time; his octet is one of my favorite pieces. But beyond his own music, he was the greatest champion of Schumann’s music, of Berlioz, of Niels Gade – and he brought Schubert and Bach back into the limelight. I think he should have a statue in every city.