Valentin Șerban: There are so many talented people in Romania
By Ruxandra Predescu
Valentin Serban is the winner of this year’s edition of the George Enescu Competition, in the Violin Section. The concerto he played in the Final was the true measure of his talent – it convinced the jury and, perhaps more important than anything else, touched the audience to the extent that at the end, he got long rounds of applause and standing ovations. We talked, a little while later, about anxiety and talent, about the most beautiful concertos, and about dreams.
I got into a zero expectations mindset
Right after the results were announced in the Violin Final I asked you to tell me how you felt and you only said one word – overwhelmed. It’s been a while since then, so how do you feel now?
What happened still doesn’t feel real, I still can’t see myself as a laureate. After all, it’s a representative competition I grew up with. When you say “Enescu Competition,” you say Stefan Ruha or Silvia Marcovici. But I can’t place myself there, by their side, yet.
How was your run in the Enescu Competition?
I have actually participated once before, two editions ago, but I didn’t advance past the first rounds and decided then to stop attending competitions. This would have been in a way my last chance, to adhere to the age limitation. I freed myself from any expectations and this mindset helped a lot. Moreover, I think this particular unfolding of events, completely different from a normal edition, with a longer respite between the rounds, also helped. But even so, it wasn’t a failure-free road, because the initial recordings didn’t sound well, I had to retake them and I managed to do so with just one day left until the deadline.
I don’t think I ever felt this good in a concert
For the Final, you chose a work considered among the most difficult to perform, Sibelius’ Concerto. Why this one?
It wasn’t necessarily a rational choice. It’s a piece I like a lot and I feel it suits me. It’s a piece I resonate with and that’s very important, especially in a competition. I don’t think I ever felt this good in a concert, anxiety and worries and all, of course. If I were to listen to the concert now, I’d probably find things to critique, but I won’t. I won’t spoil my joy.
Indeed, your performance convinced the jury, as we know, but the audience too had an impressive reaction, you managed to project your passion well beyond the stage.
I didn’t look for it; in any case, I don’t even think you can do this intentionally. It needs to be authentic. But I really love this concerto, it’s fascinating, it’s madness. I can’t wait to play it again, especially now that it’s possible with the orchestral formula that Sibelius imagined.
Talent alone is not enough
What do you think a violinist needs to become truly extraordinary, a virtuoso of the instrument?
First of all, I think you need a certain amount of talent, which you must have the luck to be born with, it’s not a choice. Talent may vary, it can be a technical gift or musicality, but it’s mandatory. It can’t be replaced or completely compensated by practice. But that’s just the base you build on, as talent alone is not enough.
After that I think you need good luck to start well with an instrument, you need good teachers. It’s something you learn well when you’re little, it molds to the body. The violin and viola are probably the most complicated because of the position, which is not the most natural. And then you need strength and willingness to work. Anyway, I don’t consider it work, but from the outside, yes, it’s probably seen as work.
At what age did you begin studying the violin?
When I was 7 – in first grade. But some violinists began much earlier, at 2, 3, or 4.
But how can a toddler fall in love with an instrument that keeps him, for hours on end, in an unnatural position?
I don’t know. I wasn’t a toddler in love with the violin. But look, there is this story of Enescu, who received a toy violin when he was 4. He threw it into the fire and said he wanted a real one. I don’t know how much truth is to this story, but there is probably some. A genius is a genius since they’re little. But that wasn’t me. I didn’t like it in the first few years. To be honest, I went along with it mostly out of inertia, until I began taking lessons with a university professor, a few years later. It was then that I really fell in love with the violin because I was correctly guided and I started to feel that I was making progress. And I haven’t stopped since…
The audience is not just present and inactive; they’re part of the experience
…until last year when everything came to a halt. How was last year for you?
I had pretty big plans for 2020 and I had to cancel everything. I tried to profit as much as I could from this respite, so I practiced a lot. I wasn’t drawn to the idea of online recitals, I don’t know, it’s not for me. I don’t feel I could communicate too much in this manner.
To what degree do you think technology helps facilitate a connection between audience and music?
It’s somewhat a controversial topic because plenty of people think that a concert needs to take place in a hall with the audience present. I understand the need for technology, the fact that a concert can be broadcast online and listened to anytime, anywhere, but a concert is an exchange. The audience is not just present and inactive; they’re part of the experience. I realized this on the occasions when I had to play in empty halls – it’s such a sterile space… Nothing comes back to you.
Have you thought of what to do with the prize you’ve won at the Enescu Competition?
I need a violin and a bow but, of course, while the prize amount is very generous, it’s not enough money for that. The violin I currently play is on loan and it’s not quite what I’d like but more of a compromise.
And, by the way, it’s a pity that there is no foundation for musical instruments in Romania. In many countries, there are banks, for instance, which invest in instruments and then loan them to musicians, but you have to live in those countries. It’s such a pity because there are so many talented people in Romania, who could benefit from this sort of program.
The other two contestants in the Final both had marvelous instruments. Oh, God, I can’t wait to be able to play on something like that!
I am very much interested in film music concerts
What other passions do you have, besides music?
I do jigsaw puzzles, it relaxes me.
What would you say to those who see classical music as something inaccessible, perhaps even lacking in emotion?
I’ve thought about this myself and, in a way, I think it’s a question of being exposed to this kind of music. If you don’t have the chance to listen to it, you can’t know that you like it, that it touches you, that it moves you. I have however met people who had never listened to anything classical and were utterly won over on the first audition. You need openness and you need access.
Imagination exercise: if you were given the chance to perform a violin concerto for its world premiere, any concerto, from any time, which concerto would you choose?
It’s difficult to choose, because I’ve fallen in love with many concertos as I have practiced them, so I’d be tempted to say that I’d choose precisely Sibelius’ Concerto that I played in the Final. However, I confess that I am very much interested in film music concerts, such as Korngold’s compositions. Yes, I think premiering a piece in a concert like that would be truly fascinating.