HOW WE MET

MAXIM VENGEROV AND CLAUDIO ABBADO; Maxim Vengerov, 21, was born in Novosibirsk, Siberia, and has lived in Germany and Israel. A prodigy at the age of four, he is regarded as the most brilliant violinist of his generation. He lives in Amsterdam. Claudio Abbado, 62, succeeded Herbert von Karajan as artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989. Born in Milan, he is divorced with three children. He has homes in Berlin and on the Italian-Swiss border
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MAXIM VENGEROV: I was fifteen-and-a-half years old and very nervous when I arrived at the Musikverein in Vienna to audition for Abbado. Six months previously, I had been told: "Abbado will listen to you." I went into a small room expecting to find him there, but instead saw 20 different people. I recognised some of them, but nobody said a word to me. Not one of them smiled. I was very shocked, and asked, "Where's Maestro Abbado?" They told me, "He isn't coming. You must play for us." So I played the Tchaikovsky Concerto and the JS Bach Chaconne. When I finished they all got up, without smiling, and left the room. I was in complete shock.

Looking back, I think that it was good experience for me. I'm still not sure who all those people were, but I imagine they were Claudio's committee - Claudio's jury. I must have passed, because soon afterwards I did play for him, and the orchestra immediately offered me some concerts.

I was thrilled but I'm sure Claudio had no idea how thrilled I was. He was so easy to talk to - not at all intimidating. We talked about my teacher, and all the time he was telling me only very good things. He never gives you negative emotions, and I always say that just a few minutes with Claudio puts me in a better mood. The first time I played the Tchaikovsky Violin Con-certo with the Berlin Philharmonic, I was so tense. Claudio knew how I was feeling, and before the concert he came to see me in my dressing room. It's difficult to explain, but he is the kind of person who can unstress you just by a few quiet words.

I've always had tremendous respect for conductors and don't dare call them by their names - certainly at the beginning of a relationship. To me, "Maestro" was the only way I could address Claudio. He didn't want that at all and insisted, "I want you to call me Claudio." I have come to love him like a father. He's the person I always go to for advice.

Our times together are usually short but because he is such a warm, sympathetic human being, I felt, from the beginning, that he was someone I could talk to about anything. He, like Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, has been very helpful with my situation as an Israeli citizen. Like all Israelis of my age, I have to do military service, which is obviously a problem for any musician. Claudio was very concerned about me going into the army, so all three conductors wrote letters for me, and, earlier this year, I was allowed to do just three weeks' basic training in Israel.

Although Claudio is a serious musician, he has a natural sense of fun and a great sense of humour. The audience don't see, I hope, but sometimes, during a concert, we find it difficult not to laugh at each other. As a conductor, he is musically very generous and flexible in his ideas.

This summer, when I was touring with Claudio and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, we had a wonderful time. The kids in the orchestra adore him. He loves football and sailing, but he's also a very private person. Much as he loves life, he needs periods when he is completely on his own. Claudio likes to disappear to his home in the mountains, far away from watches, telephones and people. I can't imagine that at all. After two days, completely on my own, I think I would go mad.

Early on in our relationship, there was a situation which I'm sure made him quite angry. I was 17 and behaved like a real jerk. Claudio had asked me to do the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. "You have to study it and come to me well prepared," he said. "Sure, Claudio, I promise I'll study it."

Two months before the concert, I hadn't even touched the score and he called me up. "You are preparing, aren't you?" he asked. "I'm just about to start," I assured him. I could hear that his voice had a very anxious tone. "Please, make a start," he said, and rang off. A month later, Claudio called again. "Have you started yet?" "Not yet," I answered. "But now, definitely, I'm starting." "Please," he said, "You really have to study." Again, I promised him that I would. A week later, with 20 days to go before the concert, he called again. "Have you started?" Again, I lied. "Yes, just today, I've started. In 10 days' time I'll be ready, I promise you." I could tell that he was getting anxious. "You know, there is very limited time, Maxim. Which cadenza are you going to play? What about Kreisler?" I told him that I thought Kreisler was out of style. "Well then, do Joachim. You know there's a great tradition for the Joachim cadenza. Study that one." "Well, I'm not sure," I grumbled, and started making excuses. At that age, I didn't take what Claudio had done for me seriously enough. "Claudio, 20 days is plenty of time, and maybe I'll even write my own cadenza."

It was New Year's Eve and I still didn't feel that I was prepared, so I called Claudio and made a terrible noise with my throat, pretending to be ill. "Claudio, it's a disaster. I'd love to come and work with you, but I can't speak. I'm so sick." Just from his voice, I could tell that he was very disappointed. The next day, I arrived at the rehearsal - completely recovered - saying, "I think now everything is perfect." After the rehearsal, he said, "Which cadenza did you play?" and I told him, "Mine". At first I don't think he believed I'd written it. "Interesting. It's good," he smiled.

In the end it was a great concert and I was very well prepared, but I wouldn't ever behave again with any conductor like I did with Claudio.

CLAUDIO ABBADO: I'm sorry that Maxim has such an unpleasant recollection of his audition in Vienna - I knew nothing of it before I heard him play. Whenever I have the possibility, I hear young artists, singers or instrumentalists. I can't remember now if it was Zubin or Daniel who originally told me about him, and said I should see him. Maxim was 15, and not particularly famous, when he came to play for me in Berlin. He had been recommended by one of the violinists who was then on the Board of the orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic are not easy musicians to impress - especially the string players - because, of course, we have wonderful string players. I heard Maxim together with several members of the orchestra, and he didn't seem to be in the least bit intimidated by the situation. Our common language for the audition was English.

We were all of us highly impressed by his great talent and outstanding musicality, and I suggested we engage him for a concert in Berlin as soon as possible. The orchestra even agreed to change a programme to make it happen. He played the Tchaikovsky Concerto at that time, and since then he has been back to Berlin several times, always greatly appreciated by the orchestra, who are crazy about him. They think he's fantastic. The Tchaikovsky and Glazunov concertos which we recorded recently are a good demonstration of our congenial music making. It was, above all, Maxim's wish to record the Tchaikovsky with me and the Berlin Philharmonic.

He certainly has this music in his blood, even though I'm a little against saying that a Frenchman necessarily plays French music well and a Russian, Russian music. I tend to think that a great musician and instrumentalist must be able to play everything.

When we spoke about the Brahms concerto for the Berlin Philharmonic tour, Maxim had already played this work with Daniel Barenboim in Chic-ago. It was good that he had experience on the podium with this concerto before playing it with us. We did speak on the telephone, but maybe not as often as Maxim remembers.

When Maxim told me that he would have to do his service with the Israeli Army I was, of course, glad to help in any way I could to free him from this obligation. For a young musician, the army service can be quite destructive because it interrupts their studies. Continuous playing and practice are essential, so I was pleased to hear that my letter helped. Maxim only had to do a brief training period.

This summer, Maxim joined our concert tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. The atmosphere there is very different from a professional orchestra and Maxim, because he is the same age as most of the musicians, was very popular and, at the same time, a sort of role model for the young players. He's a person who really likes to have fun and enjoy life. It's very difficult for an international soloist, but I think he has managed to get the balance right. I've never asked why he chose to live in Amsterdam, but Maxim is not a typical musician and I'm sure he enjoys the life there. Sometimes, now he's older, when I see the way he dresses, he reminds me very much of my son.

Maxim is someone with a very good sense of humour and, although, of course we work hard together, we enjoy ourselves too. Sometimes, during a concert, we try not to look at each other - otherwise we might burst out laughing. I've never seen Maxim dep-ressed. He's a very constructive, positive person. To be like that you need a lot of confidence in yourself.

Musically, he is very mature and disciplined in his work. He knows how to listen and to accept advice. He is extraordinarily receptive. When we were doing the recording, every now and then I gave some advice. He's like a sponge - he absorbs everything he likes and immediately translates it into practice. I also suggested that it would good for him to take part in the annual Berlin chamber music event, Encoun-ters in Berlin. This is where experienced soloists work together with young artists, studying and performing classical and contemporary chamber music. He learnt a lot in the process.

As a human being, I value most Maxim's honesty and openness - his directness. I'd call him an exceptional person who has a very honest way of expressing himself. His enthusiasm is also honest. There are people who perhaps sound enthusiastic but don't really mean it. Maxim's honesty comes out in the way he plays. He constantly surprises me.

He's the most talented of today's young violinists. Technically, he's fabulous and he produces a wonderful sound. Intonation is difficult to des-cribe, but I think Maxim's has something special about it. It's the sound of a great violinist. As a conductor, I always try to understand the problems of the soloist. It's like with a racehorse: when you let it run free, it runs better. It should feel free even though you are holding the reins. It's the same with a great orchestra or soloist. He must feel free while being controlled. Like this, we can fly together. 8

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