Classical: A new string to Maxim's bow

The prodigious ability of the young Russian violinist, Maxim Vengerov, is one of the wonders of the musical world. But next week he takes up the baton to conduct his first concert. How ready is he for this often difficult transition?

Michael Church
Thursday 10 June 1999 23:02

Giving a masterclass to young violinists in London, Maxim Vengerov creates theatre. For the girl who wants to play a Sarasate showpiece he mimes a circus routine, with a ringmaster twirling his moustaches and a dancer teetering on a tightrope. The boy who thinks his job is merely to realise Mozart's marks on paper finds himself in the middle of a steamy little play: with conspiratorial whispers, cries of dismay, and expressions of swooning love, Vengerov discovers the drama immanent in every phrase. To the girl playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto he simply says: "The world is standing still. Close your eyes and just dream." She does, and her playing becomes all the better for it.

We have been dazzled by Midori, bemused by Joshua Bell, astonished by Sarah Chang, but none of those could hold a candle to this miraculous 25-year-old Russian fiddler from Novosibirsk. On his emergence eight years ago, Vengerov's playing was imbued with timeless wisdom beyond his years; he now holds the stage with immense and charismatic authority.

So it comes as no surprise that he is about to add a new string to his bow. When he performs with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Hampton Court Festival next Thursday, it will be as both soloist and conductor. "I always thought that I'd do it one day, though not as early as this," he says. "But I've been feeling the need to share my music in new ways, and transmitting energy with my hands and eyes seemed a natural progression. Conducting and playing are not that different."

Really? Others who have traded the bow or piano for the baton, have vanished into obscurity; the transition has pitfalls, of which he is aware. "The most important thing is the human chemistry between conductor and players. If it doesn't exist, you may as well pack up and go home. You must avoid at all costs being an outsider, as though saying to the orchestra, `You make your music, while I imagine mine'."

He is quite relaxed about not yet having his own hand-language - every conductor's is different - but he's bringing over his personal coach in the shape of the Armenian conductor Vag Papyan, whose own mentor taught those superstars of the podium, Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov: "Papyan's strongest quality, which I hope to acquire, is an ability to convey legato - a connection between the notes which is not just physical, but also spiritual."

Spirituality is, for Vengerov, the conductor's key attribute. "And it should ideally be expressed through beauty of movement," he says, "as it is with Temirkanov."

Some conductors hurl themselves about, others hardly move a muscle. Where will Vengerov fit on that scale? "We must wait and see."

But what marks him out above all from his fellow virtuosi is the scope of his activities. For the past two years he has travelled the world as an envoy for Unicef. He's worked with traumatised children in Bosnia and Uganda, and talks with frustration of the limits on what he could achieve. "You want to help everyone you meet, but you're just a drop in the ocean."

On a visit to a free school in Harlem called Opus 118, he encountered a woman getting five-year-olds to play the violin. `That reminded me of the orphanage that my mother ran in Siberia, where she had 500 kids - some of whom were already criminals - playing and singing, and me singing along with them. Many more people should do this kind of work - it's an excellent way to build the future."

He himself moved straight as an arrow toward his goal. As a baby he was routinely pacified by the turning on of a tape-recorder: "Music was for me a replacement for food." His father was an oboist and his mother conducted a choir, but at the age of four young Maxim settled on the violin. "I chose it because of its location in the orchestra. It seemed very desirable to sit in front of the audience and show off."

Armed with a miniature instrument, he and his mother gatecrashed their way into a lesson with the best teacher in town. "In my fourth lesson, I played her 80 songs by heart, and she said to my mother, `We have a genius'." He gave his first concert at the age of five. "When I went on stage, before I had even played a note, I bowed so deeply and so long that the audience laughed - but I knew that this was what great artists always did. I felt it was a privilege for the audience to see me." His programme that day included Paganini variations, "which were very easy for me".

What is his view now of the recordings he made at that age? "It's incredible, that a teacher could have achieved such things with someone so young. I didn't have the technique I have now, but across the years the intuition is the same. Musically speaking, I was the same person I am today. I'm now just a bit larger. I hope it will always be like this. I still feel, every time I go on stage, as though I'm newborn. Even if I've played a piece a hundred times, it still feels new."

On the other hand, he cautiously paces his own development. He deferred his first performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto until he felt ready for it, and he'll let Bach's sonatas and partitas marinate in his mind for some years. Like many virtuosi, he's uneasy about much contemporary music - "I find it difficult to understand the harmony" - but he has just commissioned a work from the French jazz composer Didier Lockwood for solo violin with violin ensemble, which should be fun. His millennium plans include concerts with the British harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, for which he will master the baroque violin.

Meanwhile, his personal life has found its own curious stability: like his friend and fellow prodigy Yevgeny Kissin, he tours accompanied by his mother. His father now plays the oboe in Israel, where Vengerov himself was, until recently, afraid to go, lest he get called up for military service. "At last they have accepted that I'm more useful as a musician than as a general." He misses his friends in Novosibirsk, and will tour the West next year with an orchestra from that city, to help put money in their bank. "Classical music in Russia is in a desperate plight. Politicians don't realise what communal spirit, what brotherhood, they could re-create, by financially supporting it as they used to."

Daniel Barenboim, who is one of Vengerov's admirers, wonders whether he is in danger of losing "the fearlessness of youth". On the evidence of Vengerov's boldly assured new cadenza for the Brahms concerto which he plays with Barenboim on a Teldec CD, I'd say that that fearlessness is in no danger yet.

Maxim Vengerov will perform at the Hampton Court Festival (0171-344 4444) on 17 June and with the LSO at the Barbican Centre, London on 27 June (0171-638 8891)

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