Exchanging bow for baton

Maxim Vengerov ©Tibor Rauch

Maxim Vengerov ©Tibor Rauch

On March 17, famed violinist Maxim Vengerov will assume the conductor’s spot on the podium of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra to lead his musical forces through a challenging program, which features Beethoven’s Leonore overture No.3, the Triple Concerto by the same composer and Symphony No. 3 by Brahms.

“The rumors claiming that I have completely abandoned violin are premature,” says Vengerov as he speaks over the phone from his Tiberias home. “How can I abandon the language I’ve been speaking from the age of four and a half? It is like saying, ‘I am don’t speak Russian anymore.’ I have just put my soloist career on hold.

“But conducting demands a total immersion in the subject, while violin is also a jealous instrument – it calls for your utmost attention – so I decided not to flounce between the two, but to approach the conducting professionally. Maybe after conducting 20-30 symphonies and a few operas, I will be able to call myself a fully formed conductor. Then I will probably be able to combine my two careers.”

But what caused the 34-year-old Vengerov – once a child prodigy and later an internationally acclaimed violinist, one of the major instrumentalists of his generation, to make this drastic switch?

Back in 2007, Vengerov suffered an elbow trauma.

“I could hardly move my right hand,” he recollects.

During the year of this idleness of necessity, Vengerov discovered the entire world around him. In Russia, music studies are taken seriously, and particularly when a child is promising, he or she simply has no other life outside of training and playing music.

“Of course, I cannot say I was sick and tired of playing violin,” says Vengerov, “but the violin repertoire is sort of limited and I felt that it was about time to look for new horizons. So at the beginning of 2008, when my elbow came back to normalcy, I exchanged the bow for the baton. I felt that at the age of 33, I was still able to learn new things. I doubt I would have done it at 50.”

Vengerov explains that he hasn’t forgotten his musical experience. “People often ask what my secret is as a violinist. I think it has nothing to do with interpretation or with my technique – it was already the same at the age of six – but it is about the sound. Because the information comes through the sound – at least this is what I think. My experience with the classical and baroque violin and with viola, as well as my personal experience as a human being – they are still with me. I believe that sometimes a conductor is able to breathe a new sound even into an established orchestra.”

He accentuates: “The baton is a musical instrument, just like a violin or piano, but far more complicated. Here, I need to know not only my part, but the entire score; I have to immediately evaluate the orchestra’s musical abilities and to create contact with each and every musician, in order to bring the composer’s ideas to the audience. There is a lot to be learned.”

VENGEROV FIRST started studying conducting 10 years ago with pianist and conductor Vaag Papian, who also used to be his accompanist. Papian, in his turn, was a student of the late Ilya Musin, the legendary Russian conductor, who, being denied a considerable career under the Soviet regime, taught generations of maestros – Valery Gergiev, Yuri Temirkanov and Rudolf Barshai among them – while remaining relatively unknown outside his own country.

“According to Ilya Musin, whom I regard my ‘grand teacher,’ similar to a grandfather,” smiles Vengerov again, “the art of conducting lies in making music visible with your hands. A conductor must have expressiveness and exactness – these are incompatible. The conductor’s challenge, therefore, is to find a way of combining them.”

Nowadays, as a part of his conducting studies, Vengerov travels around the world to meet conductors, including Gergiev, to consult with them and to learn from them. He also conducts various orchestras and considers various position offers he has already received.

In addition to performing, Vengerov patronizes The Musicians of Tomorrow – a music school that he inaugurated shortly after the Second Lebanon War in the village of Migdal, overlooking the Kinneret.

“This subsidized project is aimed at all gifted kids of the North, and especially those whose parents are unable to afford music lessons. With Hizbullah rockets falling on the Galilee, I wanted to offer the kids an alternative, and nothing is as good and as supportive as music.”

Mar. 12, 2009
MAXIM REIDER , THE JERUSALEM POST

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