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German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring style to NZ

Carolin Widmann. Photo/Lennard Rühle/Supplied

The award-winning musician will make her NZSO debut playing Stravinsky’s only violin concerto.

Classical violinists don’t come any more adventurous or versatile than Carolin Widmann, the award-winning German musician who is this month making her New Zealand Symphony Orchestra debut.

She’ll be performing Stravinsky’s only violin concerto, but her repertoire extends from Baroque to contemporary works, which in recent years have included collaborations with architect Daniel Libeskind and performance artist Marina Abramović.

A professor of violin at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig since 2006, Widmann was 12 when she realised she wanted to be a professional musician. At 21, she won the President’s Prize at the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition, meeting the violin great the year before he died in 1999.

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“He so clearly showed that he believed I could make it, which gave me a huge boost of confidence … he invited me to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto and showed such trust in me that I was overwhelmed. I keep that experience in mind now when I’m teaching – one human being can inspire you for your entire life.”

You’re often described as a versatile musician who plays music ranging from Baroque to the newest avant-garde. Do you have a favourite period between those extremes?

The period before World War II – the 1920s and 30s – is interesting to me as a European. It felt very free, just before hell broke loose – both a crazy political time and a creative melting pot. Composers such as Korngold, Strauss, Berg, Webern and Britten coincided in time and yet had such different musical languages.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D major that you’ll play in New Zealand is part of that period, and you’ve said you screamed “hooray!” when you were asked to play it. What makes it special?

It’s a wonderful piece, a bit underestimated, not in the core repertoire of violinists or orchestras. It has a lot of humour and is written like chamber music. I especially love the lyricism and sheer beauty of the second and third movements. When you think of Stravinsky, emotion and lyricism are not the first things that come to mind, but if I didn’t know any Stravinsky and heard this piece, I would fall in love with his music. Knowing the problems of the violin-concerto genre, I find the elegance of his orchestration incredible; he always gives the violin enough space, and the colouring of the orchestration is ingenious.

Is it a challenge to play?

Not in the way that the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos are challenging. It’s like a Brahms sextet; I have to know what’s going on in the score, and where I belong. I love it as chamber music – the soloist is only as important as every member of the orchestra. Some of the runs are tricky, as is Stravinsky’s big extended chord that opens each movement. If you have relatively big hands, which I do, and you really stretch and play every day, then it’s doable.

“One human being can inspire you for your entire life.” Photo/Getty Images

Your New Zealand tour will complete the biggest season of your career so far, including your debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and many other significant international concerts. In March, you were part of a collaborative project with the artist Marina Abramović called “A Different Way of Hearing”. How did you get involved?

I’m known for doing crazy things in music. I work with Sasha Waltz’s dance company in Berlin. I’m happy to dance along and step out of my little box of “go on stage, bow, play the correct notes and go home”. I played a solo recital in a football stadium once, in a project with architect Daniel Libeskind. So, I was asked to be part of the Abramović project at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper [Old Opera]. The audience of 2000 people and all the musicians had to go through the Abramović Method, with meditation exercises for 6-12 hours. Then we played a five-hour concert. It was an incredible experience of complete silence, as you don’t speak to anybody for 11 hours and then you go on stage and play.

You also travelled with your brother, Jörg Widmann, to Tokyo to premiere a composition dedicated to you, his Violin Concerto No 2, under his baton. Then you performed that unusual work in Paris, Frankfurt and Stockholm. How would you describe it?

The first movement is Una Ricerca [“a search” in Italian]. It’s a search for the soul and identity of the violin itself. In the beginning, I hold the violin as if it came from outer space, explore it, try out a few notes. It creates its language from silence and the human voice and at first is completely swamped by the orchestra. The audience is nervous – “oh, my god, is it going to be like this for half an hour?” – but then the violin finds its voice and the second movement is a never-ending romantic melody, with the third very virtuosic.

The Suntory Hall in Tokyo has some of the best acoustics in the world, every sound is poetry, and the audience of 2300 was completely silent. At the end, they didn’t stop clapping; so many curtain calls; a touching reaction. I have an emotional connection to this music and to my brother, who was conducting. If something comes across as genuine, people believe it. That’s the real magic of music. The current world situation, all this noise and dishonesty and dirt, makes me adamant that the true message must survive. If you say something honestly, it will be heard.

Winter Daydreams: NZSO, music by Christopher Blake, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, Fawzi Haimor (conductor) Carolin Widmann (violin), Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch, June 20-27.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.