Violinist Nikolaj Znaider to conduct
Imagine a world-class soloist who, after performing Brahms’ demanding Violin Concerto, joins the orchestra’s string section to play Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. That is exactly what Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider did two years ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
At the time, it was an intriguing display of commitment and stamina. But now his main objective is clear. On Thursday, Znaider again joins the Philharmonic but this time on the podium for his Hollywood Bowl debut as a conductor, in a program of Mozart, Brahms and Schumann.
“It was part of my education,” Znaider said recently by phone from Copenhagen about his goal of becoming a conductor. “It’s the best apprenticeship, to see what it’s like to be an orchestra musician. What do they hear or not hear on the other side of the stage? So this empathy I had to learn from sitting there is all part of the learning process.”
Concerts by the 34-year-old Znaider (rhymes with “Schneider”) have earned much praise. His series of fine recordings include an award-winning disc of Prokofiev and Glazunov concertos and, most recently, a riveting Elgar concerto on Sony Classical with Colin Davis.
Yet is playing the violin no longer enough for Znaider? Why risk subverting a thriving solo career?
“This might sound terrible to some people,” he said, “but I find it more enriching to study ‘Don Giovanni,’ which I’m doing next year for the first time, than it would be putting in the many hours to play, let’s say, the Glazunov.”
To be sure, Znaider is in good company. Other noted instrumentalists have also become conductors. Daniel Barenboim, an early influence on Znaider, started as a pianist with a major international career. So did Vladimir Ashkenazy, widely considered the finest pianist of his generation. And violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Leonidas Kavakos all play and conduct.
Conductor Colin Davis, one of Znaider’s mentors, said he understands the fiddler’s passion to become a conductor but warns it won’t be easy.
“He’s got his handful of wonderful violin concertos, all that chamber music,” Davis said, “but when it comes to the big orchestral pieces, the only way to do it is by being a conductor. It takes time, and so it should. Nikolaj is a great violinist who can play up there with anybody, but it’s not so easy to convince other musicians that you can also conduct, because a lot of people haven’t been very successful at it.”
Though Davis wouldn’t give names, the beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman is one example of an instrumentalist who has yet to convince many critics that he’s a gifted conductor. About Perlman’s rendition of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2008, Times critic Chris Pasles wrote: “Perlman...pushed the orchestra to unpleasant extremes. String tone regularly turned harsh. The horns produced some of the rawest, most unpleasant sounds ever heard there...”
Davis said Znaider has the energy and focus — “all the ingredients” — to become a fine conductor. “It will become clear whether he’s got this gift that he hopes he has. I think he has, because of the way he thinks about what he’s doing, and the way he thinks about just being alive — it’s all on the right line.”
As a violinist, Znaider may have an edge in making the transition to conductor. “Unlike somebody who just starts to conduct,” he said, “I’ve been standing on the same spot, more or less, where the conductor stands and figuring out how things sound.”
Pianist Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, made his conducting debut at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1988 performing Mozart from the keyboard. But he said stepping up to the podium to do the really big pieces, such as Brahms and Mahler symphonies, was psychologically “a big adjustment.”
“Can anyone do it? If you have a passion for it and a native skill,” he said. “It has something to do with the ability to communicate — with the hands, through the eyes and with the body. It’s possible to develop it, but it takes time, courage and a tremendous amount of determination.”
Znaider has certainly showed determination, with an impressive and steadily growing conducting resume in Europe. Recently, he conducted a Schumann cycle of symphonies and concertos. Inevitably, as his conducting duties expand, his violin practice time will shrink. And if that happens, his technique will suffer.
“It’s very much a worry now,” Znaider said, “because I’ve been doing at least 50-50, conducting and playing. I do not want to stop playing. It means too much to me.”
Ashkenazy, principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony and conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, said he never thought his music making would “go to orchestral conducting.” In the ‘70s, he was still playing 80 to 90 concerts a year as a pianist and “maybe five or 10" on the podium. Now, although he still records solo piano works, he seldom plays in public.
“I thought conducting was a very enjoyable sideline,” Ashkenazy said. “Now I conduct all year round. I almost don’t play [publicly] at all.”
As a soloist, Ashkenazy recalls learning from other great conductors, such as Solti and Haitink. “I liked to see how they communicated with an orchestra,” he said, “but in the end you have to do it yourself. Stand in front of an orchestra and make your stupid movements, and learn by making mistakes, trying this and that and everything.”
For now, Znaider is committed to “getting the mileage” as a conductor and realizes it will “take some careful planning not to lose my level as a violinist.” But, he admits, “I will probably not be learning as much new repertoire.”
Davis, for one, is confident that Znaider can balance both roles. “Nikolaj knows perfectly well that if you don’t cultivate your instrument, you can’t expect to play it to the level when you were younger,” he said. “He doesn’t have to conduct all the time.”
On the other hand, when Davis is asked if he knows any soloist-conductors whose solo careers remained at the same high level after they achieved an international career, he said, “No, I don’t. I’m sure there are some, but names don’t come to mind.”
Yet the lure of conducting is powerful. Znaider recalled being “terrified” the first time he took up a baton and faced a full-size professional symphony orchestra.
“There was the sense of the unknown, of delving into something you have never done,” he said. “There’s a Buddhist saying that one must remain a student in some area all one’s life. I like that. It’s not that I have nothing left to develop or learn about the violin, but the way I can improve myself as a musician and as a violinist comes as a sort of side effect of what I’m doing as a conductor. There’s too much great music I have to say something about — on the podium and with the violin in hand.”
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