Patricia Kopatchinskaja is fed up with the way things are done and wants to make sure that her career is played out by different rules.
If the Rite of Spring had a happy ending, it might well resemble Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing Stravinsky’s violin concerto. Rather than dance herself to death, Kopatchinskaja fights back, gleefully cajoling and sparring with the orchestra around her.
She has just played the piece with the Philharmonia when we meet in her Royal Festival Hall dressing room. It turns out that the butter-wouldn’t-melt appearance which had me thinking of Stravinsky’s sacrificial victim conceals a rebellious spirit. But throughout our conversation she speaks thoughtfully, as if aware that she is capable of dropping bombs with her words.
‘I’ve had a lot of fights in my life to explore my vision of making music, of how to tell the story which happens through the hand of the composer and through my soul, and to sing as a bird.’
Perhaps this inclination to dig her heels in explains why it has been only this past year, in her mid-thirties, that she has made her first real impact in Britain. That is largely thanks to her album of Bartók, Ligeti and Eötvös concertos for Naïve (it won the Gramophone award for album of the year), now followed on the same label with the Stravinsky and Prokofiev second concertos with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Concerts last year with them and the Philharmonia are followed this March with her first dates with Britten Sinfonia, whose chief executive describes her as ‘a soloist of unique quality and individual unfettered musicianship [but] also at heart a chamber musician and collaborator and therefore an ideal fit for our musicians. Together we’ve devised a programme with a distinct eastern European folk-flavoured programme, which will feature her as soloist and director.’
Born in Moldova of folk musician parents, Kopatchinskaja moved with them to Austria when she was a teenager, studying in Vienna and then for two years in Switzerland. That is now home to her and a young family that she regrets having to leave behind so often to travel for work.
‘I’m like a tree without roots any more – I’m in a space in between. This is why I need to transform every time from one piece to another. But the childhood and the language and the colour of the sky and the smell of my country, it’s very much inside of me, and the folk music which my parents play is something I grew up with. I don’t play this music – I cannot – but it’s very much in my blood.’
Instead it is classical music that she has set her sights on, and a substantial part of our conversation is taken up by a softly spoken but unmistakable call to arms.
‘We don’t play modern music any more as modern music was played in the time of Schoenberg, let’s say, when Busoni had to protect him from … [she throws punches] … or Stravinsky. We don’t have this kind of sensation anymore because we want to press a button and have a perfect girl politely playing Mozart. Why is it possible in painting, in literature, or in theatre when they have something old they put it in a new context, from our time? But in music it seems inappropriate. But we need to put in today. When we play the Kreutzer sonata by Beethoven it has to be a shocking piece, and I will not make excuses for myself if I take it on.’
She mentions Barbara Hannigan, Richard Tognetti, Teodor Currentzis and Ilan Volkov among fellow travellers. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto too, another Britten Sinfonia favourite, with whom she shares not only a pair of initials but also a place in quartet-lab, a string quartet, also comprising cellist Pieter Wispelwey and Lilli Maijala, that promises fresh approaches to chamber music.
Fresh approaches: quartet-lab, (l-r) Pieter Wispelwey, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Lilli Maijala and Pekka Kuusisto.
Photo: Chris Dodd
Isn’t the thing about laboratories that experiments mostly go wrong? ‘That’s right, thank you! Lots of things don’t work, that’s true. You need to be free to make mistakes. You need people who let you make mistakes. The idea of being spontaneous is not so possible with an orchestra because there is much less time. This is a part of the problem.’
So what else needs changing?
‘There is something about playing without conductor. I think this structure, to have a person in front of you, giving you the sign, giving you the inspiration: it sounds like you have no responsibility; you have no right to be an individual. But music is about personality, about love for music, about finding your own way. So being in an orchestra, one becomes a slave, practically. And you know, musicians are lazy! It’s part of the job: we need our energy to put it in the moment so we don’t like to work too much. If you take responsibility away from the musician he is happy. But in the end he’s frustrated because he forgets his childhood dreams. Why did he get into music? Perhaps he once heard music and maybe he cried and discovered some very deep emotional things in himself so he wanted to explore it. When one limits him to the function of a soldier, of a part of some machine, it damages the soul of the music. I think musicians should take many more decisions. Conductors have benefited too much from their position in recent times. Of course there are fantastic conductors that one really needs – I’m not against the conductor. But we became spoiled in some way.’
And on she urges. ‘The most important thing is to have fun, and to get rid of that corset that we’ve had for so many years, wanting to keep level high and always being good. It’s not about being good, it’s about being alive, looking for new things. Audiences shouldn’t expect us to be a perfect image of stars in a glamorous record industry. Let us be creative musicians.’
And on. ‘Everything is possible. The question is how much freedom do I get? If I get the freedom to make a programme, I would do quite mad things. Maybe after this interview,’ she laughs, ‘nobody is going to ask.’
‘It could be the end of your career…’
‘Then my daughter will say thank you!’