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15 Questions to Shai Wosner

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
- I am well, thank you very much! Right now I am home for a few days between summer festivals.

What’s on your schedule right now?
-I am leaving for California in two days for La Jolla's SummerFest. Next month I am scheduled to record various stuff for the BBC - solo, chamber and concerto repertoire. It's part of the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme which I am currently involved in, and which is really a wonderful program.

Can you still remember the first time you heard a piece of classical music?
No. The reason is that when I was growing up records of classical music were being played at home so I won't be able to tell you which piece I heard first. However, one of the strongest childhood memories I have is when I was given the score for the Mozart Requiem. I was plowing a record of it over and over again, endlessly, and of course I adored it. I must have thought that it was such otherworldly music, that it couldn't possibly be read by mortals in a little yellow pocket book. So perhaps that's why flipping through its pages, seeing the instrumentation, the vocal parts, how everything was notated - that was an extremely powerful experience, that I remember to this day vividly. I must have been 7 or 8.

What was the deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?
I don't think there was ever such a moment.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

The hardest part is your own criticism (which can be true for most professions, I suppose). The best part is the fact that you are able to touch - literally, in the physical sense - the music. In other words, since you actually produce the sound yourself (directly, if you are a singer or violinist, and indirectly with piano), you actually get to touch with your own fingers some of the most inspired creations in the history of the world. Think about it. You can re-create, all by yourself, a movement of Mozart. Feel the counterpoint in Bach. There's nothing quite like it.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
A good performance, whether live or recorded, makes you want to follow and hear what comes next. At the edge of your seat. Naturally, with a recorded performance the effect may wear out after a while, although sometimes there are exceptions even to that. But in essence, the core of the musical experience is the sound that is being produced in a particular space, at a particular time, by a particular musician or a group of musicians, while you are there to experience it.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
I would like to think that my emotional reaction to the music is a result of what the composer intended. Most great composers are clear in their intentions and markings. But their music is meant for performers, and when it's great, it has room to accommodate varying interpretations. Varying to a degree, of course. The greatest ones create a world of emotions and images to which you react, and that is always fascinating to explore with varying results. The point of departure is normally the score. But that doesn't mean that you don't exist in the picture as well. After all, you bring the score to life. I don't think there is such a thing as "keeping your personality out of the way". That would be quite an appalling idea.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your performances?
I think a cultural background is a sum of all your interests and experiences, so it's not limited to where you come from but also where you're going, physically or mentally. So if part of your food and drink is Schubert, then somewhere you are also somewhat Viennese. So I think a cultural background is something to be constantly nourished since it's a part of who you are and therefore affects your performance.

How would you describe and rate the scene for classical music of the country you are currently living in?
Well, since I live in New York, I doubt that people need me to tell them that so much is going on here!

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?
Absolutely. It's extremely important since classical music offers them something that no other form of art can, and that includes popular music. One of the main reasons is the fact that almost all of pop music, for example, is set to lyrics. So the experience of "abstract" is never there. How do you express things that are beyond words without it? Then, there is the question of attention span, which is almost always limited to 3-5 minutes in popular music, while a symphony can last for over an hour. The basic, most effective way to deal with that, I think, is education from an early age. It's doesn't sound very sexy, but if music is not a part of education at least the same way as literature and math are, how would anyone understand the reasons a symphony can last an hour? Without it, mental vocabulary is significantly limited. Perhaps the most important part of music making is listening. Before you produce any sound, you listen to the silence. Then, you listen to the sound, and the sounds that other people make, if you are performing chamber music. Knowing how to listen is one of the most important and useful things in life, and music can teach you that. But if you completely exclude it from education, you completely miss out.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for classical music?
The internet is equally important and useful for the distribution of music as it is for the distribution of any information. In today's world, you can't ignore it. (Look who's talking. I don't even have a website. Well, it should be ready soon...)

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and classical music?
As I said before, the canon that's called "classical music" offers things that popular music doesn't, so I think that musical education in today's world won't be complete without it.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I think that in addition to maintaining a healthy presence of standard repertoire (Beethoven symphonies, Mozart concertos, etc.) I would have at least two mini-festivals that would try to view music, or creativity from various angles. For example, music with narration (with pieces from Schubert and Schumann, to Schoenberg and Copland and beyond). Or a festival that would explore that mutual influence of music and visual arts (Scriabin and Kandinsky, Stravinsky and Cubism, Satie and Surrealism).

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
There is a great story by Thomas Mann, about a child prodigy who is giving a concert. When the child is seated at the piano, Mann says that at that moment, 'it was as if all of music history was at the tip of his fingers'. That's what it feels like. The piano gives you access to just about anything.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
When I was about 13 or 14, I had a passing obsession with sopranino recorder. You know, the really high one. I taught myself how to play it to a point, and then completely abandoned it. But that's about it!

Picture by Marco Borggreve 

Shai Wosner at Opus 3 Artists

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