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15 Questions to Boris Giltburg

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I’m fine, thank you very much. I’m currently at home, in Israel.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I’m just before leaving on a two-weeks tour in France, Sweden and England, during which I have four performances with orchestras (Grieg and Rachmaninov No. 2), as well as several recitals. In October I’m going on another two-week tour, this time to China – something I’m very much looking forward to, as it will be my first visit there.

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
There are two possibilities – I would either be a linguist, as languages are my hobby and I enjoy enormously studying them and learning the relations between them, or else I would be a computer programmer, as computers are my second hobby, one which even takes more time than the first. (Looking at the matter pragmatically, I would say programmer is more likely, as it’s a more practical choice.)

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?
If I had to point out pianists who influenced me the most, those would be Artur Rubinstein (first and foremost), Richter, Gilels and Grigory Sokolov. But in general, I think my biggest influence is classical music in its entirety – I learn and experience a lot by listening to the huge amount of works that exist in musical literature, especially when discovering for myself a composer whose works I didn’t know so well before. 


What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
For me there is no single hardest thing in being a musician, though of course it can be hard to play night after night giving all of yourself at every concert, it can be hard to play an entirely new program at an important venue, and it’s certainly hard to analyze bad concerts in order to try and learn from the mistakes. The best about being the musician is that you get to experience that magical atmosphere which is sometimes created at concerts, when a special connection is created between the music, you and the audience, and you as the performer feel there is no future, no past, and just live in the moment, together with the music.

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
It’s a bit hard for me to answer, as I don’t know the classical music scene so well. From what I do know, I feel there’s no crisis in what regards performance, but there is a crisis in what regards composition – I’m absolutely certain there are many talented young composers, but I feel there are currently no composers of the magnitude of those we consider to be the greatest (like Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Gershwin, Ravel or Debussy, if to name only some from the 20th century). But I hope it is just a temporary break in the streak of musical geniuses we were lucky to have in the last centuries, and not at all a permanent thing.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
I disagree with this view, as I believe classical music is by its nature only partially created by the composer, the other part being created by the performer (but please don’t ask me what the ratio is!). As there is a nearly infinite number of performers, it’s almost inevitable that some of those will bring ideas to the music which have never been brought up before, thus giving a fresh look at pieces in which, as you say, we thought everything has been done before. I thus don’t believe there is a “perfect” performance of a piece – it can be the best bringing-to-life of a certain idea, but other, different ideas may eventually come.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
A good live performance is in my opinion such a performance that makes the audience forget its troubles for those hour and a half, and be transported into a magical world, where the music speaks directly to their hearts. (On a second thought this would probably constitute a great live performance. But it is something I believe we should all strive for). I’ll admit I don’t really have an approach to performing on stage – there are no formulas to make things happen, and every concert is different, due to different programs, halls, audiences, and your own personal state. I do however try to do my best to make that magic of music come to life, and the times it happens are among the best concerts I’ve played, and also among those I’ve enjoyed the most (as such a thing is a big experience for the performer as well, not just for the audience).

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
I would define it as a combination of a myriad of decision regarding the piece one is performing – decisions both small, concerning the smallest details, and large, concerning the “big” questions – tempi, concept, etc. Most of them are probably subconscious (which defines musical intuition), and many others are made on the spot, during the performance – and, as many of those decisions are subject to change (by the artist, with the passing of time), so is the interpretation in general.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
It is a very difficult question, as I’m not sure it is always a controlled process. The hardest part is probably understanding the composer’s intention (of course unless he’s alive, and is reachable by phone or e-mail) – this is one of the biggest parts of working on a piece – this digging down into the music and into yourself, asking yourself – do the things I do correspond with what I think this music means? Am I forcing it into directions which are not natural for it? Musical intuition helps greatly with this – the ability to do some things right even if you don’t have the logical or theoretical argumentation for it.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
I would very much like to say ‘false’, but it would be just a guess – I’m unable to appreciate music in an un-educated way, as I cannot unlearn the things I know. For all I know I might even be missing some facets of the music, which only uncover themselves to the uneducated listener, one that has no knowledge about harmony or style, and is able to simply feel the music, as some sort of natural force. On the other hand I do think there are some specific works that require previous knowledge to be fully appreciated – you need to know something both about Soviet history and Shostakovich’s life to fully appreciate his string quartet No. 8, and you most certainly need to know something about counterpoint to appreciate Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. (Whether this makes those works worse or better pieces of music is another question – one I’ve currently no answer for.)

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
Ah-ha! (*Rubs his hands enthusiastically*.) For the first season I would probably allow myself to bit a bit of an egoist and put on the program all the works I love myself: probably one or two big vocal-orchestral works (Bach’s B minor mass, Requiem by either Brahms or Britten), several big symphonies (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich) and concertos. I would gladly add a small cycle of Bartok’s works. On the chamber music front I would organize a cycle of lied concerts by Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich), as I feel their lieder are a bit under-appreciated outside of Russia. What I won’t do is impose any limitations on solo concerts – having been on the other side, I know how much better it is for the performers when they can freely choose their own programs, and not be subject to programming limitations.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
I like it enormously, for me it’s the best solo instrument there is (perhaps only besides the human voice), and I wouldn’t like to play any other. For me its possibilities are inexhaustible.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
I have played the violin for half a year when I was 6 years old (on my own request). As it was just the beginning I was probably pretty horrible at it…    

Picture by Eric Richmond

Mussorgsky/Scriabin/Prokofiev (2006) EMI
In Recital (2007) VAI

Boris Giltburg at Intermusica

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