Violinist Leonidas Kavakos Appears with The Cleveland Orchestra

Leonadis Kavakos
Leonadis Kavakos

The Cleveland Orchestra: a conversation with violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos.

Story by Mike Telin

Just back from their European tour, The Cleveland Orchestra returns to Severance Hall this weekend for three performances under the direction of guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The program will feature Goffredo Petrassi’s Partita (1932) and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The concerts also mark the long-anticipated return of violinist Leonidas Kavakos. See  concert listings page for times and program variations.

“It’s been quite some time. I look forward to being back in Cleveland and playing with that great orchestra in that wonderful hall,” the engaging violinist said during a telephone conversation from his home in Greece. “I just hope it’s not too cold,” he added with a laugh.

During his last appearance with the Orchestra, Kavakos performed the Sibelius concerto, a work with which he has had great success throughout his career. This weekend he will take on another big work, Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in a. “It’s maybe not fair to say, but I think that along with the Sibelius these might be the best 20th-century concertos for the violin,” he said. “I’m not putting down the Alban Berg, but these two have an incredibly symphonic character — somehow they manage to be perfect symphonies and perfect violin concertos at the same time. This is true of the Shostakovich even more than Sibelius.”

Kavakos said that Shostakovich’s concerto is all about tension and the way the composer builds that tension during the four movements and the long  cadenza. “You have four completely different worlds of sound,” he pointed out.

Describing the first movement, ‘Nocturne,’ as “impressionistic but with a depressive quality,” Kavakos said that it makes a statement right from the start. “Normally first movements are more active, energetic, and fast-moving, but here is a situation where, in a way, the composer is telling the listener that it doesn’t matter what you came for, this is the world you’re going to face.”

He thinks the second movement shows exactly why Shostakovich was a master of sarcastic humor. “In a way I do find it similar to Beethoven’s humor. There’s always some kind of drama combined with that humor. The third movement is about emotions, but during the second movement there is no time to experience any of that. Then comes the passacaglia, which restores a kind of irregularity and agitation that’s amazing. It starts quite strong, and through a good plan by Shostakovich we arrive at the silence out of which the cadenza is born.”

Kavakos compared this cadenza to the one found in the original version of the Sibelius concerto, which he has recorded. “But I don’t think anything comes close to this cadenza in length. It builds up amazingly for almost five minutes, and is an amazing bridge to the last movement, which is more traditional and very active but not agitated. The amazing moment is where the passacaglia comes back. Then it builds to a climax that is like no other violin concerto.”

Surprisingly, the Shostakovich concerto is a recent addition to the violinist’s concert repertoire. Having studied it when he was young, he resisted playing it in public because he said he was never quite able to achieve the distinct worlds of color that are needed for each of the movements — especially the first and the third. “I scheduled it once, but I thought, no, it’s no good, so I cancelled it and played something else. Finally there came a point where I thought that I could go out onstage and deliver the kind of sound that I was pleased with. Now it is one of my favorite pieces to play, but it is always a challenge.”

He looks forward to performing the concerto this weekend with his good friend Gianandrea Noseda. “He conducted my first performance of this piece. I’ve worked with him many times, and it’s always a great pleasure.”

In addition to his career as a violinist, Leonidas Kavakos has established a respected career as a conductor. Having read that he wanted to be a conductor before he decided to become a violinist, I asked him if this was true. “Maybe ‘wanted’ is an overstatement,” he said, “but as a kid my  favorite thing was to listen to music, and when I did I would put any kind of book in front of me and pretend I was conducting. Apparently I could match gestures to the music. Of course this was totally instinctive, but it was a way for my parents to see that maybe it was something a little more than just craziness — maybe there’s talent there. But then I started playing the violin.” He confessed that it was the music of Bruckner and that composer’s unique sound world that ignited his interest in conducting.

Kavakos is also a performer-conductor, which he admits has its challenges. “The problem with conducting from the violin, unlike the piano, is that one faces the audience with the instrument, which means one’s back is to the orchestra. If you face the orchestra, the sound will not travel into the hall, and that limits the repertoire possibilities. Of course with works like Mozart or Bach it’s not a problem. The Mendelssohn or the Beethoven are also possible if the chemistry with the orchestra is good. A good orchestra is always alert and always listening, and as long as they are, they need very little help in order to play at the right place. A great conductor knows when to help, and when to inspire without interfering. I find it very rewarding even though the muscle work between playing and conducting is totally the opposite.”

Since he was last in Cleveland, Kavakos has established a successful collaborative partnership with pianist Yuja Wang, having toured with her and recorded the sonatas of Brahms for the Decca label. “From the first moment we played together — we played some trios — I could sense that this was a good match. We have toured quite a few places and it’s always been a great pleasure. We’re having another big tour next season, so I hope it will be an ongoing relationship that will bring nice and beautiful results.”

Given that we talked on the eve of his birthday, I wished him a happy one. “Thank you so much. We celebrate getting older — which is something we should not celebrate unless it is combined with more wisdom. You can count your age, but unfortunately the wisdom you can’t. In any case, life is the biggest present one can be awarded.”


Published on November 3, 2015.


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