Saturday, 25 April 2015

Thinking and playing - My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger

Multi-layered Pagannini Caprices, playing in a volcano and writing modern baroque music, all this and Mozart with the Philharmonia Orchestra. My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger.

The young American violinist Eric Silberger has just made his debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra (18,19 April 2015) performing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Eric Silberger has been busy travelling recently; in Spain in March touring with the Berlin Konzerthausorchester and Dmitri Kitajenko in Brahms Violin Concerto, off to Denmark to play the Mozart again, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Robin Ticciati, and Romania in June for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I met up with him, en route for rehearsals, to chat about his career so far, and his plans.

In any performing career there are things that the performer does which they enjoy and others less so, but which might seem necessary. In Eric's case, he has managed to catch the imagination with a couple of events out of the way of regular performances. One is his recording playing inside a volcano, and the other is the layering of all 24 of Pagannini's Caprices on top of each other (you can see this on YouTube).

'something of a history with volcanoes'

I am curious about the volcano stunt, and Eric says that he did it because it was on his bucket list. He has what he terms 'something of a history with volcanoes', the ash cloud prevented him from getting to Norway for a concert, but another ash cloud did not prevent him getting from New Zealand to Russia. So when the opportunity came to play in the volcano he took it. Eric is also interested in how you might reach more people by changing the context of the performance, so felt that this was a great idea of moving outside the regular concert hall.

The recording of the Pagannini Caprices came about because he became interested in the tempo relationships between the individual caprices after hearing an interview with Glenn Gould. To try out whether the specific relationships really were so intimately linked, Eric made a demo recording layering each caprice over the other. Then he collaborated with Lara St John to produce the video.

Interviewing Eric is a lively and energising experience, as ideas and thoughts tumble out of him and not just at random. He is more than a player, and considers a lot about music and its role.
He is clearly one of those players who constantly thinks 'outside the box', perhaps this comes from his training where he combined studying music with political science.

He comes from a family of four generations of violinists so he started the violin quite naturally, just picking one up with he was tiny. He is one of those players who learned by instinct, and never had the concept of positions, he only learned them 10 years later. I ask how he coped with the transition from child player to adult, something with which some players have struggled. His response is to laugh (Eric laughs a lot in conversation), and say 'If you have a little crisis every year then you never have a huge one'. His first concert was at the age of six and he developed a significant concert schedule when quite young.

he worked seven days per week with one hour's vacation per day

He studied first in Cincinnati and then at the Juilliard School for 12 years. This is a long time, and he is glad not to be going back but glad he was there. His time at the Juilliard was very full on, as he combined studying there with a full time BA in Political Science at Columbia University. I ask how he coped, and he blithely answers that he worked seven days per week with one hour's vacation per day.

Though he has no plans to use the BA, he feels that is was useful and that for him everything informs everything, though it is not always obvious and that an aspect of creativity is the relating of things you would not normally relate. He goes on to add that you might apply the principles of economics to music, though not necessarily a good idea it would give 'interesting results'.

'you might apply the principles of economics to music, 
though not necessarily a good idea it would give "interesting results"'
Eric will be returning to Iceland this summer when he plays a challenging programme of unaccompanied music by Bach, Paganini, Eugene Ysaye and Heinrich Ernst. He adds that the Ernst Etude is the hardest of them all, but that the technical challenge is what makes life so much fun when you don't have to do it! He adds that such a programme is, for him, easier than playing the Mozart concerto because Mozart requires such simplicity and purity to it. In many ways, for Eric, to play it you either need to practice a little or a lot. There are things you can get away with in the Paganini that you can't in the Mozart (and vice versa).

He listens to a lot of other violinists, as he is interested to see what ideas are out there. And most of the people that he admires to today he has worked with. Two of the people he mention are the concert master of the New York Philharmonic, and Lorin Maazel. He admires Maazel as much for the way that Maazel conducts his life, both performing and relaxing with a focussed intensity. As for violinists of the past, his list starts with Heifetz, Oistrakh, Milstein and Szering, and he could go on and fill a book. He feels that all the violinists of the past that he admires had a strong conception of how to play, whereas today there is more compromise so that everyone sounds alike (partly as a result of recordings). Whereas in the past, each violinist was in his own world, and a lot were certainly not diplomatic about conveying it!

When I ask about favourite composer and works, he seems a little puzzled and says that he would have a hard time choosing one piece because it depends on his mood. He goes on to add that Beethoven would be his favourite composer for the sheer variety of his output.

In February 2016 Eric will be in Minnesota performing a new piece for violin and orchestra that he is writing. He admits that he does not write much, but this he wrote a piece for the same forces this year. He tries to make his writing accessible, writing the sort of music that he would want to listen to. And he says that composing new work is easier than coming up with cadenzas for concertos.

composing new work is easier than coming up with cadenzas for concertos.

For the Mozart concerto he is playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra, all the cadenzas are original and Eric still changes them every day; for Mozart concertos he usually plays his own concertos. With cadenzas, Eric likes playing the familiar in a new way. He has done totally improvised cadenza (with Donald Runnicles) but usually has rather more structure in them.

He also has ideas about baroque music, but not quite in the way you might expect. When he learns that I too write music, Eric brings up the idea of baroque music written by a modern composer. For Eric this intriguing concept is a way of learning things, he feels that you could discover what sounded good at the time and re-do it in a modern way. A further thought, was whether if we wrote old music in the modern way would we get to the same conclusions! Clearly Eric is a player and composer who thinks deeply about the music, and thanks to his training in political science, is apt to make unusual and intriguing connections. His final thoughts on this new/old dichotomy bring on the idea of a time machine, and how it might be possible that both sides would learn something from the other.

I am interested in how the composing sits with the playing, and we return to Eric's point earlier about everything informing everything else. He studied some conducting and some piano, as well as the violin, and studied composing informally. He remains very interested in conducting, and how a conductor conveys his ideas via body language, because visuals are all that a conductor has. We have an interesting discussion which continues after we have left the coffee shop, about different conductors and visual styles, and what they achieve.

Eric has half an album recorded, the works on it being originally recorded for broadcast. He feels that it may be some while before the album is finished, but admits that he has been asked the question a lot in the last three months. And he has also released a number of videos.

You can hear Eric's performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy on BBC iPlayer, for 30 days from 19 April 2015.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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