The Russian conductor Maxim Vengerov plays the violin with such skill it makes your jaw drop. He makes his regional debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival.
Violinist Maxim Vengerov is a Russian on fire
What exactly is a great violinist supposed to sound like? If you're not entirely sure, look up Maxim Vengerov on YouTube. The 37-year-old Russian musician, conductor and professor plays the violin with such skill and sensitivity it makes your jaw drop, demonstrating a virtuosity and sense of musical colour powerful enough to impress even people with little experience of western classical music.
UAE residents will have the chance to hear Vengerov's remarkable playing live, when the violinist plays at the Abu Dhabi Festival on Thursday. Performing with the veteran conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in an evening entitled Resplendent Russia, the event sees Vengerov return to his Russian roots with, among others, one of the greatest pieces of Russian music ever written.
Tchaikovsky's only concerto for the violin, one of the most demanding pieces in the string repertoire, forms a centrepiece for the evening. Requiring sensitivity and technical prowess, the piece has long been close to Vengerov's heart.
"I remember being 11 years old and dreaming to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto - I listened many times to [the Soviet violinist] David Oistrakh's wonderful version as a child, so for me it was so natural to play this piece already. It's one of the most virtuoso pieces in the whole repertoire - audiences feel like they want to clap from the very beginning. It is of course demanding and requires a lot of self-control from me. You need to be cool in your mind and hot in your body - your soul - you have to find a good balance."
This balance is something Vengerov has had plenty of time to perfect. The Siberian-born son of a choir director mother and a musician father, being a string soloist was something he knew he wanted to do from a very early age.
"My father was an oboe player in the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra, and I was really a child of this orchestra; it's where I was raised. I have very early memories of watching their rehearsals, and I knew straight away I wanted to be a violinist. Why? Because the violin section sits right on the edge next to the audience, and I wanted everyone to see me!"
Starting violin lessons at the age of five, Vengerov quickly emerged as a prodigy, winning an international competition at the age of 10 and leaving Russia at 13 to follow his teacher Zakhar Bron to London's Royal Academy of Music, an institution where Vengerov currently teaches as the Menuhin Professor of Music. This early start means Vengerov knows his Russian musical colleagues as well as many an ageing veteran.
"I worked with conductor Yuri Temirkanov first when I was 13, so you can say our upcoming concert in Abu Dhabi is something of a family affair. I have been raised in the Russian and Soviet classical tradition, with the best teachers I could ever dream of. Great Russian musicians like my teacher Zakhar Bron and my mentor Mtitslav Rostropovich have had a huge influence on me, as has the legacy of Soviet composers like Shostakovich, Prokoviev and Khachaturian."
Vengerov's close relationship with Russia's musical elite has only become stronger recently, when this November he married Olga, sister of the up and coming Russian violin virtuoso, Ilya Gringolts.
Yet he has more than just this lifelong intimacy with Russia's musical greats to inspire his playing. The violinist is lucky enough to play on the Kreutzer Stradivarius, a unique violin made in 1727 by the unequalled Italian instrument maker Antonio Stradivari and has been lent to him by a benefactor. When it was last offered for auction in 1998, the violin broke the world record for any instrument, fetching just under £950,000 (Dh5.5m) at Christie's London. Once belonging to Rodolphe Kreutzer, the French violinist and friend of Beethoven, the instrument makes an unusually rich sound that Vengerov exploits to the full.
"The violin has beautiful colours - just in its appearance it's one of the most gorgeous instruments. It was made at the end of Stradivari's career, and has a much darker sound than the violins from his golden, middle period. When I'm playing it I can match the musical colours of the cello group, the violas, the wind section - it's a superb instrument for blending solo violin with the rest of the orchestra."
With an equal reputation both as musician and teacher, Vengerov's life appears to be one of those musical existences that rarely offer a break. Isn't he perhaps tempted to focus on one musical discipline, if only for simplicity's sake?
"Not at all! Between conducting, teaching and playing I get a full experience of music-making. If I had to give up any of them, this experience would be partial and not entirely satisfying."
• Maxim Vengerov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, will perform on Thursday at 8pm in the Emirates Palace Auditorium. Tickets start at Dh295. A preconcert talk, open to ticket-holders only, will be held at 6.30pm at the hotel's Conference Lounge Centre
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