Suddenly Patricia Kopatchinskaya rolls out of the picture and her hotel room turns upside down: her phone has fallen to the floor. “It was because of the banana,” explains the Moldovan star violinist, during a video call from her hotel room in Oslo. She shows the structure on which she had installed her telephone: a round storage can with a ripe banana on top. In Kopatchinskaya (1977), who is one of the most extraordinary musicians of our time because of her ingenuity, daring and joy of playing, such an incident quickly seems like a metaphor.
This weekend Kopatchinskaja – also known as ‘PatKop’ – can be admired in full in De Doelen in Rotterdam, where a mini-festival around her person is taking place. She performs with Camerata Bern, the ensemble with which she has been working closely as an ‘artistic partner’ for years. “It’s very special to share the stage with friends,” says Kopatchinskaja, who speaks as enthusiastically and compellingly as she plays. “They understand me, we speak the same language. With me they have become wild animals.”
The program includes Schuberts Der Tod und das Mädchen and Schoenbergs Pierrot Lunaire, which Kopatchinskaya himself sings. Her latest project will premiere on Sunday evening, a multimedia performance around Haydns Sieben letzten Worte. On Saturday, Kopatchinskaja and Camerata Bern will give a public masterclass to students from various Dutch conservatories. Also, the film they made of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonata displayed.
Music from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries: that may not be what you expect from Kopatchinskaya. She has a reputation as a passionate champion of contemporary music, with countless premieres to her name. “Imagine a scientist repeating the same experiment every day – that’s boring, isn’t it? It is human nature to want to discover new things”, says Kopatchinskaja. In her view, new music is not something for once a month – an exception that you then make very complicated about – but something for every day.
She cites an example from the concerts she plays in Oslo in the days surrounding the interview, including with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Klaus Mäkelä, the future chief of the Concertgebouw Orchestra: „Last night violinist Pekka Kuusisto and I performed duets. I had composed a new duet for us, which we played live for the first time, without any preparation. That was possible, because Pekka reads music as if he were reading the newspaper. We need musicians like that, with such a free spirit, who are not afraid to try something new every time.”
Specialization therefore kills her: „Nonsense, it is important that we musicians do everything. Old music and new music.” Preferably side by side, as on her recent CD about the American composer George Antheil, whose work she effectively combined with that of the modernists John Cage and Morton Feldman and with Beethoven.
In Beethoven’s Scherzo Violin Sonata No. 7 makes her violin sound “ugly” in an unorthodox but delightful way.
I had composed a new duet that we played live for the first time, without preparation
Kopatchinskaya: „’Subito forte’ – it’s just in the score! That is Beethoven’s black humor, he opens the window, hears the noise outside and slams the window shut again. Incidentally, it was still a bit of work, because the sound engineer initially chose a neater take. After I heard the first mix, I called him up and said: no, you have to use that dirty take!”
Also read the review of the album on which Kopatchinskaja makes Beethoven sound ‘ugly’
Do not expect a ‘normal’ performance of Schuberts in Rotterdam Der Tod und das Mädchen. Not only did Kopatchinskaja arrange the string quartet for string orchestra, she also interweaves various other pieces of music between the movements, for example by the modern master György Kurtág.
The song on which Schubert based his quartet of the same name is also featured, sung by Kopatchinskaja herself, in the liberal ‘Sprechgesang’ style she has mastered for Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to be able to perform. When she couldn’t play the violin for months because of a tendonitis in her arm, she threw herself into that score, with astonishing results: “It works, precisely because I’m not a trained singer,” she says.
It shows the greedy artistry of Kopatchinskaya, who draws her own plan and does not like ingrained habits. The time when she performed the great romantic violin concertos as a virtuoso soloist is behind her, she says: „I had to play the concerts of Glazunov and Dvorak to gain access to the big stage. Now I’m old enough to do what really matters. Every second on stage counts. We are not a mausoleum, but a living playground. We now live in a world that is melting. We must continue to spread that message.”
Nowhere is her commitment more clearly, next weekend, than in the project around Haydns Sieben letzten Worte. For this, Kopatchinskaja collaborated with video artist René Liefert, who made silent videos about the relationship of different indigenous peoples with the earth. Kopatchinskaya: „We are on the brink of an abyss and everything depends on our next step. Maybe we’ll find a solution. But if that doesn’t work, we should at least try to perish with dignity. Like the musicians aboard the Titanic: play to the end.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 20, 2022