Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja has been making waves in the classical world with her feisty performances and technical mastery over works old and new. But it’s her modern, experimental approach to music making that sets her apart
Patricia Kopatchinskaja is taking a rare break from a dizzying touring schedule when we chat. After bagging the coveted Recording of the Year title at this year’s Gramophone Awards, the 36-year-old violinist is taking a well-deserved holiday at her parents’ house in Austria, where she is spending time with her daughter. Kopatchinskaja’s broad repertoire covers old masters such as Bach and Beethoven alongside contemporary classics from Bartók and Eötvös. But it’s her spirited interpretation of these latter modern works which has propelled Kopatchinskaja into the limelight.
It was Kopatchinskaja’s recording of three concertos by Hungarian composers Bartók, Eötvös and Ligeti that won the Gramophone award, and defined her as a forward-looking artist. ‘It’s something significant, especially for our appreciation of modern music,’ says the violinist. ‘These types of recordings are not usually for sale on the market, because they contain difficult, complicated music.’
A little way into our conversation, it becomes clear that Kopatchinskaja is a woman on a mission to modernity, and one wrestling with the wider industry status quo. ‘I want audiences to open their ears and hearts to all types of music, and not have to listen to 200-year-old pieces in every concert. It doesn’t make any sense to the understanding of living art.’
‘It’s much more interesting to let inspiration lead to something unexpected in the moment’
That said, Kopatchinskaja has worked with established orchestral giants like the London Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, and will soon perform Stravinsky’s Concerto for Violin in D with the Philharmonia Orchestra in a string of London engagements. So how does she reconcile her thirst for contemporary music with the need to perform traditional repertoire? ‘Of course I have to make compromises to play Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Stravinsky. It’s a compromise in the sense of my understanding of playing art, but when I play this music I find it to be wonderful. And it’s still worth playing.’
‘But you know,’ she adds, ‘one doesn’t read newspapers which are 200 years old. We need to know what’s happening today. So I try to imagine what the essential sense of this music would have been at that time, and how can I transport that into our world. It’s like having the composer near to me, on the stage, or on the front row – it’s a dialogue with him. What is very important is that it doesn’t remain an object of observation. It has to be alive.’
Indeed the violinist’s performance of Divertimento in D major K 136 with quartet-lab breathed new life into Mozart’s 1771 work. The concert, which saw Kopatchinskaja make her Wigmore Hall debut with acclaimed string soloists Pekka Kuusisto, Lilli Maijala and Pieter Wispelwey, garnered rave reviews that highlighted the group’s vivacious flair and ingenuity.
Kopatchinskaja’s website is also a reflection of her progressive outlook. Though at first sight it looks like that of any other musician, with plenty of glossy publicity images and an orderly set of links to her discography and latest news, at the side of the page lies a curious link entitled ‘My Kitchen’, which acts as a repository for Kopatchinskaja’s philosophies on music, work and creativity.
She likens her work to a kitchen full of continuous experimentation and culinary delight. ‘I came up with the idea that music is a bit like cooking. When I imagine other soloists, they bring a ready-baked cake to the stage. It’s always fantastic, it’s wonderful, it’s perfect. ‘I am not interested in this cake. I’m interested in taking all the ingredients and the recipe with me, and baking it on stage, so every time it’s a different shape, different taste. Because the orchestra is always different, the audience is different, the conductor is different, my shape is different. I think it’s much more interesting to let inspiration lead to something unexpected in the moment of the performance.’
But with this willingness to experiment and invent, comes a plucky acceptance that there will be failures. Another feature of Kopatchinskaja’s virtual kitchen is the ‘Trashbin’, where visitors to the site can browse negative reviews of her work. ‘Kopatchinskaja was not particularly impressive in the Bartók,’ states music writer Michael Tumelty, commenting on her performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra back in May. He added: ‘Her pitch, confidence and certainty were wayward; her sense of command and control of the concerto, in its direction and structure, were unsettling.’
‘I know that I polarise the audience, so I think if they only read so-called ‘positive’ reviews that they wouldn’t have the full picture of me.’ While most artists try to forget their bad reviews, Kopatchinskaja is unusually content in the knowledge that they’re all part of the makings of a musician, or as she puts it, ‘ingredients which should be part of my work’.
‘I’m not on stage to be liked or collect ‘likes’ on Facebook’
‘I can’t not experiment!’ she says gleefully. ‘I’m always refreshing ideas and trying to find out new things.’
Kopatchinskaja always plays with the score in front of her because ‘it’s like everything is a question. I like to go behind the notes, behind the black on white text so it feels like modern music. It feels like the premiere when I have the score in front of me. Every performance is unique and I imagine every performance is the first performance. Maybe even the last.’
And her conviction in the temporality of performance, as something that lives and dies within the moment, ultimately affects how she considers recordings. ‘The form of the CD is already grotesque,’ she says. ‘We try to perfect music, but this is impossible.’
Kopatchinskaja’s approach seems all the more maverick in an industry dominated by careful PR control and obsession with image. ‘I am not on the stage to be liked or to collect ‘likes’ on Facebook. It’s a philosophy of making art. On stage I provoke people. I entertain them – of course that’s also part of art – but I also ask them questions which they might not like to hear in music.
‘I leave many things open. I leave a space to show that they are welcome to come with me into my world, my fantasy, my imagination, and hear or see new things they may not have heard before. So my goal is not to be liked, but to tell them a story which can flourish in their own fantasy worlds.’
I wonder if the classical sector could be revitalised with a bit of Kopatchinskaja’s drive, her democractic outlook. Should more artists adopt similarly forward-thinking attitudes? ‘I think one could experiment quite a lot with programming and with including the opinions of orchestras,’ she responds. ‘Because in all orchestras there are interesting musicians with interesting ideas. I’m sure if they had the possibility to develop these ideas, they would create interesting concerts. And that doesn’t always necessarily have to be with the conductor. The idea of democracy in the orchestra can be developed much further.’
As well as the demands of juggling touring with family life, the violinist finds time to support various charities in her native Moldova. Last year Kopatchinskaja performed and programmed a benefit concert with the Berlin Staatskapelle for a nature restoration project, and she’s an ambassador for the children’s charity, Terre de Hommes. On the latter she speaks enthusiastically about the organisation’s aim to help families in poverty through finding ways to resolve the long-term issues surrounding deprivation, and praises it as a ‘very smart programme’.
It is this quality of generosity, apparent both on and off stage, that seems, in fact, to be at the heart of Kopatchinskaja’s outlook. As a musician she is willing to take risks, even embrace failure, and her true goal is to reinvigorate the individual’s experience of classical music. And it’s reassuring that voices like Kopatchinskaja’s are being rewarded, and are helping to drive the genre forward into new and exciting territory.