By Inge Kjemtrup
Start with a look at the car: a rosso corsa Ferrari in the background of the cover photo. Next, observe the clothes of the figure in the foreground: smart tuxedo, bow tie, a neatly folded handkerchief in a pocket, hair slicked into place. Then, take another look at the entire photo and you’ll suddenly realize that it isn’t an ad for the latest James Bond flick: The man is holding a violin and a bow, and he knows how to use them. The man in the photo is 22-year-old Danish-Swiss violinist Niklas Walentin—with his 1978 Ferrari 308 GTB.
Rather like James Bond, Walentin found his way to success in a spectacular fashion. As a youngster, he took top awards at several Danish violin competitions, and, later on, he won three prizes at the Carl Nielsen Competition. His subsequent haul of prizes and awards included the prestigious Danish Music Critics Artist Award, and as a result he will be playing the Elgar Violin Concerto this June at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Concert Hall with the Copenhagen Philharmonic. His career shifted into high gear last summer when he made his Carnegie Hall debut, playing Nielsen’s music in the composer’s 150th anniversary year.
The Elgar Concerto is one of those works where if you don’t put your head on the block, I doubt that the audience will understand it.
High-octane virtuoso violin playing isn’t the be-all and end-all of Walentin’s musical life. His newly formed piano trio, the Trio Vitruvi, takes up much of his time. Catch him in a relaxed moment, and you might hear him dash off a Fritz Kreisler bon-bon with old-fashioned charm. I interviewed Walentin in Copenhagen last December at the Kent Kaffe Laboratorium, which is, despite the pseudo-scientific name, a cafe in the trendy Nørrebro area. There we discussed his path to success, passion for Nielsen’s music, and, of course, his Italian-made pride and joy (not, in this case, a violin).
Born in Copenhagen in 1994, Walentin grew up in Stege, a town on the small island of Møn, a place of chalky cliffs and pleasant beaches that’s popular with tourists. “I’m a real country boy,” he says with a smile. His mother thought he had musical talent and pointed him in the direction of the violin when he was six and a half. The violin was also meant to distract him from another childhood passion. “I wanted to be a race driver—I wanted to drive Formula 1,” Walentin recalls with a glint in his eye. “But my mother thought it was way too dangerous. Which it is.”
He started violin lessons at a local music school, and three years later won first place in the Jacob Gade Competition, and others. These early triumphs shaped his outlook. “I made the decision to not be the best violinist in the world but to be the best violinist that I could possibly be, which left me some freedom and not-too-high expectations for myself. By letting myself become the best I could be, [I could let the music] take me anywhere.”
Walentin was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music preparatory program when he was ten years old, four years younger than the usual age. Around the same time, he met Søren Elbæk, a well-respected Danish violinist and chamber musician, who became his mentor. “He’s definitely the one who shaped me into the violinist I’ve become and into which I’m still developing,” says Walentin. He continued studying with Elbæk even after he entered the academy as a full-time student at 14, commuting by bus and train from his island home.
The academy was a difficult experience, Walentin recalls. “I developed quite a musical character very early together with Søren. And Søren is a very strong character himself. So when [other] people were trying to shape me into something different and I didn’t get a good enough explanation of why, I got very stubborn.”
Given this conflict, it’s surprising that Walentin is still studying at the academy to earn a diploma, both as a soloist and as a chamber musician. Why put himself through this when his career is already taking off?
He consulted with Nikolaj Znaider, his fellow Danish violinist, about whether he should continue at the academy. “He asked me what I really wanted,” says Walentin. His reply seems to have surprised even himself: “From my old goal of becoming the best violinist that I could possibly be, I wanted perhaps to show that I can do everything. So many famous people have taken their soloist diploma here in Copenhagen, including Søren, and there is something magical about doing that debut concert—saying I’ve done my studies, and now I’m ready.”
He’s been ready for Carnegie Hall since his earliest days as a violinist. “I asked my mom: How do you know when someone is a really good violinist? When do you know you’re a top star? And she said: ‘When you play in Carnegie Hall,’” he says. That dream was twinned with another: “I decided that when I played in Carnegie Hall, I would buy a Ferrari.” He stepped on the Weill Hall stage on June 4, 2015. “It is possibly the best concert hall I ever played in,” he recalls. “I could just direct my sound as I wanted to. It was unbelievable.” And so he bought his Ferrari, as he’d promised himself, and drove it to the Verbier Festival, zooming around the Swiss mountain passes.
I first met Walentin at the previous year’s Verbier Festival when he was in the academy with several other young musicians, all working hard under the tutelage of famed teachers, such as Ferenc Rados and Ana Chumachenco. Walentin stood out among this fiercely talented group of youngsters, not only for his dapper style—he was often seen in a velvet jacket and bow tie in the warm July weather—but also for his old-fashioned, courtly style of playing.
At Verbier I had the pleasure of of reading through Hindemith’s raucous quartet Minimax with Walentin and another academy student. The cellist and I, both non-professional players, did our best to keep up as these two hotshots sped through the piece, handling difficult corners with consummate ease, and roaring at Hindemith’s musical insider jokes.
Chamber music is central to Walentin’s life now, even with his burgeoning solo career, and he spends half of his time with the Trio Vitruvi, with pianist Alexander McKenzie and cellist Jacob la Cour. They are studying at the Cortot Institute in Paris as well as the Royal Danish Academy.
Why would a player with the potential to become a top soloist want to share the spotlight? “After the Nielsen Competition, my solo career started to take shape, and I discovered the bad side, which is how lonely it is to travel around, practice many, many hours all by yourself, arrive alone, have a rehearsal with the orchestra, go back alone to your hotel room”—he takes a deep breath—“wait, go to the pre-rehearsal, play the concert, and go home alone again,” he says.
With the trio, we can make things new—there’s no safety net.
“It’s not going to be enough for me as an artist to have this life. But my life as a chamber musician I find much more giving. I find it much more comfortable walking onstage with two of my very dear friends with whom I have worked for hours and hours. We know exactly what we are going to do and what we’re going to present to the audience. With the trio, we can make things new—there’s no safety net—whereas with an orchestra, if they and the conductor don’t agree, you have to turn down the volume of your dedication. That’s what I don’t like.”
In any case, with the Carnegie triumph, Walentin continues to be in demand as a soloist. His recording of American composer Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, a work he’d previously performed with the academy’s percussion ensemble, is soon to be released by Naxos.
Walentin has also begun to explore the Elgar Concerto, the piece he will play in his June concert, courtesy of the Danish Music Critics Artist Award win. “I find so far that there are not themes in this concerto, but instead figures that are built on harmonics. Emotionally, there are feelings of loneliness and longing, happiness and enthusiasm, anger and hysterics. It’s one of those works where if you don’t put your head on the block, I doubt that the audience will understand it. I’m not sure where this concerto will take me, but I know it’s going to be one of the best journeys of music ever and I’m looking forward to it.”
Meanwhile, he occasionally takes his beloved Ferrari for a spin in Copenhagen. “Driving and playing, they are very connected,” he says. “An old Italian sports car is very similar to an old Italian violin. They have their problems—they live their own lives.”
‘The Danish Beethoven’ Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) is perhaps best-known outside his native Denmark for his six symphonies, with Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” and Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” being the two most often played. In Denmark, his many tender songs and hymns, a world away from his harmonically adventurous symphonies, are much loved. His output also includes four string quartets, a viola quintet, two solo violin pieces, and two violin and piano sonatas.
Walentin describes the versatile composer as “the Danish Beethoven,” and has been a strong advocate for Nielsen’s music since he first encountered it at the age of 15. “I very quickly felt that this was music in which I could find myself,” he says. He especially admires Nielsen’s forward-thinking approach.
Walentin has recorded the works for solo violin, and violin and piano (the latter with pianist Ulrich Stærk). Nielsen was a second violinist in the Royal Opera in Copenhagen and, although not a virtuoso player himself, he understood how to expand the instrument’s boundaries, challenging the first performer of the Prelude, Theme, and Variations for Solo Violin, Op. 48 (1923), with increasingly difficult variations.
Walentin believes Nielsen’s violin pieces may have inspired Bartók’s solo sonata. He cites the inventive Nielsen solo work Preludio e Presto, Op. 52 (1927–28), with its unbarred Preludium. In playing it, Walentin says, “I feel the material is like clay—you hold it and if you press it, it forms a new shape, and then if you hold it another way and squeeze it, it takes another shape. It’s a new experience for me every time I play it. I find that fascinating.” He feels he needs to introduce the piece before he plays it, unlike the Op. 48 (1923), which boasts more instant audience appeal.
Walentin’s passion for cars only serves to deepen his connection to Nielsen, who, it turns out, was also an auto enthusiast. Walentin notes with delight: “Nielsen bought himself a brand-new Renault from Paris!”
What He Plays
“My violin is something completely magical: It’s a Giovanni Francesco Pressenda, 1837,” says Walentin. It is loaned to him by the Augustinus Foundation in Denmark. “It was built in Torino, one of the industrial centers of Europe—and where Fiat has [its] headquarters.”
A violin concerto by another Dane, Niels Gade, is on Walentin’s menu for 2017 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. From there, Walentin wants to explore other music by Gade, along with lesser-known composers’ works. “The old masters aren’t going anywhere,” Walentin says, “so I want to try to use the next time of my life to present some of those composers that aren’t being played.”