Georgia-born violinist joins the world of greatly talented young performers
by Laurence Vittes

When I first heard Lisa Batiashvili play at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2002, she was already a rising star. Against a backdrop of faintly heard freeway traffic, like surface noise on an old LP, she played Beethoven’s violin concerto with Shakespearean breadth and fury. After a first movement of hypnotic majesty, and a slow movement that was riveting in an introspective, improvisatory way, the third movement took off at an unexpectedly fast speed. She closed out the Beethoven and brought the house down by ripping into the cadenza and the final rush of notes with breathtaking virtuosity.

In a world rich with greatly talented young violinists, she was obviously something special.

Since that night in Tinseltown, Batiashvili’s career has continued to flourish. The 26-year-old musician appeared twice at Carnegie Hall in 2003, made her Berlin Philharmonic debut in October 2004 playing the Beethoven conducted by Osmo Vänskä, and last March made her New York Philharmonic debut. She played Sibelius at the Tanglewood and Saratoga festivals this summer, and her return to the United States in 2006 will include concerto appearances in Los Angeles (Prokofiev), San Francisco (Bartók), and Chicago (Sibelius). In 2006, she also will play the Beethoven with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, the Birmingham Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the NHK Symphony in Tokyo.

And although to date she has been primarily associated with the big, mainstream concertos, she is becoming increasingly interested in new music. A few years ago, she recorded Olli Mustonen’s Triple Concerto for Ondine. She’s now working with Swedish composer Magnus Lindberg on his first violin concerto, scheduled to premiere in Lincoln Center with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra.

Not surprisingly in a world where glamour goes hand in hand with celebrity, she has also attracted attention for her stunning good looks. When she performed Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, an enthusiast’s weblog described her in terms befitting sex symbols like tennis player Anna Kournikova: “Deliciously leggy violin soloist Lisa Batiashvili from Georgia via Hamburg and Tokyo,” the writer observed, “is sure to stimulate much new masculine interest in classical music.”

I catch up to Batiashvili in Washington, DC, where she’s rehearsing for performances of the Brahms concerto with the National Symphony conducted by Vänskä. For one so young and flying so high, she seems remarkably grounded. In the midst of arranging for airplane tickets to bring her mother and seven-month-old daughter to DC from their home base of Munich (where her husband, oboist François Leleux, is principal of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra), she is gracious and forthcoming, her fluent, faintly accented English tinged with easy smiles.

Born in Tbilisi, capital of the Georgian republic in the old Soviet Union, she studied with her father and attended a school for gifted children, where she was one of the few string players. (Georgia has been famous for producing pianists, not violinists.) Asked about role models, she says that “our heroes were chosen for us.” So, she had grown up on the usual recordings of David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, and Jascha Heifetz. But when she heard Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Deutsche Gramophone recording of Mozart concertos conducted by Herbert von Karajan, she sensed a kindred spirit. For Batiashvili, the then 14-year old phenom’s playing “was more approachable than the recordings of those 60-year-old men.”

At the time, Tbilisi had “quite an active musical life,” a situation that, after the bad economic times following the breakup of the Soviet Union, is apparently coming back. “I go there mostly every year for two or three weeks,” she says. “I try to see all my family and friends.”Like many musicians from Eastern Europe, she is split between the two different cultures of East and West.

Batiashvili and her family moved to Hamburg in 1991 when she was 12, in part because her parents wanted her to study in Germany. After a year and a half with Mark Lubotski at the Musikhochschule, Batiashvili moved to Munich, where she worked for six years with Ana Chumachenko. Finnish pianist Ralf Gothoni (winner of the 1991 Gilmore Artist Award) steered her Chumachenko’s way. “Ralf was one of the first musicians we met in Europe,” she recalls, “and we lived in his house in Hamburg when we first moved there.”

Asked what made Chumachenko so special, Batiashvili says it was more than just technique. “Of course, she gave me a whole new understanding of how to play the violin, but it was also how to work out technical problems on my own,” she explains. “She gave me a lot of ideas, too, and had her own system of work and practicing.” Most important, however, was that Chumachenko—one of those miraculous teachers who instructs every student differently—knew what was right and wrong for her.

“She knew exactly how to read my personality,” Batiashvili says, “and how to nurture it.”

Working with Chumachenko has had obvious rewards, beginning with Batiashvili’s winning second prize at the Helsinki Sibelius Competition in 1995, followed by debuts at the Ravinia Festival with Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony, in Japan with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, at London’s Wigmore Hall, and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In 2000, she played for the first time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel, followed by debuts at the Blossom Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra and at the BBC Promenade Concerts with the BBC Scottish Symphony.

When BBC Music Magazine nominated her Proms performance of the Beethoven concerto as the most outstanding debut of the year, it set the stage for an invitation to join BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists promotion and development program. As part of the program, she recorded a Bach-Brahms-Schubert recital for EMI (never released in the United States, but still available in England), which moved Gramophone magazine to compare her to the young Oistrakh. “The EMI recording really opened many doors,” she says, although Batiashvili still knows nothing about the selection process.

“They just called me up one day,” she adds, “and that was it.”

I asked her how she maintained her poise while blossoming seemingly overnight from a girl violinist with potential to a world-class soloist. “Luckily,” she says, “it happened step by step, which was really good for me.”

It hit home the night of her Proms debut. “Suddenly,” she says, “I realized there were really important concerts coming up, Cleveland, Chicago, and they were all in one year!”

One composer she has become particularly identified with is Sergei Prokofiev. In March 2003, Batiashvili took part in the Kennedy Center’s Prokofiev tribute, playing the First Violin Sonata with pianist Benjamin Hochman, and she has made the First Concerto one of her specialties.

Batiashvili is well aware of the many things Oistrakh did with the music, particularly his expressive use of rubatos and ritardandos that have become almost canonized because he was such an influential performer. But even though Oistrakh’s interpretation makes “a lot of sense,” Batiashvili also feels strongly that each player must come to the music with her or his own deeply individual response.

Since Prokofiev seems to be particularly appealing to young string players these days, and Batiashvili has received rave reviews for her Prokofiev, I asked her about the Concerto. “Audiences really enjoy it,” she says enthusiastically, “because it’s not too modern or atonal.

“For me,” she adds, “It’s special because it is such a magical piece.”

Indeed, as Batiashvili points out, Prokofiev asks the soloist to play the ravishing first movement theme sognando, as in a dream. Obviously relishing the opportunity to talk about the music, she adds that “the awkward, very rhythmical second theme of the first movement is the complete opposite of the saintly first theme, so one must give each its full character; just as in the second movement, it is important to give both the painful lyrical places and also the brutal places their proper character.”

Batiashvili notes that she used to practice the fiendishly difficult second movement with a metronome. “The more I play it, however,” she says, “the more I understand how to deal with the technical difficulties, and the easier it is to play. There are only a few places now where I don’t know whether it’s going to work.”

One logistically challenging place she singles out is at the end of the first movement, where the violin plays with the flute and harp. “It’s very tricky,” she says, “and it’s important to know exactly what the flute and harp are doing, rhythmically. It’s also tricky,” she adds playfully, “because if the conductor loses control, you have to be ready to be flexible, but it’s difficult because you have these very fast syncopations and you can’t just swim around.”

In the third movement, Batiashvili says, “the bassoon reminds me of a ballet dancer, and the violin reminds me of a sad Arlecchino. There is a lot of Debussy in some parts and I love Debussy, especially his music for orchestra. It’s so romantic,” she sighs.

“When the opening theme of the first movement returns at the end of the third, with the trills, I play it a little misty, like going up to the heavens.

“All of life,” she says, “is explained in this piece.”

WHAT LISA BATIASHVILI PLAYS

Thanks to the Nippon Music Foundation, Batiashvili plays the 1709 “Engleman” Stradivari, named after its previous owner, the American collector E.P. Engleman. “For concertos,” she says, “it’s especially good. For chamber music, it’s a matter of how well you balance its sound with the other instruments.” To go with the Engleman, she has one good bow, made by the 19th-century maker Pierre Simon (who was responsible for a large number of bows signed by Vuillaume). No question, she says, “different bows make the same violin sound so different.” With Batiashvili in command, the Engleman probably sounds fabulous with whatever bow she uses. “It’s a matter of luck whether you get to use it for one, two, or five years,” Batiashvili explains. She’s in her fourth year with the fiddle, and is hoping that the committee will give her a fifth when they meet again. “One gets really spoiled,” she says. “After playing it for two years, I think it’s normal.”

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