interviewInterview with Romanian violinist Alexandru Tomescu: What is music for in the era of ‘more’ and ‘faster’

With a mission to change perceptions surrounding classical music, Romanian violinist Alexandru Tomescu has been performing throughout the country on the Stradivarius Elder-Voicu violin, on which he won the right to play, for a second run, until 2018. He tells about his encounters with the public during his many tours, what the role of music education could be and some of his projects for this year.

What are the music-related projects you have on the agenda this year?

This year is filled with daring projects. The headline is the Stradivarius tour, this year in its ninth edition. I’m preparing a very difficult program, maybe the most complex so far. But this was my motto at all the previous tours, so standards went up constantly. I will announce more details about the tour when it is launched, a moment which is getting closer.

Outside of the country, I will be present in the international edition of the Stradivarius tour, this year in five European countries. I will also hold numerous concerts and master classes in Asia (China, South Korea), Europe (England, France and Holland) and South America. I have several concerts scheduled for the Bucharest public as a concert soloist with the Radio Orchestra.

I won’t neglect this year either my involvement in charity activities. First of all the project of the Cultural Center in Mihăileni, related to the house belonging to George Enescu, is starting to take shape. Several fundraising events will take place in Bucharest for this. I’m an ambassador for HHC Romania (Hope & Homes for Children), I continue to support them for the wonderful work they are doing.

In spring, two new discs will be launched: the complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Bach, recorded in Germany with Grammy winner Jakob Haendel, as well as the Enescu integral, recorded last year with pianist Eduard Kunz.

What does performance in classical music entail? How much of virtuosity is native endowment and how much practice?

I think every accomplished artist has a personal story, a different one each time. It is hard, if not impossible to outline a recipe. I can, at most, say what worked in my case: work, a lot of work. Of course, the amount of work put in cannot compensate for a lack of talent and, at the same time, an extraordinary talent, without work, cannot go far. Besides talent and work, many other factors need to align.  One needs to have the opportunity of meeting the professor, the right mentor at the right time, to be able to travel freely in order to take part in contests and improvement courses, to have access to relevant information in the field, be it scores, recordings or the option of enrolling at a famous university. Being a very good communicator, knowing how to present convincingly and coherently the projects you believe in, knowing how to manage your emotions very well in order to handle the stress on stage but also the competition-related one, having a good work and rest discipline, being open to novelty and experiment and having a good heart are all important. I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, these are some directions that spontaneously came to mind.

Regarding the time for study, it varies from case to case. I wouldn’t see it as value criteria. It is rather an indicator of the efficiency of the musician. In the end, a problem can be solved in five minutes or five hours. It is all a matter of focus and efficiency. I can study eight-ten hours a day with the violin if the program requires. At the same time, though, with the tens of tours I had, I learned to be very efficient. I think time is the true luxury of our days.

What were the defining moments in your career so far?

Meeting two people that marked me profoundly, from a musical point of view, was without a doubt a defining moment for me. One is my mother, who was my first violin teacher and the other is maestro Stefan Gheorghiu, whose student I was for over ten years. I can’t find enough words to say how much I owe to these wonderful people.

Also, winning the George Enescu competition and immediately after the second prize and the prize for the best recital at the Marguerite Long – Jacques Thibaud contest in Paris. Winning the right to play the famous Stradivarius violin, but especially the 2011 moment when I dared for the first time to propose to the Romanian public a program of great substance and technical difficulty: the Paganini integral. The success was overwhelming, and it gave me the courage to go even further every year.

What were the main challenges in your work to familiarize the audience with the sound of the Stradivarius Elder-Voicu violin?

Every day I try to take down the myth that classical music is so serious and difficult that one gets a headache just by thinking about it. The Stradivarius violin had and still has a significant role because many people came to the first concerts driven by the curiosity of seeing what a Stradivarius looks like. I think many of them discovered that the most spectacular part of this violin is its sound. If out of them, even 10 percent, became classical music fans, I think my mission has been successfully accomplished.

Preconceived ideas are the most difficult to fight because it is hard to appeal to reason. People simply ‘’know.” But with much patience and constant work, remarkable results can be obtained.

With the Stradivarius tours, I wanted to promote music which is not played every day in concert halls, difficult and compelling programs. I am convinced that such an event needs to have also the role of educating the public’s taste. This is why I wasn’t afraid to propose programs which at first seemed hard to sell, or difficult to be accepted by the public. Almost two hours of solo violin – with the integral of the Paganini caprices, the six sonatas for solo violin of Eugene Ysaye or the Bach integral – over two hours and a half, in concerts which took place without a break. Each time, the public’s response was simply enthusing, and it gave me the confidence that I’m on the right track. The Enescu integral and the one with the Prokofiev sonatas, of previous years, enjoyed the biggest success and receptivity from the audience.

How do you see the role of musical education in school? What is important in developing a musical education?

Today, in the era of “more” and “faster”, music comes with a different set of values, with an openness towards the spiritual world. I would say we need it more than ever. The first contact is very important, crucial even. If the famous concert-lessons become dry and boring lectures, blocked in a specialized terminology, then the bet is lost from the very start.

I think the practical side can be the winning solution. There are countries where a music hour entails learning to play an instrument, and later, putting together an orchestra. I want to underline that this happens in general-profile schools, not in arts schools. The experience of being part of an orchestra is fantastic for a child. The finality of the endeavor doesn’t matter that much – if they choose or not a career in music – but much more the experience and the new communication methods they learn.

Music is a very personal experience, everyone understands and interprets it in his or hers way, so I’ve always been in favor of personal solutions for every individual. There is no standard age at which to start with music or begin playing an instrument. The most important criterion should be that of feeling a calling in this direction.

The curriculum in state schools lacks in many ways regarding music education. I think for those really interested the viable option is exploring on their own, be it going to various concerts and shows, be it learning how to play an instrument (with a professional, of course).

Are there artists outside of the classical music world you would like to collaborate with?

There are very many classical music artists who crossed the border and explored the world of jazz, of popular music or rock. What I would most like to try is something in jazz – Stephane Grapelli is one of my favorites (in an ideal world, as he is no longer alive).

Playing jazz, having a classical music education, may seem impossible at first. There is even a joke, a real one: How do you make things difficult for a classical music performer? You take away the score. And a jazzman? You give him a score! These are two seemingly opposed approaches to the musical phenomenon. With the first, we have the respect for the Score, the Bible, if you like, left by the composer, and which needs to be followed and understood to the smallest detail. In jazz, there is no score. It’s easy. And so complicated, though, all this simplicity!

What Romanian or international musician would you like to work with?

I think a recital with [e.n. pianist] Radu Lupu would be a revelation.

What is the state of the project to save George Enescu’s house in Mihăileni?

I have very good news regarding Enescu’s house in Mihăileni: following last year’s awareness and fundraising campaigns, which took place both in the country (the 2015 Stradivarius tour was completely dedicated to this cause) and abroad (in London, in a recital with Raluca Stirbat, who rediscovered the house many years ago), the house is already a success story. It was 70 percent refurbished, following traditional techniques and procedures, keeping as much as possible of the initial material. More specifically, at this point the house is standing, the wattle and daub walls (Ro. paiantă) were refurbished during an event (Ro. Clacă – voluntary work, usually done among neighbors, ending with a party) which took place in 2015 in the sound of the fanfare from the neighboring village, the shingle roof is refurbished. In 2016, if we manage to raise the necessary funds, the last two events will follow: one to finish the walls, one to fit the wooden woodwork (which have been restored in the meantime) and bringing in the époque furniture (restored, as well). The Pro Patrimonio foundation, led by architect Șerban Sturdza, and the Order of the Architects in Romania played a determining part.

Once this healing process of the house is over, the most interesting and most complex stage begins: turning the place into an actual cultural center, where talented youth in the area can have access to the fine arts: music (not just classical, but also folk music; let’s not forget that George Enescu’s first violin teacher was the famous fiddler Lae Chiorul), painting, theater. I’m convinced that Enescu would have liked such a project. This year we want to have a violin master class in Mihăileni, a painting camp over the summer and, the most daring project, building a concert hall, with a capacity of 120 seats. The 2016 edition of the Stradivarius tour is dedicated to raising funds for this school.

What works (literature, music, film etc.) would you recommend to someone looking to find out more about Romania and the country’s culture?

Direct contact would be the most telling for someone looking to get to know us better. Nothing easier than to come meet us in person, with all of ours, the good and those improving. In the recommendations, I would rely on contemporary works, where I feel that the gap that exists between the West and us is reducing more and more. I wouldn’t leave the classics aside, obviously but being connected to contemporaneity seems to me eloquent for today’s situation.

Alexandru Tomescu CV Highlights

Alexandru Tomescu made his debut in 1985, at age nine, and has since performed on numerous stages in and outside of the country, such as Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York or Metropolitan Arts Centre in Tokio, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or the Berliner Philharmonie. He performed with conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Kurt Masur or Christoph Eschenbach and has won numerous awards.

Unconventional spaces are some of the settings where he reaches a wide and diverse audience. As such he played the Stradivarious violin at the Bucharest metro, he performed in the woods to raise awareness of the irrational exploitation of the Romanian woods, in front of a house in ruins to stop the destruction of Romania’s National Heritage buildings and also on the pedestal of the statue in front of Casa Presei.

In 2007 he won the right to play the Stradivarius ElderVoicu violin, and again in 2013. Romanian violinist Ion Voicu played the same instrument from 1956 until his death in 2007. The Stradivarius ElderVoicu violin was constructed in 1702 by Antonio Stradivari and was bought by the Romanian state in 1956. The violin previously belonged to A. W. Lukens (New York), was part of the W. E. Hill & Sons collection in London, Charles F. Edler (Frankfurt), Hamma & Co. (Stuttgart) and Henry Werro (Berna).

More about Alexandru Tomescu’s recordings here.

Interview by Simona Fodor, Associate Editor, [email protected]

Alexandru Tomescu performing during the 2011 Stradivarius tour

Alexandru Tomescu makes an incognito appearance at the Bucharest metro

Photos: Alexandru Tomescu