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Art, Freedom and Kindling the Flames: An Interview with Dmitry Sitkovetsky

Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s celebrated career as a violinist spans a discography of more than 40 recordings. His collaborators to date include performing with the London Symphony, London Philharmonia, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where he worked with conductors Sir Colin Davis, Mariss Jansons, and Yehudi Menuhin.

As soloist, he has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sitkovetsky is also a flourishing conductor and arranger. His iconic orchestral and string trio versions of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations enjoy regular performances and acclaimed recordings by many of today’s leading performers.

In 1990 he founded the New European Strings Chamber Orchestra, bringing together the most distinguished string players from the top European ensembles; Many still play with Sitkovetsky today in various engagements.

His breadth of talent recently earned him an invitation to TEDx, where he spoke about the power of curiosity. He’s equally at home in his native Russia, in America, his adoptive country since 1977, and in England, where he now resides with his family.

In advance of his concerts in Lafayette and Piedmont, his only appearances on the West Coast this year, I recently spoke with maestro Sitkovetsky about his career, his courage to break new grounds, and of course, his 10 million dollar Stradivari. Relaxed, poignant, and vibrant as the music he plays, he is a wealth of information about the global music scene, which he generously shared with me in our native Russian. His is an effervescent world, in which Johannes Brahms’ Vienna is intertwined with Robin Williams’ New York, Mikhail Baryshnikov pops in for a master class, and you if you stick around just a little longer, magic will sweep you in too.

Q: You came to America already a formed musician in 1977. You were a star student at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory, and your parents were well-known musicians. Why did you decide to start everything from scratch at the Julliard School of Music in New York?

A: Going to Julliard was the best decision I made in my emigration. I didn’t want to be a musical tourist. I came to live in America, to be part of the West’s cultural fabric, and Julliard gave me that. It is much more than a music school. I watched Shakespeare plays there, for free. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev would come there also. New York of the 1970s was amazing. It was dirty, very dangerous, and very free. It could belong to anyone: I owned it, just like Rockefeller. For two incredible years I absorbed what the West could offer – and that was what I sought, not success, not fame. I cherish those two years in New York as the beginning of my new life in the West.

America also gave me freedom to be me. In Russia, I was born into the musical world. I literally grew up under the grand piano of my mother [famous pianist Bella Davidovich], surrounded by famous people, with a tremendous burden of expectation. Everyone wanted me to succeed, and when I did, winning my first international completion in Prague at the age of 12, expectations only increased. But I wanted to know – was I successful, or was it my pedigree and all the support systems around me?

So I left. When I began winning at the Julliard, I knew the answer to that question.

Q: What did you learn in New York you hadn’t learned in Moscow?

A: The Moscow Conservatory offered a broader musical education in general, with in-depth studies in adjacent artistic disciplines like musical theory or harmony. At Julliard, the emphasis was on performance; I actually dropped out of my harmony class, because it was so basic.

But there were many discoveries – chamber music, for instance. In Russia, they were preparing either soloists or orchestra players. There really wasn’t a culture of chamber music.

At Julliard, the students would just gather and read music at night. The same happened in the acting department. One night Robin Williams would be doing improv and everyone would be howling with laughter and saying—this guy would go far. [Williams graduated from Julliard in 1976].

Every day there were parties thrown by the acting department students, or ballet students, and we’d be going to all of them. We were from all over the world.

They called Julliard “United Nations” back then. That wasn’t happening in Moscow.

As for individual studies, there were significant differences as well. My professor at Julliard, Ivan Galamyan, was less prescriptive and allowed me more freedom than my Moscow teachers, who insisted on doing everything in a particular way. It always upset me. Why can’t I try another way, I would ask?

At Julliard, I could. Not that I never got in trouble for that. Once, after an ovation at the school concert, I played an encore. The Dean called me in and said that it wasn’t allowed to play encores at school concerts. I promised him I wouldn't. [Sitkovetsky held his promise: the next time he played encore was two years later, in 1979, in Vienna, after winning the International Fritz Kreisler Violin Competition.]

Q: What struck you most about America?

A: A physical sense of freedom – it was inebriating – and the opportunity to invent myself. Nobody cared about my parents, or my background. Everything I’ve achieved I owe to myself.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with the Gold Coast Chamber players. How and when did you become involved?

A: I’ve been playing with these artists a really long time. The cellist, Luigi Piovano, is my musical brother. We’ve known each other for 20 years and are connected through many projects. He played in my chamber orchestra, the New European Strings, and we also did Bach’s Goldberg Variations together.

Luigi is an amazing musician. The reason why Renaissance happened in Italy is men like him, with their fiery talents and truly phenomenal work ethic.

And Pam [Gold Coast Chamber Players’ artistic director Pamela Freund-Striplen, viola] I’ve known for decades. She toured Europe with us in 1994, and we played some great music together.

Ours is a very hard time, politically and culturally. Someone has to kindle the flames or we would disappear, just like primeval tribes when their hearths grew cold. The people I’ll be playing with in Piedmont in September are those people: they keep the flames going. They won’t look at their watch during rehearsals. They’d stop only when they believe what they have done is good.

I love those people. I would play anywhere with them.

Q: You will be playing an all-Schumann program here. What should we be expecting?

A: An atmosphere of a chamber concert is always very special: composers save their innermost emotions for their chamber pieces. Robert Schumann was no exception. Before Julliard I knew him primarily as a pianist; my mother played a lot of his pieces. But Schumann’s chamber music is truly a marvel.

We will be playing, for instance, his genius Piano Quintet, Op. 44 for Piano and String Quartet. Schumann dedicated it to his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. She was due to perform the piano part for the first performance on December 6, 1842, but fell ill. Felix Mendelssohn stepped in, sight-reading the "fiendish" piano part. Mendelssohn (whom I adore) suggested some revisions to the original composition, and the final version became the masterpiece that influenced a great number of composers.

Q: Tell us about the instrument you’ll be playing. Do we need to get an extra police security unit to protect it?

A: You decide: it’s a Stradivari made in 1717 in Cremona. I’ve been playing it for 36 years. It is an instrument with a long history; many great violinists have played it. I bought it for $300,000 in 1983, and it is worth some 10 million today. I joke that it’s my retirement fund.

PULL QUOTE: When I perform in a small town, I practice like I would for Carnegie Hall. It never gets any easier.

Q: What’s the hardest part of being a professional musician?

A: You can never rest on laurels: you’re only as good as your last performance. You must give yourself to it fully, otherwise it’s a catastrophe. I like it, because it pushes you forward, but you can never rest. I work so much, it’s crazy.

This coming season I am engaged in 20 programs, playing, conducting, giving master classes, and staging theatrical pieces.

But I can never allow myself to practice less. You have to treat every performance as your most important one: when I perform in a small Finnish town, I practice like I would for Carnegie Hall.

It never gets any easier.

Q: What do you consider home?

A: My home is where my family lives. Right now they’re in London and that’s home. But there are many great places. I love San Francisco – its beauty, its vibrant cultural scene. And Napa, where we will be rehearsing, is my favorite place in the world. I relax there body and soul, and I play with the people I love.

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