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An unusual violinist, and an emerging pianist

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alex IrvinJulia Fischer performs " on violin " with conductor Alan Gilbert and the Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday, July 6, at the Benedict Music Tent.
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ASPEN ” Earlier this year, at the age of 24, Julia Fischer made her debut as a pianist, performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, in Frankfurt and St. Petersburg. This came five years after Fischer made her debut with the New York Philharmonic, as a violinist, and more than a decade after Fischer has announced her presence as an instrumentalist by winning the International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition.

Preparing to introduce herself as a pianist, also while touring the world as a violin soloist, created a hectic way of life. Accustomed to carrying her instrument with her, Fischer occasionally neglected to schedule time on a suitable piano for her daily practice. Sometimes this meant Fischer knocking on the doors of unknown pianists, pleading for some rehearsal time.

This routine hit the comic level in Lucerne, where Fischer was touring with the San Francisco Symphony. Hearing the sounds of a piano, she knocked at the door to find Yefim Bronfman, whose power and prowess at the instrument can be intimidating, on the other side. When Fischer explained her situation, the piano master was encouraging.

“He said, ‘Oh great, what are you playing? Grieg? Great. Play it for me,'” said Fischer.

Apart from the seat-of-her-pants method of finding pianos, however, Fischer considers herself to have been well-prepared to add piano to her repertoire.

At 22, she began leading concerts with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a conductorless chamber orchestra. The experience of acting as concertmaster with that ensemble deepened Fischer’s image of herself not only as a violinist and soloist, but as someone with a knack for the bigger picture of music. And that has been an invaluable skill on the piano.

“It’s almost like you’re a conductor when you’re a pianist. You lead more,” said Fischer, who will continue her side career in October, when she makes several appearances performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor. “Also, with piano, you always have many more voices you’re playing. You have a different overview of the piece. So now, as a violinist, I’m looking at the score in a different way.

“It’s fantastic. But I’ve never been a typical violinist in that respect.”

Fischer’s career has been marked by uncommon achievements. She entered her hometown Munich Academy of Music at age 9, and was just 12 when she won the Menuhin Competition, which catapulted her toward a career as a soloist. The pile of honors she earned as a teenage musician have been validated as she has moved into early adulthood; last year, she was voted Artist of the Year by Classic FM Gramophone magazine. In 2006, during a celebration for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart in the composer’s hometown of Salzburg, Fischer had the opportunity to perform on Mozart’s own violin.

Possibly the most unusual episode in her musical life came in Fischer’s second stint at the Munich Academy of Music. After taking a normal curriculum in a public school, she entered the music school again at 19. But her agenda outside of school kept her from attending classes. So while she was making appearances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, back home she was flunking her violin courses.

“They let me fail exams I couldn’t take, because I was performing with the New York Philharmonic,” she says, with a mixture of humor and continuing disbelief. “I was playing 70 concerts a year, and I was tired of explaining why I couldn’t make my classes. But after a lot of fighting, I just left. They had problems with making exceptions. That’s a common problem in Germany.”

The two sides had a modest rapprochement when the Academy awarded Fischer an honorary degree not long ago.

Fischer doesn’t seem to have had a problem with formal lessons. When she was about 6, she happily joined a Suzuki method class.

“I enjoyed that, being with all these kids my age. For me, it was fine,” said Fischer, who performed a recital last week at Harris Hall, and concludes her visit to Aspen with an appearance on Sunday, July 6, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert, playing Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor, a piece she says has been undervalued, most likely because of the difficulty of the violin parts. She adds that she has a natural sympathy with Dvorak, as her mother and the composer share a Czech heritage.

But those lessons may not have been the foundation of Fischer’s love of music. Her mother, Viera, was a pianist; her father, Frank-Michael, a mathematician, was a lover of classical music. Before there were violin lessons, there was simply sitting at her mother’s piano, or listening to recordings with her father.

“It was the playing factor that attracted me. It was like a game. It was a great way to spend your spare time,” said Fischer, who still lives in Munich. “I’m not sure if it was the music lessons that introduced me to music, or that music was all around. There was no philosophy around it at that time.”

Fischer was introduced to the idea that music had more serious sides at around 9, when she traded in group Suzuki classes for conservatory training. And the sense of fun only escalated. “That’s when I started to comprehend that there was something important behind this,” she said. “And that attracted me even more.”

The only potentially torturous moment would have been having to choose between piano and violin. But it was a decision made for her.

“When I was 8 or 9, a conductor heard me in a violin master class, and he engaged me to play with an amateur orchestra. And then the next year, they just put me as the violinist in the concert again,” she said. “I had no clue. If I had to make a choice, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’m quite grateful that the choice was made for me.”

The Aspen Music Festival presents its Day of Music, featuring a slate of free events, on Tuesday, July 8. Highlights of the day include a 1 p.m. master class by violinist Cho-Liang Lin, a 6 p.m. Family Concert at the Benedict Music Tent, and an 8 p.m. recital by pianist Gabriel Chodos.

Also on Tuesday, the Aspen Opera Theater Center season kicks off with Bruno Cinquegrani conducting Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” which tells the familiar story of Cinderella. The opera continues with additional performances, Thursday, July 10, and Sunday, July 13, at the Wheeler Opera House.

The all-female Cavani String Quartet plays a recital, with works by Dvorak, Bartok and Schumann, Wednesday, July 9. Four world-class pianists ” Joseph Kalichstein, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Misha Dichter ” congregate for a special event on Thursday, July 10. The concert will feature arrangements of piano music for eight hands and two pianos.

Another special event, on Saturday, July 12, brings together Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman and the Aspen Chamber Symphony for a program of works by Dvorak and Strauss, and, with pianist Ax, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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