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Anne-Sophie Mutter - A Profile of the Artist

02/24/2015 07:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter joins conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for three performances of Brahms's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 on February 26-28 at 8:00. The March 1 performance at 2:00 will feature her protégé, Ye-Eun Choi, a recipient of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation scholarship and winner of the 2013 European Culture Award for New Artists. The program begins with The Light That Fills the World by J.L. Adams -- this year's Grammy winner in the category of Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Following the intermission is Schumann's Symphony No. 1, Spring.

Ms Mutter begins a European tour a few days after her last performance. "I can't be here for the March 1 concert," she said, "but I'm terribly excited that Ye-Eun Choi will be playing. There must have been a long line of violinists they would have liked, but they were gracious enough to accept her. She is a unique Korean woman who enrolled in my program when she was sixteen. She came as a child to study in Munich. I was very taken by her determination and also her very pure viewpoint on life as a musician -- something which I have found very rarely. She plays in a very personal style and has these wonderful colors. I am very happy to have found someone who is willing to develop a unique personality and not go in a direction where success could probably have come much easier."

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Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ye-Eun Choi. Courtesy of SF Symphony

Ms Mutter was in Munich during our recent conversation. We talked about the element of celebrity that surrounds the Brahms's violin concerto. It ranks perhaps second only to the beauty and challenging virtuosity of Beethoven's earlier Violin Concerto in D major which premiered in 1806. An astonishing link between the composers and their concertos is super luminary violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). In 1844, while still only twelve years old, the young prodigy revived Beethoven's work and added his own cadenzas -- which are still in play today. Thirty-four years later, Brahms dedicated his concerto to Joachim who played the premiere on New Year's Day in 1879 and, again, with his own cadenzas. Though a number of violinists have since substituted their own variations -- Fritz Kreisler among them -- it is Joachim's cadenzas that have remained the standard in the Brahms concerto and which Ms Mutter will present at Davies Hall. Said Ms Mutter, "Why not use the cadenza of the violinist for whom the great composer has written the piece?"

The Brahms, like many other important works of the violin repertoire, was a piece I started to study rather early. My collaboration with Karajan began in the late '70s. I was studying it even before meeting him, when I was around twelve. He moved through repertoire quite briskly despite my young age. I was sixteen when I played the Beethoven concerto in concert for the first time. I find it interesting that someone like Joseph Joachim was such a prominent figure in the development of the big violin repertoire, particularly of the romantic repertoire. In addition to Brahms -- Dvořák wrote for him, Bruch wrote for him. He had great influence on their work. This is something which has fascinated me throughout my relationship with the piece, because it shows that Joachim was not only a specialist on his instrument but was a whole musician. It's not a typical solo violin concerto. It is really a symphonic piece of art, where the orchestra is equal to the soloist. And where the soloist very often -- and it's a lifelong task -- has to blend-in when the winds have the melody. Think of the first movement where, after the eruption, the violin has to step back into the orchestra as a harmonic figure but not as the leading voice. This goes on through the first and second movements. Then you have the third movement with this Hungarian finale. It's endlessly fascinating.

I likened the pressures of performing the Brahms concerto to that of an actor in a run of Shakespeare's Hamlet, even the abbreviated three-hour version. How does one proceed through the day, through a tour -- with such daunting repertoire? After her long history with the Brahms concerto, of keeping it warehoused in the brain and fresh on the fingertips -- what continues to fuel her public performance of it?

In a way, one tries to pretend it's a normal day. You hope that on the day of a concert, your preparation has been as much as it could be and finished to a degree where you can just lean back. But, of course, with the family and everything else, and my foundation -- the ideal situation does not exist. You have to be able to perform under the wildest of circumstances. Your flight has been delayed, you've had no sleep, probably no food other than a banana, there's no time to do anything and you have to rush on stage.

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Anne-Sophie Mutter. Courtesy of the artist

What do I bring that's new to it? I have done quite a number of contemporary premieres in the last twenty-five years. I think that collaborating with living composers -- and learning that they are extremely open minded to very different approaches to one and the same piece. That has liberated me from falling into the trap of believing in a genuinely right interpretation. It's always a work in progress. Are the sparks flying then as on the perfect day? Hmmm. My answer is that ideal preparation does not exist. I'm a tennis fan -- think of an athlete like Roger Federer. He has great days and less-great days. In a way, a musician is like an athlete. We have that one chance. At eight o'clock, you bring everything forward -- everything you've been thinking of, dreaming of and training yourself for. The wonderful thing with music is that you always have the chance the next evening to shed light on a different aspect of the very same piece. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes it's a struggle. But struggle is part of the process.

During the first two weeks of March, Anne-Sophie Mutter will be on tour with conductor Andris Nelsons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The repertoire includes the Sibelius Violin Concerto in d minor and Shostakovich's Symphony no. 10 in e minor. On March 10, she will make her first appearance at the newly constructed Philharmonie de Paris. Speaking of dedications, at its gala opening on January 14, violinist Renaud Capuçon played Sur le même accord (On only one chord) by Henri Dutilleux. The piece was composed for Ms Mutter in 2002. She premiered the work with Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and later recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon in 2003. The track is included in the spectacular 40-CD boxed set, Anne-Sophie Mutter -- The Complete Musician. Only days before the opening of the new symphony hall, the streets of Paris were filled with over three million in the "Je suis Charlie" demonstration. I asked Ms Mutter how Sur le même accord might have affected an audience that would still have been in a highly charged atmosphere. What does she think the composer had in mind while composing this piece for her?

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In concert with Lambert Orkis. Photo, Dario Acosta/Deutsche Grammophon

First of all, at every concert, I always think -- this could be my last. Therefore, I will give it everything I have. In human history we have learned that in moments of great disaster and desperation, people have always turned to music -- to the power of music -- to the empowering wonder of what music does to our emotions. I get really sad and also slightly aggressive when I see what politicians do to our cultural life. They are not acknowledging that music has a wonderfully positive power and enriching quality -- particularly in moments of desperation, loneliness, disaster. Sur le même accord, as the title says -- is actually a very reduced piece, sassy, and also very short. When I performed it with Kurt Masur, we always played it again as an encore because it gives the listener the chance to really delve under the skin a little better. I really don't know what Dutilleux's thoughts were about me when he was writing the piece, if there were any at all. This is something I cannot answer -- unless I want to sound shamelessly immodest.

On the other hand, she has no hesitation in bringing her full voice to the problem of the lack of proper musical education in the schools. I asked her what would be the most important thing she could say to educators, to those on education boards, to whoever is in charge of making these budgetary decisions -- who probably grew up without music education themselves. That led to a number of insights about the recent uproar created by the decision of Bavaria's Minister-President, Horst Seehofer, to nix funding on the construction of a sorely-needed concert hall to replace Munich's thirty-year-old Gasteig, a notorious acoustic nightmare.

"Isn't it incredible?" she said.

I'm not originally from Munich, but this is kind-of my second home. It's the richest state in Germany. They want to re-do the existing hall which has a catastrophic acoustic. When Leonard Bernstein opened the hall thirty years ago, here is what he wrote in the guest book: Burn it. Our Minister-President has made a terribly wrong decision and the outrage is huge. Why has he made this decision? Because you would never see him at a concert. He has no idea what he is judging over. What they want to do now -- for 400 million Euros -- is to try to take the hall out, physically out, and leave the skin of the building in tact. Which is impossible to do! But that's the plan. Then they want to implant a smaller hall into it which, hopefully, will finally have a good acoustic. But Munich is a large city -- with two world class orchestras -- the Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. But we only have one big hall. The other hall, where the Radio Orchestra has tried to perform under Mariss Jansons, has only 1,100 seats. Financially, this is going nowhere. They can never invite, for example, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to play there because ticket prices would go through the roof. It's much too small. More people want to come to the concert. It's totally crazy. Why invest 400 million Euros, possibly more, to re-do an already rotten structure instead of building something new? Then you would have an additional hall -- a bad one and a good one. It's better than only one of which nobody is sure of the outcome. I've had it with politicians!

So, what would I say? We do know of all the positive effects of musical training -- on social behavior and on the development of the brain of a child. In a world where we live in a multicultural situation, children have to be trained early on to have respect for other cultures. They have to listen to each other -- the dialogue will be something that is more important than anything else in the future. In music, this is a skill that is learned very early on -- the social skills - getting to know different cultures, of listening to and having an emotional bond through music. If you look at the other activities of children -- sports are great and very important. But all these activities are about one against the other. It's competition, it's about beating someone. Music has nothing to do with that. It's about being together with someone and making something together. We are all here, trying our best. It leaves a positive feeling in the air.