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Interview with Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian, internationally recognized as a unique voice on the viola, was born of Armenian parents in Michigan. She studied the viola with Karen Tuttle and legendary violist Walter Trampler at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Since fall 2000 she has taught viola and chamber music at New England Conservatory.

Following Grammy Award nominations for several previous recordings, Kim received a 2012 Grammy Award in the “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” category for Kurtág and Ligeti: Music for Viola, on the ECM Records label. Kashkashian’s recording, with Robert Levin, of the Brahms Sonatas won the Edison Prize in 1999. Her June 2000 recording of concertos by Bartók, Eötvös and Kurtág won the 2001 Cannes Classical Award for a premiere recording by soloist with orchestra.

Kim has worked tirelessly to broaden the range of technique, advocacy, and repertoire for the viola. A staunch proponent of contemporary music, she has developed creative relationships with György Kurtág, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, and Arvo Pärt, and commissioned works from Peter Eötvös, Ken Ueno, Thomas Larcher, Lera Auerbach, and Tigran Mansurian.

What was the first piece by Schoenberg that you’d ever heard?

Probably the String Trio (Op. 45). The reason why I’m familiar with the works of Schoenberg is because I worked a lot with Felix Galimir at Marlboro. Mr. Galimir was instrumental in introducing the entire new Viennese school and its followers to the American public and listeners and to performers too. So in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, we were all really fortunate to study with a man like Mr. Galimir the works by Berg, Webern and Schoenberg—who, I think, was his special love. I still remember hearing his voice, trying to play and sing the other parts at the same time when we fell apart, and it was just an incredibly loving way to be introduced to a composer that is often seen as ‘objective’. But when you have someone like Mr. Galimir helping you to understand, it’s an incredibly hot, ‘subjective’ music. The fact that he has a method of twelve-tone composition, the fact that you can really look at the maths of it very well, and the fact that you can define everything as an architectural structure—these still don’t change the fact that it’s deeply felt and that the emotion of it is extremely powerful.

Had you already come across Schoenberg’s music before you worked with Mr. Galimir?

I had certainly heard, but not played.

So when you’d heard his music before you worked on it, what was your reaction?

It was to try to understand. But it wasn’t an immediate understanding, like when you hear the first works of Veress or Ligeti—this is an area were I felt instinctive understanding—whereas with Schoenberg it was something that someone else had to lead me towards understanding it. The way I explain it to my students or fellow colleagues now is that you have to think of it like a Viennese waltz but in a Fellini movie. So, like a dreamier version of what was once a very organic reality.

Adorno said in one of his essays that in a 100 years from his time, everyone would listen to Schoenberg’s music like it’s Mozart’s—but obviously that’s not the case today. Do you think there’s a way to make it easier for the audience to listen to his music and, if so, how?

I think you have to attempt to gain transparency and attempt to create an organic lilt to the phrasing. If you do those things primarily, then almost always the music is quite understandable.

Is there a difference between listening to his music as an audience and when you’re playing it?

Yes, I think there’s actually a big difference. Maybe less so for someone who’s in the audience but knows what it feels like to play it. But I can’t really imagine how it would be for someone who has no relationship to performing at all to listen to Schoenberg’s music, because the ideas are so clear on the one hand, but are also so implemented physically that it might not be so easy to relate them to the emotions.

What do you think he was like as a person?

Well, I had the good fortune of visiting his house, the house where he lived in Los Angeles, and also of meeting some members of his family. But the thing that I found the most fascinating was that on his walls, there were some drawings and graphs. Of course, he was a great painter—but he graphed out charts of a tennis game! That’s like choreographing a dance and being able to put it on paper—and he did that for his son. This was, for me, a fascinating side of him, someone who wanted to do something great with his family and used his structural knowledge and visual knowledge for that purpose. When I looked at it, I could see how he was introducing the element of rhythm into this game and making it into a graph that was on the wall. I just found that extremely interesting.

So you don’t think he would’ve been a difficult person to approach?

Well, that needs to be seen in terms of understanding or trying to imagine how someone’s brain could work like that and also to realize that, in fact, for all of us our perception must be seen as hallucination. Each of us has our own way of perceiving, but there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ reality when it comes to what we perceive. So, if you take a man like Schoenberg, who probably has a million more things going through his brain in any given half minute than the rest of us, it would be understandable if he’s not reacting to stuff like, “Would you like coffee?” or “Did you have a nice day today?” and so on. But I wouldn’t call him difficult. I would call him different.

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