An Interview with Liza Ferschtman

Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman, considered as one of the most important violinists of her age, is known for her passionate performances, collaborations with modern dancers and innovative programming as an artistic director. Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus had a chance to talk to Liza about her latest projects and how she crowdfunded her Mendelssohn recording.

Your parents are Russian musicians and you were born and raised here in the Netherlands, does the combination influence your musical development in some ways?

Some people say that I must have a strong connection with Russian repertoire and I say I don’t (chuckles). Of course there is some Russian repertoire which feels closer to me. Take for example Prokofiev: I treasure his works dearly for his storytelling, his incredible way of using ‘colours’ and his expressive way of describing things. Of course you can still argue that I am fond of Prokofiev’s works because of his Russian ways, or it is just simply great music? Another example is that I don’t have a special connection with Tchaikovsky. Some people will say they hear ‘something’ when I play his works, but I don’t know, I can’t be sure.

Although with Shostakovich it might be a bit different. My father (cellist Dmitri Ferschtman) played a couple of times for him. In that sense, there is a passing of knowledge, that makes his works closer to me. Still, I might know more about his works but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I automatically play them better.

What do you consider to be insightful moments in your artistic work and/or career?

When I was 14, I was a talented child but not something out of the ordinary, or at least that was what I thought. I was doubtful if I should continue. That was why I joined the Iordens Viooldagen competition with the intention that I’d stop if I was not good. What is the point of playing music for others if you’re not good at it (chuckles)? But I won the competition!

And it is also me who always questions the thing I do. I can’t say what I’ve learned from my parents concretely, but I know that their extreme love for music was also passed on to me. It plays an important role whenever I’m faced with some choices and my choices would always be based on the love of music.

What is a good performance in your opinion?

I perform because I want to share. I love a piece and I want people to hear it. To me the audience is very important. It is a good performance when the audience and the performers ‘breathe’ the music together. It is magical! Musicians can try to do something on stage  by themselves but it comes alive only with the audience.

You’re really at ease with communicating directly with the audience. Has it been that way since the beginning?

It is something that develops over time. On some occasions, not always, I like to talk to the audience. Music has the power to speak for itself, but in this fast-changing world where it is so common that many people no longer have an in-depth knowledge of music and music history. It is not necessarily a problem, but as a performer, it then becomes your job to give more insight about the music. It doesn’t have to be a lot, you just want to get people’s attention in that sense. Especially when the music is complicated. That can also ‘open people’s ears’ to make people more willing to take in the complicated works.

You’ve reached a certain level in your career now but there’s still a long road to go. Is there any certain direction that you are planning on taking? Repertoire-wise, programming-wise, recording-wise?

Yes and no. I feel I’ve reached the point where I can confidently say that I’m good at what I do. There won’t be many changes in repertoire although I need to start choosing more carefully.

My strength is sometimes my weakness that I’m good in a lot of things. And I like getting out of my comfort zone by for examples working with modern dancers or playing very classic repertoire. I know how much I’ve grown as a performer, but say that are playing a concerto with an orchestra, and two days before you are still on stage with some dancer. Then a chamber music concert here or a solo recital there. I say it is beneficial  for my musicianship, but it also means that you are doing a lot at the same time. Sometimes it takes a lot from my rested state. If I would need to concentrate on one thing, that would also mean that I need to make some sacrifice.

But for me it’s more about working with more inspiring people and musicians, not necessarily to become a bigger star or something.

Could you tell us about your latest recording?

I’ve recorded Bernstein Serenade and I’m going to be recording Korngold Violin Concerto soon. The CD will be out to celebrate Bernstein’s centennial in 2018. I remember clearly when I heard the serenade for the first time. I was in my twenties and I heard it on the radio, and as soon as it was done, I ran and bought the score. Unfortunately I had never had a chance to perform it and to really learn it.

And then, some years ago I was asked to replace a colleague to tour with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and they were about to perform this half an hour serenade. I had it in  my closet so to say, but not really in my repertoire. I had only a week to dive into it, but I really loved it! I had an amazing time during the tour. So I learned that the piece really fitted me. It is so beautiful how Bernstein based the composition on Plato’s famous Symposium, where different philosophers speak about love. Every movement is like the philosopher speaks about love from different angles. The piece has an emotional depth and really incredible beautiful melodies while at the same time it has this typical Bernstein swing and humour. I really think it doesn’t get performed nearly as often as it should.

The combination with Korngold is that we saw Bernstein as a West Side Story composer, but he has a very serious side too. And Korngold is well known to American audience as a film composer. I grew up watching The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn, not being aware at all that the music was written by Korngold. Later I realized that I’ve seen many films with Korngold’s music in it. I became acquainted with his chamber music as well and finally I got to play his concerto, I fell in love with it.

If you had to choose, which recording(s) were you most proud of?

Well, it is not fair to ask, but let me tell you about the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and String Octet recording. It had been recorded so many times already that at first I didn’t see any reason for me to record it. It is a piece you learn when you are 15, there are always teachers involved. I’ve always loved the concerto but it was always tainted with opinions and all these layers of how it should be done. It took me a long time to make it my own. When the process kicked in around three years ago, I was so amazed that this piece that I had been carrying around with me for around for 20 years suddenly felt new.

Then I knew I had to record it. It was a very quick process. I called Challenge Classics, but they didn’t have the budget planned for it. So I crowdfunded it partly with some private sponsors. It was very empowering. I added a live recording of Mendelssohn’s Octet which we made at my own Chamber music Festival in Delft. It was a daring thing to do since it is not an easy piece. I had incredible colleagues around me and I was proud of the result. I am very happy that a lot of people feel the same way, they feel like they hear something that they haven’t heard before in these well-known works.

You are the artistic director of the Delft Chamber Music Festival, what have been the greatest challenges so far, given the current financial/subsidy situation in art world in the Netherlands? Or is it getting better compared to say 5 – 7 years ago?

Of course we still have to find the right funding or sponsors every year, but there has been a positive trend in the last couple of years. People recognize that the festival is presenting a high quality programming, not just putting some nice musicians with nice pieces together. I work with themes systematically. I put a lot of effort so the audience can see and feel the theme, by adding different elements or art forms whenever possible. We are also very lucky that we have a beautiful town as our base, that is attractive to audience and performers alike.

When you always put a serious effort and always look for new ways to present your content, not just as gimmicks, people will notice. It pays off. We have a steady support, which we still have to work on every year because it is a ‘different’ festival every year, but we’ve built our reputation for it.

What is next year’s theme?

I’m working on it. At the moment I’m thinking about the general idea of LOVE. I’m talking to a lot of people at the moment. I love the process where I can dive into the philosophical point of view of a theme. I love to invite the audience to become active participants where they also ponder about the questions. I don’t always have the answers but sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.

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