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Interview - Lisa Batiashvili: "Music is the language I speak abroad"

By Lena Germann |

European violinist and ambassador Lisa Batiashvili doesn’t just ‘make music’. Following the release of her album Secret Love Letters, she talks about her close friendship with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the importance of encouraging young talent and the relationship between music and politics.

How much should music and politics intertwine? For some, they shouldn’t at all; for others—including Lisa Batiashvili—the two are almost inseparable. A German violinist born in Georgia, she’s been actively involved in politics for years, not least because of her background. Her music serves as a method of communication: “There are lots of examples that show how art and culture are closely linked to politics. Even without engaging in politics, artists are both the mirror and the voice of society”.

On top of her work as a world-renowned performer, Lisa Batiashvili is also a musical ambassador and supports young Georgian musicians through her organisation, the Lisa Batiashvili Foundation. Her latest album, Secret Love Letters, features one of these young talents. It also provides a valuable insight into her creative process, her deep friendship with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and her political commitment—something that’s all the more important since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

First of all, we want to wish your new album, Secret Love Letters, a world of success. This is a stunning project. You’ve really highlighted the connections between literature and these three masterpieces of the violin repertoire. Where did you find the inspiration for this romantic album??

I was first inspired by Szymanowski’s Concerto for Violin No. 1, which I played for the first time about four years ago, so quite late, really. I discovered a whole new palette of emotions, one characterised by passion, unrequited love, conquest, imagination… a complex mixture very much linked to feelings of love. Despite being rather short for a concerto, it’s a piece of work that offers an incredible array of colours; it explodes with emotion yet remains incredibly subtle. As a soloist, you soar above the orchestra. Even when the orchestra’s playing at full volume, the sound of the violin comes through, which brings a real touch of magic. The context of the work is interesting too. We know that Szymanowski expressed his homosexuality in this piece, something he didn’t talk about until much later. He incorporated a lot of things into his work.

The Concerto has a lot in common with French impressionist music and French literature, which tends to describe feelings of love in its fullest form. This is where the idea of recording Ernest Chausson’s Poème came from. Originally, Poème was intended to be a violin concerto. Chausson dedicated it to the Russian poet Ivan Tourgueniev, and it’s very poetic by definition, staying close to literature and texts that have often influenced and inspired music. This is what intimately links the two works: this state of mind, this way of using a whole palette of ideas and musical colours to express intimate, strong feelings.

Finally, we thought of César Franck’s Sonata because, obviously, there was no way our violin-piano duo was going to sound small alongside the orchestral pieces! We needed a powerful piece that would do this rich combination justice. In addition to being extremely popular, Franck’s Sonata for violin is, in my opinion, a very passionate piece, a piece about love. It’s always a pleasure to bring together chamber music and orchestral music on the same album because it allows the versatility of the violin to shine.

© Peter Adamik

Secret Love Letters is a thematic album, like your previous release, City Lights. Has this idea been in the works for a while? Do you think you might develop this concept further in the future?

Yes, I think so. Of course, there are also some recordings where I just play the great violin concertos such as Tchaïkovski, Prokofiev, etc. It depends on who you work with, really. The recording with Daniel Barenboim, for example, is clearly not a thematic album. But in music, as in life, I’m against an overly theoretical approach. I’m happy for an album to simply tell a story, even a personal one, and for this to influence the recording to produce another great concerto. I think this is better than just saying: “OK, other people have played it this way, so I’m going to play it differently”. For short works especially, it's important to have a common thread that becomes apparent as you listen to the album, linking the different pieces: a concept, or simply a musical similarity. It adds an extra layer of interest and considering the amount of records that already exist, for me, that’s what makes any new release worthwhile! The César Franck Sonata also gave me the opportunity to introduce a new classical music star: Giorgi Gigashvili. He’s a wonderful pianist who I feel very attached to, both as a Georgian artist and as one of the first musicians supported by my Foundation. All that aside, he’s a unique artist with a very avant-garde approach to music. When you look at the new generation of musicians, those that are now in their twenties, you can get an idea of how classical music will evolve. Each generation offers something new, but everyone is always a little worried about the status of classical music: is it in danger because of digitisation, marketing, etc.? Maybe so, but there’s also something very positive happening. The artists we see on stage today are far more versatile. Not only do they excel in the classical repertoire, but they’re good at many other things. For example, we see very young musicians conducting, playing several instruments, singing and mastering both classical and jazz. This is something that strikes me about the young people I meet. It’s important to me that I help make them known right from the start of their career.

Young people are increasingly turning away from classical music. Do you have any ideas, in addition to your Foundation, which might reverse this trend?

This was already a problem back when I was a child; unfortunately, it hasn't changed much. In my opinion, it’s likely going to be this new generation of versatile artists that will bring people back to the concert halls. We also have to work on making the structure and execution of classical concerts more creative and contemporary. We need to do more than what we did 80 years ago: arrive on stage, tune up and play. When you compare this to other shows, jazz or pop concerts, for example, you can see what counts for today's audience. It’s not just about great quality music; it’s about creating tension, atmosphere, incorporating visual elements... I hope the new generation will be brave enough to make these daring decisions and, in doing so, create a stronger connection between the music and its audience.

On your latest album, in addition to Giorgi Gigashvili, we find the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. You’ve nurtured a great working relationship and friendship for years. How did it all start?

We go back a long way; it’s like we grew up together, really. Yannick and I have known each other for 15 years, though it feels like much longer than that because we've worked together a lot. All that time spent on stage has been a real joy, and honestly, there are some people that just help you blossom and who make you understand why you play music. This shared musical impulse is something unique. With Yannick, I’ve found a musical connection that I cherish dearly. In my eyes—and everyone else’s—he’s an extraordinary musician, and our working relationship continues as a close friendship off-stage. We go on tour together, we experience a lot of things together, we go our separate ways for a time, then meet again... We’re growing old together, it seems! We played together for the first time in 2008 with the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin. We've also toured together a couple of times. This album, Secret Love Letters, is our first recording together, and it's also my first experience recording with an American orchestra. It wasn't always easy, especially coming from a European label: you don't have a lot of freedom, and there are a lot of schedule constraints to respect... but it was a great experience. I also get the impression that Yannick has a unique understanding of music. Knowing that we’re on the same wavelength is beautiful, and it builds a sense of trust that I think is tangible on this recording.

Lisa Batiashvili avec Yannick Nézet-Séguin en concert à la Philharmonie de Paris, Septembre 2022. © Todd Rosenberg

You’ve already mentioned the Lisa Batiashvili Foundation, which you created last year. Can you tell us more about it?

I had the opportunity to showcase some young talent at a festival in Georgia. Some of them I’d never met before and only knew by name. When I heard them play, I knew I wanted to continue the experience. We were still in the midst of the Covid pandemic, so I had a bit more time than usual, and I’d always wanted to find a way to support young Georgian artists. Not only is there a lot of competition in this field, but there’s a multitude of obstacles and paths to take. I know how important it is to receive the right help at the right time, to understand how things work from the very beginning of your career, and to have someone to lean on who can help you, if only in a small way. So far, we’ve given out five scholarships, and even though our finances are still modest and we’re only funded by a small circle of people, we’ve managed to do a lot in one and a half years. Four of our five scholarship holders are already studying in Europe, and we’ve been able to purchase lots of instruments, finance masterclasses and establish contacts with important musicians and agencies.

A new project was born at the same time, too, though this one wasn’t planned. Since the war in Ukraine broke out, we’ve opened a new department within the organisation, which supports Ukrainian musicians who’re still in their home country. Funding is raised through various concert and fundraising programmes; it’s all a bit complicated. We’ve already collected quite a lot of money and reached more than 150 artists, but given the scale of the disaster, this is only a drop in the ocean. We feel helpless, but at least we can do something to help these people who have lost everything.

© Peter Adamik

Your commitment to politics didn’t just start a few months ago. We can remember the Requiem for Ukraine that you played as an encore in 2014. Where do you get your motivation from?

Mostly from my heritage, of course. Perhaps even more so since the five-day war in 2008: part of Georgia was under Russian occupation, and the world hardly reacted at all. The war was so short that its scale isn’t comparable to the war in Ukraine today, but we did lose a significant amount of territory, and the tensions and provocations continue to this day. All you have to do is get informed—and you really don't need to be a specialist to do that—and try to understand what really happened. You’ll soon find out what great powers have done (and continue to do) to suppress economic and cultural freedoms and prevent younger generations from building a better future... As an international artist, it makes me want to take action and try to make the world aware of what’s going on. I think what’s happening today is a consequence of the last 10 to 20 years. We’ve turned a blind eye to far too many things. Mostly at the political level, of course, but also in society in general. I come from a very small country that could disappear overnight. But it’s also a country that has survived the passing centuries. The Georgian people possess a strength that I struggle to fathom; there’s a will to preserve the national identity, language, religion and literature, even after all the war. Music is the language I speak abroad; it's my way of communicating with others. However, my roots are firmly planted in this country and everything it’s been through. I think the more information people can access, the more society will react to the problem. There are lots of examples that show how art and culture are closely linked to politics. Even without engaging in politics, artists are both the mirror and the voice of society. We shouldn’t shy away from this responsibility, rather, we need to be aware of it and cherish the possibility of addressing the world through music.

LISTEN TO "SECRET LOVE LETTERS" BY LISA BATIASHVILI SUR QOBUZ

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