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Introducing Ivan Karizna

As cellist Ivan Karizna joins the Maestro Arts roster, he explains how poetry and story-telling have been part of his musical make-up from a young age

What are your first musical memories?

My family are all musicians. My father is a composer, my mother a pianist and my older sister a violinist, so when I was young, music was around me all the time. My parents took me to concerts from when I was very little, and when I was five I went to solfège lessons. They wanted me to be a saxophone player, but when I was seven, I went to see a very important cello professor who looked at my hands, realised I had absolute pitch and some talent, and said that I would be better suited to the cello.

What do you remember about your first cello lessons?

My first teacher, Vladimir Perlin, was very creative in his teaching. He was always asking us to bring poems to lessons to recite, encouraging us to listen to great recordings and be inspired by great literature. Growing up in Belarus, there was a background of Soviet Union musical culture, but there were not many good concerts or musicians to watch, so we only listened to the greatest players on recordings and aspired to reach that level.

The old Soviet system at specialist music schools was to have instrumental lessons for a couple of hours almost every day, whether that was watching videos, listening to music, reading literature or reciting poems. We had all our subjects mixed together: physics, maths, solfège, orchestra, music theory, biology, literature, but always orientated to music.

My mother also worked with me until I was 11, practising at home and noting everything my teacher said. She put in a lot of effort to help me become who I am. It was always very obvious that I wanted to be a musician. I always had a vision of being able to understand composers’ ideas and share them with the audience, to make people feel something.

What was it like leaving Belarus?

I first travelled to the West when I was around 11. I remember one of the first great concerts I saw was a Maxim Vengerov recital, and I was so motivated, dreaming of becoming a true musician like that. There was always the awareness that if you want to be someone you have to go to the West. When I was 17, I went to Paris – I didn’t finish school. That’s when I started to think with my own brain. It wasn’t easy in the first few years, without my family or my teacher, and living with a new culture and language. I started to rethink many things of the things I had taken for granted.

How does studying poetry and literature help your music?

Studying other art forms makes you much more sensitive in what you create. Music is a language and we have to be able to use it to express many different things. When we play, we should always tell a story. Otherwise, it has no meaning. You can play all the notes in tune, very fast, and it’s effective, but music only becomes art when you make a story – just like a painter or writer. In music we create concrete ideas, as well as philosophical ones, and others that you can’t even explain. With poetry we always instinctively understand that there is something behind the words that isn’t exactly what we hear. Music is the same, so studying poetry helps to understand that.

I avoid just playing, without an idea. I try to put meaning into everything I do, to take the composer’s idea and also express my own personal attitude to it. The performance becomes a combination of the composer’s ideas and emotions, as well as mine as the interpreter, but still respecting the composer’s idea.

How do you see the role of classical musicians today?

We are responsible for making the right choices, in the sense of not just trying to make a career playing as many concerts as we can to earn as much money as possible, but making art our priority. We shouldn’t perform just for the sake of performing, but always to create something, to make people feel something and educate them. It’s like the cinema of Bergman, Tarkovsky or Fellini – it was made to make people think, and not just to entertain. Art these days is more about entertainment. It’s great that there are so many musicians doing interesting things, and we can all learn from each other, but we shouldn’t forget that we are making art. We are doing it to learn and for people to become better from it – not only to entertain.

What makes your cello special?

It belonged to Paul Tortelier, who died in 1990. I got it when I turned 30 years old. It hadn’t been played for more than 30 years. Tortelier was one of the greatest cellists in the history of the instrument, a protégé of Casals. He got this cello in 1953, as a young man, and played it his whole life as his main instrument, in recordings and concerts. It’s a very big cello, a beast, with a huge projection and a unique colour. When I see Tortelier in films and recordings, I have the sense of his personality in the cello, although now I’ve played it for almost two years, it’s becoming more like my own personality. I’m very happy with it.

Who are the musicians who’ve inspired you most?

I was always more inspired by conductors, like Carlos Kleiber, Sergiu Celibidache, Wilhelm Furtwängler. There’s a kind of magic when you see a conductor making music with a hundred people just by moving their hands, being present and changing their facial expressions. That is real music making, and that kind of energy and contact with the audience is the most important thing. I’m very sensitive to how the audience reacts.

Apart from conductors, one of my favourite cellists is Pablo Casals, because he was a true thinker and philosopher as well as musician, but also because he helped so many people. He fought for peace, independence, freedom, humanity, as well as being an incredible musician. That’s how a musician should be. My other favourite cellists are Jacqueline du Pré and Gregor Piatigorsky. My first teacher’s teacher, Alexander Stogorsky, was Piatigorsky’s blood brother, so there is a small connection!

What are your hopes for your career?

Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake, and I agree. I would like to share the beauty, philosophy and meaning of art. I would love to play with the best orchestras – I realise every musician dreams about that, and for me, it’s very important. I want to be able to express something and to have a direct exchange with audiences.

As cellists, we think we have very limited repertoire, but actually there are so many pieces that have been written and not been performed. The world has always been very masculine, but that’s changing and there are many works by brilliant women composers to perform, including Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, Dobrinka Tabakova, Heather Schmidt, Unsuk Chin, Sally Beamish, Laura Schwendinger, Paola Prestini and Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Programmers often believe that they have to programme Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Haydn to fill a hall, but I’m all for playing contemporary music and to make this list larger, although how to fill a hall is a long and difficult discussion.

Ivan Karizna plays Kol Nidrei