Monday, June 3, 2013

Portrait of a violinist: IVCI silver medalist Liviu Prunaru will play a recital Tuesday

The life of a superior musician is compounded of a wealth of diverse influences. The ingrained habits of studying, teaching and travel become a lifelong school, in which the expression of artistry — such as the recital Liviu Prunaru will play with pianist Chih-Yi Chen Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center — is simultaneously like giving an exam and taking one.
Liviu Prunaru prizes honesty and sincerity in performance.

On his fourth visit to Indianapolis since winning second place (the silver medal) in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Prunaru spoke to me about his musical values and passions not long after arriving from Amsterdam. The boyish-looking 44-year-old, conversant in five languages and widely traveled, casts a wider net than most. As a violinist, he's rooted as much in the indirectly experienced tutelage of Jascha Heifetz, Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Grumiaux as in the teachers who taught him directly.

Teacher, solo artist and orchestra player himself, Prunaru  declines to categorize these influences. He says he got something valuable even from his first five teachers in his native Romania, who never brought their violins to his lessons. "My first teacher was a pilot," Prunaru said.

The one who left the greatest early impression, however, was Alberto Lysy (1935-2009), with whom he studied as a teenager at the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland. In his honor, Prunaru will open Tuesday's recital with  Smetana's From My Homeland.  At lessons, Lysy always demonstrated what he wanted, in contrast to those several fiddleless early teachers, Prunaru recalled.

"One teacher says one thing, another says another thing, and I am there in the middle," is Prunaru's way of summing up his student years. "I process the information through my understanding and through what I've seen."  This way of learning he passes on to his students; he doesn't follow any one teacher's method, and when he imposes something on a student, it's because he senses the student is not ready to exercise full freedom.

"There is always something good in what they tell you," he added about teachers. "The beauty is to take each one of these teachings and transform them in some way into your own way," he said. "I try to  make each student his own teacher."

After two years as director of the Menuhin Academy, Prunaru is about to start teaching at the Amsterdam  School of the Arts. That makes his schedule easier to handle,  as he is one of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's two concertmasters.

The structure of that prestigious orchestra allows the musicians to make collective decisions and have considerable influence on new members, guest conductors, soloists and working conditions.  Currently one of the main concerns is the tendency of visiting maestros to bring their most demanding programs to Amsterdam, threatening to wear orchestra members to a frazzle. "I got so much white hair in just this last year," he said with a rueful chuckle.

Still,  the Concertgebouw has such able musicians that they come up to the mark. "They are such fantastic players, not only the strings, but the winds, because you hear them individually," he said, admitting: "Sometimes in rehearsal I forget to enter because I'm listening to them. So you forget about being tired, because when these guys are playing, it's so beautiful."

As for Tuesday's recital, Prunaru has planned the program to please his intended public, with variety as well as pieces "that mean something to me."

 "Everyone's attention will be there immediately with the first piece," he said of the Smetana. The Grieg third sonata is in the program partly to represent his most recent recording, which includes all three by the Norwegian composer. Jeno Hubay's Hejre Kati is like an encore included in the program, he said, though the audience's enthusiasm could bring out one of up to five prepared encores.

Pleased that he has not been tempted to give thematic unity to the program, Prunaru is aware that throughout the classical world, marketing personnel love concerts that are handy to sell. "I make music; I don't make marketing," he said.

Whether driven by marketing or not, much of what he hears from today's concert artists disappoints him. "What I'm missing today in people's playing is sincerity," Prunaru said. "People like Kreisler, Heifetz and Szeryng were sincere; they didn't need to force people to like them. Today, there are so many effects,  and that makes it unreal. It's not sincere, it's not honest anymore. This is the era of acceleration: Everything has to be on-top-of, better and more.  If you play something normal, you're not appreciated anymore."

Despite his success here in 1998 and in competitions in Korea, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, Prunaru criticizes the attitude teachers and students sometimes have toward them. Competitive fervor tends to push the honest musical values he treasures off to the side.

"Obviously I was doing them for the wrong reasons," he says with a touch of satire. "Today they do them to win. I know teachers who say, If you don't go to competitions to win, don't go. That's wrong! That isn't why you go to competitions.

"My reasons are to learn repertoire, to play with an orchestra and to meet my fellow players and to learn from them, too. They don't give you any of those three reasons today; it's to get engagements and feel good about themselves. That's totally for the wrong reasons."

Here's the footing on which Prunaru would prefer to place such events: "The term 'competition' is totally wrong. I would call it a festival of music — with prizes."