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Leonidas Kavakos




Daily Telegraph
5 June 2008

'Music is about devotion, and knowing when to be free'

Violin virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos tells Ivan Hewett how his career was shaped by an ambitious father and a teacher who followed Plato and the 'wonderful' folk music of Greece

Spotting Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos across a crowded hotel lobby is not exactly difficult. Tall, with jet-black hair and a very well-trimmed beard, he looks in profile like one of those imposing, slightly square-nosed figures you see on ancient Greek vases.

Or, rather, he would if it weren't for the elegant linen suit he's wearing, and the Blackberry in one hand. Despite the fact he's just flown in from Germany, and got held up at Heathrow ("It's really terrible, the worst airport in Europe"), Kavakos seems fresh as a daisy, with not a hair out of place. That same unflappable poise and inner strength comes out in his playing. There's hardly a violinist alive who can project such a magnificent tensile melody, able to ring out over a full orchestra.

What that poise is rooted in starts to emerge as we talk. "I started with my father when I was only five," he says, "and he learned from his own father, who gave him his violin. He then passed it on to me. So, you see, it's in my blood."

Something else that's in his blood is the folk music his father played. "He was a famous folk player, and he played classical music as well. I wanted to play folk, but in Greece there is this idea that folk music is inferior, so I was kept away from it.

Is this something he regrets? "Oh, absolutely. Folk music is the root of classical music; it's just as wonderful in its own way."

He goes into a long disquisition on all the different regional types of Greek folk music. "They're all different, but they all arise from the folk song of the region, and to play it well you have to turn the violin into a voice. I would love to play these styles, but it's too late now."

"What I learned was that music is not just what we hear... It's what we do."

Fate might have marked Kavakos out as a violinist, but that's not how it seemed to begin with. "We had such terrible fights, my father and I, because he wanted me to better, and I kept rebelling. The problem is the violin is such a hard instrument to make a nice sound for a beginner.

"When my own daughter was five, we had this ceremony where she was given the family violin. She picked it up and scraped it a few times. Then she burst into tears, threw the violin away and said, 'That doesn't sound like grandfather's violin!'?" He laughs at this memory. "I must have been the same at first. I walked away from the violin three times, but I kept coming back."

Then came the first turning point, when he was sent aged nine to a legendary teacher in Athens. "He was not a professional teacher. He took money only from untalented pupils. For talented ones, like me, he refused to accept payment. He followed Plato's idea of education: he saw it as a sacred duty to pass on culture." What was his secret? Kavakos has no doubt about this.

"For him, learning music was a lesson in how to be human. My father gave me willpower, but this man gave me room to breathe. He taught me that music is about dedication and being exact, but also about knowing how and when to be free."

The hours of practice soon paid off, and by the age of 12 Kavakos was in the European Union Youth Orchestra. "I was the youngest player in the orchestra. It was like a dream, playing at the Proms and Vienna Musikverein, and Amsterdam Concertgebouw. But, after two years, I stopped touring with them: I could hear that my playing was changing in a way I did not like."

Clearly the self-possession that now marks Kavakos was already there in the 14-year-old. Two years later came the second turning point - winning the Sibelius competition. "I only entered it to please my mother because the Sibelius was her favourite concerto!"

Since then he hasn't looked back. As well as playing with all the major orchestras, he directs his own festival at the Megaron concert hall in Athens, and last year became artistic director of the Camerata Salzburg, one of Europe's leading chamber orchestras.

But the hurry and bustle of a virtuoso's life haven't dimmed those childhood experiences. "What I learned was that music is not just what we hear," he says. "It's what we do. When we do something with devotion and concentration, which touches somebody, that is a kind of music. And this explains something ancient in our heritage.

"You know what they taught in ancient Greek times? They taught grammar, they taught mathematics, they taught gymnastics, and they taught music! It was at the centre of education, because music touches the whole person."


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