Interview by Tim Janof
German cellist Maria Kliegel’s international career started in 1981 when she received the “Grand Prix” of the Concours Rostropovich in Paris. She also won first prizes at the American College Competition, the First German Music Competition in Bonn, the Concours Aldo Parisot, and was in the national selection for “Concerts with Young Artists.” After the Rostropovich Competition, the international concerts and tours began: she performed in Basel, and played with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and the Orchestre National de France in Paris — each time with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting. She has performed at the Konzerthaus Berlin, Stuttgart Liederhalle, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Weilburger Schloßkonzerte, Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival, Gubaidulina Festival in West Germany, Risor Kam in Norway, Alte Oper Frankfurt, and Kultursommer Nordhessen. She has toured Europe, the United States, South America, Japan, and other countries in the Far East. In addition to most of the standard concerto repertoire, she has recorded works by Sofia Gubaidulina, John Tavener, Bloch, and “Hommage á Nelson” by Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann, which is a piece dedicated to Nelson Mandela, as well as chamber music by Brahms, Chopin, Kodaly, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann. Since 1986 she has taught a master class at Cologne Music Academy.
TJ: You almost studied with André Navarra. What happened?
MK: I began to notice that my teacher in Frankfurt rarely demonstrated on the cello and I sensed that something was missing in my training. He usually accompanied me at the piano, which provided a great musical education, but it wasn’t helpful in the more technically difficult pieces, where seeing how something is actually done can be beneficial. When I asked people who I should study with, they mentioned Navarra, who was giving master classes in Siena that summer. The thought of sitting out on a piazza and drinking red wine with the maestro was quite appealing, so I decided that I would try Navarra.
Before the classes began, I was invited by a wealthy couple in Frankfurt, Mr. and Mrs. Dohrn, to vacation at their summerhouse near Siena. They had been helping me financially during my studies and knew of my plans to go to Navarra’s master class. Everything was set for me to enter the summer course when Katia (Mrs. Dohrn) told me that she had met Janos Starker and had told him about me. He said that, if I was that talented, I should study with him. She then told me that Starker was giving a master class in Canada the following week and that she would pay all my expenses if I went. That night was very difficult because I was already very focused on Siena, but I finally made up my mind to meet Starker. My teacher in Frankfurt always said that I should go to him when I was finished in Frankfurt, but I had never seriously considered it, since my long range goal was to go to Moscow and study with Rostropovich.
TJ: If you had gone to Rostropovich, you would have had a teacher who didn’t demonstrate on the cello very much, just like your teacher in Frankfurt.
MK: I didn’t know that at the time. I was only 19. All I knew was that I had many of Rostropovich’s recordings and I adored his playing.
I still remember playing for Starker in that master class. I was scared out of my mind, since I had never played in a master class before. After I had finished playing the Dvorak Concerto, he just sat there in silence, lighting a cigarette for what seemed an eternity, not looking at me, but killing me with his intense stare all the same. I sat nervously until he finally said, “Sing.” I thought, “Sing?” and sat in silent confusion. He repeated his request, “Sing!” I thought to myself, “But this is in double stops. How am I supposed to sing it?” The audience members were shrinking in their chairs by this time while he sat there quietly, staring at me. Finally, I attempted to sing and it sounded ridiculous. In fact, it was so ridiculous that I started to laugh, as did the audience. What started as a unbelievably tense situation transformed into a very funny one. He finally said, “Your singing was much too shy. You play like you sing.”
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he proceeded to tear me apart technically. I didn’t mind at all, since he gave me such beautiful hints, things that helped right away, which was what I was looking for when I decided to leave my teacher in Frankfurt. I then listened to the other lessons in the class and was struck by his incredible teaching abilities. A couple of days later, he suggested that I study with him in Bloomington, but I would have to make up my mind immediately because the following year he would be on sabbatical, and the year after that would be too late. So I had another sleepless night, called my parents, and said I wanted to study with Starker. I didn’t have a scholarship, but I couldn’t pass up this fantastic opportunity. Two weeks later I was in Bloomington.
I’m very grateful for Starker’s offer because, at the time, I would’ve never dared to ask to study with him. I realized after the master class how little I knew about cello playing. I felt like the cello was Mount Everest and I would never be able to reach the top. But he gave me the feeling that I could make it if I followed him. Thus, my road to conscious cello playing began.
TJ: Did he focus primarily on technical issues with you, or did he also talk about musical ideas?
MK: He discussed both, though he certainly focused on technique in the beginning, bringing every detail into consciousness. He taught me how to hold the bow, how to use my forearm, how to use the weight of my body and its balance with the instrument, how to do different types of shifts, and so on. If I need to play forte, I do this, if I have to play piano, I do something else. He spent a lot of time giving me the tools that I could use later to express my musical ideas.
He showed me how to practice and how to create little exercises out of difficult passages, not just in études, but in the major literature, which is what his fantastic exercise book for the left hand, An Organized Method of String Playing, is all about. The key to his method is in the last three detachable pages at the end of the book, which describes the geography of the fingerboard. You have to know these three pages by heart and make your own combinations from them. If you don’t know the cello’s geography, it’s like speaking a language without knowing its alphabet; you can only get so far in your communication skills.
TJ: Why do you think Starker tends to focus on the technical issues instead of musical ideas?
MK: He has several reasons. Starker believes that it’s important to develop a proper technique when you’re young. If you don’t develop the muscles properly early on, you will be lost later and your playing will always be shaky. If you follow Starker’s advice, you will be able to play anything later, and you are free to break the “rules” all you want.
He understands that you can’t get a job as a professional cellist if you don’t play the cello well. His goal is to teach you cello technique so that you can do anything in the music profession, whether you play in an orchestra, play chamber music, or play solos. He’s doing his best to prepare his students for the rather competitive music business.
He is also trying to free his students from technical limitations so that they can express their musical ideas without poor technique getting in the way. No matter how brilliant a musician you may be on the inside, nobody will know it if you can’t play your instrument well. He is actually doing his students a huge favor, both technically and musically, by focusing upon technical issues.
He also understands that he has a strong personality and he doesn’t want to dominate his students musically. He plays so convincingly when he demonstrates, that one doesn’t even think of questioning him; everything he does seems so right. He prefers that his students make up their own minds and find their own way. Besides, he believes that the musical side will work itself out later, after the distractions of learning technique subside.
TJ: Isn’t the exchange of musical ideas an important part of the learning process too?
MK: Yes it is, but musical ideas are very individual, and each student already comes with his or her own artistry, whether already known or yet to be discovered. A teacher can help to awaken what’s already within you or help to refine your execution, but it’s not the teacher’s job to mold you into his or her own image. Ultimately, the things you discover for yourself are more meaningful than what you are told.
TJ: I can’t help but wonder, though, whether it is the teacher’s responsibility to try to discourage a student from playing in a way that is just bad, no matter how much one may want to honor a student’s ideas. I ask this because there was a student in your master class that played with extreme rhythmic distortions. Should a teacher allow a student to play like that without saying something?
MK: If that student were mine, I would have a serious conversation with him. I’d ask him to tell me what he wanted to achieve musically, and we’d discuss how he played and what we would need to change in order to achieve that goal.
TJ: Starker often talks about “delayed” and “anticipated” shifts. What are these?
MK: The type of shift you use depends on whether you want to hear it or not, which has to do with what type of expression you are trying to convey. A “delayed shift” is done when you start the shift together with the bow change and you slide with the finger that you will end on; “new bow, new finger” is the general rule. This will produce an audible glide, which can be varied in length and intensity, depending on what you want to do musically. This type of shift should be used very carefully, and may be more appropriate in Romantic music than in Baroque or Classical.
TJ: The delayed shift sounds dangerous!
MK: It’s dangerous in the hands of people with bad taste. This type of shift can be easily overdone, though some people consider this type of shifting to be the only road towards expression. Everybody has a different sense of what’s expressive.
An “anticipated shift,” on the other hand, can be hidden pretty much completely. It is done before the bow change with the finger that plays the note before the shift; “old bow, old finger” is the general rule. One also has to lighten up on the bow in order to help hide it. This type of shift is used for going from one place to another on the fingerboard as cleanly as possible, whether a half-step or a large interval.
These are incredibly important concepts to be aware of, since we usually shift every few notes. The type of shift we use should be dictated by the music, so we must choose our shifts very carefully. Of course, everybody feels music differently and chooses different shifts for different situations, but part of our learning process is to develop a sense of good taste, in addition to the physical training and technical skills.
I first learned which type of shift to use by watching Starker play and by imitating him, since I wasn’t sure which type to use when. After awhile I got a feel for when to apply the different shifts, and also when to combine them.
TJ: Imitation is an important part of the learning process.
MK: Yes, it’s very important. Part of what makes Starker such a great teacher is that he demonstrates a lot. There are times when an explanation is appropriate and other times when you need to show the student exactly what to do. The student may need to see and hear how you play something, and then try to imitate it. It depends on the student and the situation.
TJ: In an interview a few years ago, you were quoted as saying that you find Starker’s playing to be “cold.” Did you really say this?
MK: No. The person who interviewed me completely distorted what I said and apparently projected his own opinion onto me. I told him that many people find his playing to be cold, and some even find him to be a cold man, but that I didn’t agree at all.
If you watch Starker on stage, he’s not trying to be a showman or an entertainer. He plays in such a manner that he draws your attention to the piece instead of to himself. If you listen very carefully, you will find that he is actually doing a lot of subtle things with the music. The way he shapes phrases and produces a variety of colors is wonderful, but this may not always project into the larger halls, which is why I prefer to hear him in smaller settings. He is truly a musician’s musician.
I studied with him for two years and I was a close friend with his daughter, Gwen, so I spent lots of time with him and his family. I got to know him pretty well, and he’s a very warm-hearted man. He is very compassionate towards young people and enjoys helping them no matter what their level is, whether very talented or less talented.
He always told us, “If you’re less talented, you’re not worth less as a human being than somebody who is more talented, so don’t kill yourself when you find out you have less talent.” I often hear about string players who are depressed because they end up fifth stand in the second violin section, which I find to be very sad. If you spend your life comparing yourself with others and beating yourself up for the fact that you aren’t the best in the world, you will have a miserable life. Of course, it’s natural to have high goals for yourself, but don’t think of yourself as an inferior human being if you don’t reach them.
TJ: You used the words “pressure” and “squeeze” a couple of times in your master class in Bloomington. These words are rarely heard in Starker Land.
MK: I knew I was treading on thin ice when I said those forbidden words in Bloomington. In Bloomington you have to learn to play without pressure. Starker tries to avoid the concept of pressure because, if you press too much, you lose your flexibility and you won’t be able to make fine adjustments in sound or intonation, in addition to the risks of injury.
This approach has its limitations, however. You will greatly restrict your dynamic and color palette if you don’t allow yourself to press. Also, you cannot truly sustain a sound if you don’t use pressure. If you play music like the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, or pieces by other Russian composers, you have to play them with very long and sustained lines. You can’t express the deep suffering of the Russian soul without hanging onto each angst-ridden tone. You have to use every millimeter of your bow to its fullest so that the musical tension is not lost. The key is to release the physical tension as soon as possible, after the music no longer needs it, in order to avoid injury.
I studied with Starker twenty-seven years ago. A lot of things have happened during that time, and I have developed my own ideas since I was in Bloomington. I now feel free to play exactly how I want, and I don’t worry if I play differently than how he taught me. I think the biggest gift I can give him is to play the way I want to, even if it’s very different from his way. I also know that, without his wonderful training, I probably wouldn’t be able to play the way I do today, so we both should be happy with the outcome.
TJ: Getting back to the issue of tension, do you believe that you have to play with some physical tension in order to be musically interesting?
MK: Absolutely. I allow myself to relax only when the music permits it. There’s a wonderful feeling you get when you are finally able to relax after a period of musical intensity.
TJ: When did you eventually get your chance to study with Rostropovich?
MK: I participated in a four-week master class in Basel in 1977. There were about forty participants, and everybody who applied was accepted. Everybody had at least one chance to play in the master class, though the more advanced players played for him multiple times. The first two weeks concentrated on master classes. The second two weeks were devoted to the ten best players, who were chosen to play concertos with the Basel Orchestra with Rostropovich conducting.
There were two pianos on stage during the master classes. He would play the piano parts from memory and would discuss musical ideas more than technique. He rarely played the cello in master classes because he didn’t want students to imitate him. His guiding idea was “Create your own fantasy.”
TJ: What do you think of him not demonstrating on the cello? Isn’t this a little extreme?
MK: He’s different from others, but he prefers to teach away from the cello. He’s interested in the music and doesn’t want to get bogged down in mundane technical details. Perhaps he was different when he taught in Moscow. I’m sure he knows exactly what he’s doing. He may prefer to keep his instrumental secrets to himself, unlike Starker, who seems much more interested in offering technical help. But he has had some great students, like David Geringas and Natalia Gutman, so I’d bet there was a time when he shared his technical ideas frequently. I also know that there can be a huge difference between how one teaches in a public master class, and how one teaches in a private lesson, so he may teach differently behind closed doors.
TJ: If he’s not focused on sharing technical advice, then what do you think he’s aiming for?
MK: He’s more interested in imposing his own musical ideas on the world, and in making sure that the crowd gets his musical message. I remember performing with him in 1981 after I won his competition; of course, I had to follow him as the conductor, not the other way around. Now that I have developed my own personality, he accepts my wishes as a soloist, which is natural between musical partners in a conductor/soloist relationship.
He’s a musical genius, of course. It’s amazing how he pulls so much out of himself and how differently his ideas come out each time. In the four-week master class in Basel, he’d tell completely different stories for the same piece. His imagination is endless and extremely inspiring.
His approach is completely different from Starker’s. If you ask Starker how to hold the bow, he’ll tell you, “Bend the thumb like this,” and on and on in great detail. If you ask Rostropovich the same question, he’ll say something like, “Oh, do what you want! Bow with your foot if that’s what it takes. Your musical vision must be so strong that you somehow achieve it.” Then he leaves you with this hint and continues to play musical examples on the piano to free up your imagination.
Rostropovich’s approach could be very frustrating for someone with technical problems. He wasn’t the least bit interested in sharing technical advice. He was only imposing his vision of the piece on the crowd, creating a kaleidoscope of emotions and deep feelings.
The great thing about Rostropovich’s approach is that he creates a fantastic spirit of the moment and puts the players at ease. He made us feel like we were a big family, and we were all exploring a composition together. “What a colorful world. What fun! What joy!” And the people in the audience had the same joy as the people who were playing. Nobody was nervous, so everybody could do his or her best.
There is a very different atmosphere in Starker’s teaching in Bloomington. The students are often very anxious. I don’t know which I like better, but I’m glad I studied with Starker first. Starker gave me wonderful guidelines for good cello playing, then Rostropovich taught me when to break them. It’s important to have the fundamentals under your belt first, otherwise you may end up being a mediocre cellist with potentially great musical ideas.
There were many things that were forbidden in Starker’s class, like playing with sharply bent joints or flattened fingers; Starker wanted to see gently curved fingers. I found out from Rostropovich that this “rigid” approach sometimes prevents the production of certain sounds, thus narrowing one’s expressive palette. Certain sounds were not available or even in my imagination because I was following Starker’s technical rules too strictly.
Of course, Starker is absolutely right, in an educational sense. But I discovered with Rostropovich that there are exceptions. You have to be willing to take certain risks if the music demands it. If an extreme fortissimo or extreme pianissimo is required, you have to figure out how to do it. If you close your mind to the possibilities that break the “rules,” you are really limiting yourself and are not doing enough justice to the music. If you must put your thumb up in the air or stretch your fingers in order to achieve a certain sound, then do it! Ultimately, it is the music that has to drive us, not a bunch of rules.
Rostropovich showed me that it was time to wake up. As you might imagine, my world was changed from black-and-white to sunshine and thunderstorms after four weeks with him. I was allowed to scratch, to play out of tune, and I was encouraged to explore my creativity. Of course, one shouldn’t go overboard and completely ignore all the rules. You should just experiment and risk making mistakes in your search.
In my own teaching, I use an approach that is a combination of Starker’s and Rostropovich’s, in addition to my own ideas, of course. I like to talk with my students and actively involve them in the learning process. I often ask them to explain why they play a certain way, like I did in my master class in Bloomington.
TJ: In your master class, you said, “If music demands risks, do it. If it doesn’t, find the easiest fingering.” What does this mean?
MK: The music must come first when you play. If the music requires that you go up the G string instead of crossing over to the D string, then you must do it. If three notes must sound exactly the same, and if the only way to exactly match the sound were to play each note with the same finger, then you must do it. But if the fingering doesn’t really matter, then choose the easiest fingering that sounds the best. There’s no need to make life unnecessarily difficult.
TJ: You play with an unusually long endpin. Did you get this from Rostropovich?
MK: No, I’ve always played with a long endpin. I prefer that the cello lay more horizontally. I’ve always felt more comfortable with it.
When I first went to Starker, he shortened my endpin immediately. He wanted to show me how to let my weight sort of fall into the cello, and how to become aware of my body’s natural balance. Every time I’d try to sneak the end-pin out a couple of inches, he’d catch me and ask me to put it back in. It felt horrible and I couldn’t get used to it, though I trusted him and did it for awhile.
When I went back to Germany during his one-year sabbatical, I went back to my longer endpin. When I returned to Starker the following year, he left me alone because I seemed to have found a good balance with my body and the instrument. It just feels better to me for some reason.
With my own students, if everything appears to be in balance, I don’t even discuss their endpin length. If they sound great, feel great, and look great, why change it? Changing things unnecessarily can create problems where none existed before.
TJ: When discussing the Haydn D Major concerto in your masterclass, you discussed the piece in terms of male and female. Do you often use this imagery?
MK: Sometimes, yes, but I also use other imagery to convey the same concepts of strong and gentle. I used the male/female idea because I was talking with a very pretty, graceful girl who seemed like she would be able to relate to the masculine/feminine contrast. I learned the value of cooking up imagery on the spot from Rostropovich.
TJ: Are there any general principles you follow when playing Bach?
MK: I think we have to avoid being too rigid in our approach, whether we play in a baroque or a modern style. Today’s baroque musicians have done some harm in this regard. You shouldn’t just obsess on perfecting articulations, bowings, non-vibrato, ornaments, and other aspects; you need to feel Bach’s music too. I’m not saying you should ignore all the research, I’m just saying that there’s more to the art of music-making than following some so-called “rules.” The baroque scene has made many afraid to sit down and just play how they feel, which I think is dangerous.
There are four available manuscripts of the Bach Suites and they all contradict each other. I compared them and found that the slurs varied tremendously from manuscript to manuscript. In the end, I had four different answers written down and even more questions than before I started about how to execute the music. It’s so difficult to find the right way because there is no autograph in Bach’s own hand to serve as the authoritative source. Each of us has no other choice but to make up our own mind.
I don’t think musicians really cared back then whether one slurred three notes and dotted the fourth, or the other way around. They may have had certain rules of articulation according to the harmony of the piece, but they didn’t nit-pick like some do today. They didn’t discuss whether to play on open strings and they didn’t worry about “right” and “wrong.” How can one talk about right and wrong in music? Feelings can’t be right and wrong, only honest and dishonest. Musicians just played back then, loving music, and choosing articulations according to their musicality. They had much more freedom than we do today, and they probably didn’t have to worry about being grilled by scholars or critics. It is our responsibility as musicians to play the way that sounds right according to our own taste. To me, playing in a manner that is true to ourselves is real “authenticity.”
TJ: Anner Bylsma is exploring the notion that the Magdalena manuscript is true to Bach’s intentions and he is trying to play the slurs exactly as written.
MK: Anner Bylsma is constantly exploring new ideas and I think this is wonderful. He plays Bach very beautifully and convincingly, but I could never play the way he does. I remember when he came to Cologne ten years ago and performed Bach; students imitated him for years afterwards and sounded ridiculous. They were trying to imitate his playing without all the research, knowledge, and experience that was the basis of his playing. There’s a profound gap between imitating and playing true to oneself.
TJ: Don’t you think that, since we have so much more knowledge today about the baroque practices, we have a responsibility to try to play more in that vein?
MK: We can’t ignore all the research, but we don’t have to be enslaved by it. We play for an audience 250 years after the works were written. Music, concert halls, and instruments have drastically changed since then, so we have to find a good combination between now and then. We have to present the piece to the audience in a manner that sounds beautiful and true. It may not sound as beautiful if one is restricted by certain rules. The audience must feel that the performer loves what he or she is doing and that there is freedom to do whatever the spirit of the moment requires.
I think it’s important to at least learn what the “rules” of authentic playing are. Once you understand these, you can go out on your own and establish your own taste. I would caution players not to do something different just for the sake of being different, just to rebel. Some musicians do this just to get noticed, which isn’t about trying to find the profound truths of the piece, it’s marketing. There is a delicate balance between being a slave to the score and being self-consciously mannered in one’s approach.
TJ: Do you have imagery in mind when you perform Bach? Tortelier had the image of a flowing stream in mind when playing the Prelude from the G Major Suite, for instance.
MK: Sometimes, yes. Imagination is a great way to help set the mood of the piece, and helps you find the right articulations and bowings. The scholars don’t make this process a priority when trying to determine how a piece should be played.
TJ: Anner Bylsma doesn’t like to discuss imagery because one person’s imagery may be very different from another’s.
MK: True. But I believe that it’s important, as a teacher who deals with various levels of musical talent, to cultivate a student’s imagination, so I sometimes ask a student to articulate his or her imagery. It doesn’t matter what it is since the audience won’t know about it, but the use of imagery can give one an overall approach to a piece, a unifying concept. I may not agree with the concept, but that’s ok, as long as I sense that it is honest. Music is not about what’s right and what’s wrong.
I play works by living composers and I sometimes ask them if I can change things, perhaps a dynamic or an articulation here and there. They almost always tell me, “If it sounds better, do it.” But should these changes always be documented in the score? I don’t think so, because a composer may talk to several performers and they all have different concepts of the piece, which is how it should be. A publisher would go crazy trying to update a score every time a performer comes up with a new idea. There are exceptions of course, like Sofia Gubaidulina, who has produced many editions of her compositions because she’s constantly working with musicians who make suggestions that she wants to document. I believe that a composer should trust musicians to play the piece with integrity both to the score and to their own musical instincts, even if they change a thing or two. Why should this give-and-take with a composition stop just because the composer is dead? Of course, this requires individual responsibility on the part of each performer.
TJ: This was a common practice in the early 20th century. Kreisler, for instance, was not above changing dynamics if the spirit moved him.
MK: Exactly, though I fear that this approach to music making — spontaneity, creativity, self-trust — is often misused and overdone. On the other hand, many young musicians don’t dare defy the rules of “marketing,” and they imitate the players on the most “successful” recordings without thinking or questioning. They are afraid of making mistakes and perhaps offending a judge’s sensibilities in a competition.
TJ: Given that there is such a wide spectrum of ideas on how Bach should be played, do you think that it’s appropriate to ask for Bach in competitions?
MK: It shouldn’t be eliminated from competitions for this very reason. Even when it is extremely difficult to judge a baroque-style performance over a more twentieth century one, you can still try to determine if the player is truly identifying with the piece, and make sure that he is fundamentally musical and demonstrating instrumental mastery.
TJ: Record companies are really struggling with the classical music market. With classical CD sales at less than 3% of the total market, record companies seem to be staying with safer bets, like Yo-Yo Ma, the latest prodigy, or historic recordings. Your recording company, Naxos, seems to have found a new approach; they sell 15 million CD’s a year.
MK: I’m very lucky to record for Naxos, which sells CD’s for budget prices; they price them to move. People don’t mind spending $6 for a CD; if they don’t like it, no big loss. If a CD costs $15 to $20, people have to stop and think if they really want it.
The big labels concentrate their energies on selling stars, which means that they spend a lot of money just to record them, in addition to throwing celebrity parties and so on. This has driven the prices of CD’s so high that only classical music fanatics are willing to buy them. The classical CD market has really suffered because of this, since the industry can’t make it if they don’t sell to a wide audience.
Naxos was started by Klaus Heymann ten years ago. He had the novel idea that he was going to concentrate on selling music, not stars, without a lot of advertising. At first the CD’s didn’t even list the artist, though eventually names appeared, first on the back, then on the front. The idea is that people buy the CD’s because they want to hear some Beethoven, prior to choosing a particular artist. This strategy has worked very well; Naxos is now the number two label in the classical world. In fact, a very famous label tried to buy Naxos because Naxos has been killing their sales. Through this concept I became the best sold cellist on CD’s worldwide within a few years. Now people begin to buy my CD’s because of my playing, not because of prior expensive marketing. The music and the composer come first!
TJ: You once said, regarding much of the contemporary repertoire for cello, “There is often no soul in the music. Much of it is so bad that audiences can’t get anything out of it except boredom, not even annoyance?” When a composer approaches you with one of his or her works, what do you look for when deciding if you want to perform it?
MK: The piece has to be written such that the cello still sounds like a cello. I don’t like those pieces where I’m only allowed to play scratchy quartertones. There can be heartfelt ugly-sounding moments that express pain, struggle, or other human feelings, but there has to be beauty too. Alfred Schnittke’s and Sofia Gubaidulina’s music expresses this beautifully. If the soul of the cello is not recognizable, I refuse to play it, no matter how great its concept or how profound the underlying philosophy may be. I won’t play something just to make some money or to get a dedication. Music must touch my soul or I won’t play it.
Ultimately, music is not about technique, rules, or some abstract mathematical concepts. It’s about communication and deepening one’s understanding of humanity. Why play music if it doesn’t stir your soul? And this can be done by amateurs as well by professionals. Music lovers can save the world, which is beginning to be ruled by computers and machines.