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Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Portrait artist Patricia Kopatchinskaja

"We need to liberate the notes"

The violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is radical, dazzling, non-conformist. She was long considered an insider tip, but now has reached the pinnacle of her field, winning prizes and making music with the world’s greatest performers. She is the dedicatee of numerous new violin concertos, and gives the repertory favourites a proper stirring up. Who is this woman, who stands on stage barefoot in order to be grounded, and who never plays off by heart, but always seeks to enter into a dialogue with the score?

Let’s turn back time a little, to a summer’s afternoon at the 2008 Menuhin Festival in the Swiss mountain village of Gstaad. A young violinist is performing: Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Her stage is a shaky platform in between flea market and sausage stalls. Undeterred, she plays Moldovan folk melodies, attacking her violin as if her life were at stake – which indeed it always is when she makes music, and especially here. For here she is playing as an ambassador for "Terre des Hommes", collecting money for children's aid projects in her home country of Moldova.

"Moldova is incredibly beautiful," she recounts in between melodies, "with strong, rustic smells, with an endless, open sky, with warm sunshine and deep black soil. The people are funny and warm, the dances fast and contagious. And when there is something to celebrate, the tables buckle under the weight of all the food."

Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays in much the same way as she describes her home country: with strong contrasts, with utter dedication to the moment, and with a very direct tone that seeks to evoke smells, tastes, and feelings – and not just pleasurable ones. After all, dirt is part of life, and thus part of music, she says.

Perhaps this uncompromising attitude stems from her childhood, during which she often accompanied her musician parents on concert tours. They are professional Moldovan folk musicians – but there is nothing cosy about this folk music. Instead, it is deeply rooted in being human, and is a way to make comprehensible primal fears and disasters, the incomprehensible, to transform them into poetry. And all of this resonates in Patricia Kopatchinskaja's violin playing.

These existential feelings – Kopatchinskaja experienced them herself, back around 1989, when the collapse of Communism brought extreme changes about in her own life. Her family emigrated from Moldova to Vienna. Thus 13-year-old Patricia Kopatchinskaja arrived in a foreign country, had her fingerprints taken in a refugee camp, and was subjected to xenophobic comments. This experience shaped her for life.

"I must help myself!" has been her motto ever since. And precisely that is what she did. She applied to Vienna’s University of Music to study violin – and composition. The reason: "I couldn't speak the language, but had so many emotions that needed to be released," she says, "I composed whole mountains back then, I was like a waterfall.”

Capturing emotions in music is what distinguishes Patricia Kopatchinskaja's genius – both in her compositions and her violin playing. And these emotions cover a vast range. In this way, she is not only able to infuse the great works of the standard violin repertoire with new life, as if the ideas inspiring them were being born that very moment. She also plays contemporary music with unprecedented naturalness, devotion and virtuosity.

A scholarship finally brought her to Berne, where she started a family – and from where, step by step, note by note, she has conquered the international concert stage – and changed the world of music. Lastingly.

"I know you – I've heard you play..." is a saying in her home country. It holds true for Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who as a person is as honest and direct, as charming and imaginative as her playing. And then again, it is not true – because in every single concert she surpasses the known, dares to do new things, goes to the limits and beyond. For example, hitting a coffin with a hammer for minutes on end in her scenic concert project "Dies irae", which mourns humanity’s destruction of our planet in music. Or makes music only with her voice instead of her violin in Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire”. Or goes on stage in a creepy skeleton costume – to visually enhance Schubert's "Death and the Maiden".

She is particularly fond of chamber music. “It’s because everyone remains an individual, everyone can develop their thoughts further," she says. This makes direct communication possible. Unlike with an orchestra. There, the conductor is often the centre of attention, and Patricia Kopatchinskaja states clearly: "A conductor disturbs the dialogue between the musicians. A conductor is only necessary when the work is so large that ensemble playing is no longer possible." This is why she has been the artistic director of Camerata Bern in her adopted home of Berne, Switzerland, since the 2018/19 season – a chamber orchestra small enough for her to conduct as "prima inter pares”, while still large enough for all conceivable musical experiments. She never uses a baton, but is always part of the ensemble, playing her violin at the front – or, on occasion, right at the back.

She always has the printed score with her – even if she has long since learned the music by heart. "If I were to play off by heart, I would already have a fixed idea in my head," she says, “and then I wouldn't be able to communicate with the score. Perhaps I'm a bit like someone who goes into that prison of the score, talks to the prisoners there and tells their stories."

But the score also motivates her to react flexibly to it, to imaginatively develop the music: "We mustn’t stick slavishly to the score, not just read out the notes. Notes are a convention, an necessity-driven definition," she says. And challenges her colleagues: "We performers need to read this thought out of the score. Like clairvoyants, we need to look at this destiny: a soul is pinned down there, like a bird that cannot fly. And we need to help it to fly. We need to liberate the notes."

Patricia Kopatchinskaja liberates the notes – and us, her audience. She liberates us from our entrenched listening patterns, from our preconceptions of how something ought to be played. And with every concert she shows us that music can sound even more extreme, painful, dazzling, and funny than we ever thought possible.

Jenny Berg
(Übersetzung: Margaret Hiley)