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Znaider Rediscovers Nielsen Violin Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra

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Written by: Fernando Landeros
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Nikolaj Znaider played in an orchestra for the first time at the age of nine, two years after he began to study violin. He still remembers the sense of discovery, as he listened to the children playing around him.“It’s like if you've only seen a garden,” recalls the now renowned violinist and conductor who will be performing with the Cleveland Orchestra this week. “And then all of a sudden you get to see a forest.”

After winning the International Carl Nielsen Violin Competition at age 16, Znaider soon found himself performing with the world’s top orchestras. But even as his reputation as a soloist soared, he would often slip into the violin section after playing a concerto in the first half of a concert, so he could keep playing after intermission, as a member of the orchestra.

“I had an ambition very early on to start conducting,” he says over the phone, while on a break from conducting an opera in Italy. “So it was a great way to familiarize myself with the impact the conductor has on an orchestra -- and with the feeling of being an orchestral musician.”

Baton now firmly in hand, Znaider is sought after as a conductor, notably serving as the principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra since 2010. Yet he keeps coming back to his 1741 Guarneri violin – and to the piece that won him prestige as teenager: the Nielsen Violin Concerto.

“It's like if they give you 10 flowers to smell,” he muses, “you might like all of them, but there's going to be some that you just love, that you want to smell again.”

Composed in 1911, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto is full of lyricism. The orchestra coddles the violin as it cries out a string of memories from long ago. Though he was born and raised in the same country as Nielsen, Denmark, Znaider claims to feel no nationalistic connection to the composer.

Instead, he learned the piece at the urging of Milan Vitek, a famous Czech violin teacher working in Copenhagen at the time. “He loved the piece,” he recalls, “so I learned it with him.”

The bravura embedded in this concerto attests to Nielsen’s own mastery of the violin, and make this virtuosic part severely demanding for the best violinists. But not for Znaider. “When you learn something at 16, it stays with you so deep,” he explains.“All these pieces I learned at that age, you can wake me up in the middle of the night, and I'll play you any of them, without practicing. I can't do that with the pieces I learned when I was 30 or 35.”

For several years, Znaider put the Nielsen concerto aside. Then, he recorded it a second time, in advance of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2015. “I discovered I liked it even more,” he observed. “Once you come to know the piece, you shed yourself of everything and you return once more to just the pure feeling of the music.”

When conductor Franz Welser-Möst invited Znaider to play the Nielsen at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the violinist jumped at the chance. Having collaborated with the Cleveland Orchestra before, he is eager to get back to what he calls their “wordless dialogue.”

“That’s the magic you feel in the hall,” he continues. “When you feel good musicians thinking together, responding to each other, and you get this feeling in the audience of something being created -- you have the feeling that this piece of music reorganized your molecules somehow.”

If that does happen, might Znaider sneak into the violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra for the concert’s second half

“What are they doing, Sibelius what?” he asks.

Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2.

“Yeah, why not?” Znaider laughs. “That could be fun. If they let me.”

Nikolaj Znaider performs the Nielsen Violin Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, 8pm on Thursday Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 4, Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; tickets $39-$173; Arshtcenter.org.

 


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About The writer

Classical pianist, music writer

Fernando Landeros is a pianist who has performed throughout Mexico, the United States, Australia, Germany, and Austria. A native of San Diego, his..

About the Writer

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