Arabella Steinbacher’s Wild Romance with Prokofiev
Arabella Steinbacher’s violin sings like the heroine of an opera. Not surprising, since her father was a respected vocal coach in Munich, and her Japanese mother, a classically-trained singer. Her parents even named her after an opera by Richard Strauss. “I grew up with singers,“ Steinbacher says during a recent Skype interview from her hometown of Munich. “I really love listening to opera and songs. It was something always in our house.” So why did she grow up to be a violinist, and not a soprano? “I was a very energetic child,” Steinbacher recalls. “My parents wanted me to do something during the day, and the violin is something you can start at an early age.” For Steinbacher, that age was three. By the time she was eight, she could play all the Mozart concertos. She remembers that playing the violin came naturally, something she did for fun. Then when she turned nine, she began studying at the Munich Academy of Music, the youngest pupil of renowned violinist Ana Chumachenco. “That is when I realized I had to be more disciplined and focus more on the instrument,” Steinbacher says. “[Chumachenco] wanted me to study all the big concertos very early and very quickly, and play them by heart. I thought: ‘Now I really have to practice.’” At 32, Steinbacher has performed more than 30 different concertos worldwide with an impressive array of orcherstras, including the Boston, London, and Chicago symphonies. Here in Miami, with the Cleveland Orchestra, she will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 in D Major, Op.17. “It’s one of my favorite concertos,” Steinbacher says. “It has so many dreamy moments, like a fairy tale.” Prokofiev completed this concerto in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, which also happened to be his most productive year as a composer. The dreamy moments Steinbacher refers to were the product of a love affair. Prokofiev comunicates this with a long violin melodic line caressed by soft woodwinds in the opening movement. Deemed too “romantic” by a public already used to daring music like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Prokofiev’s first concerto failed at its Paris premiere. Fortunately, a few years later, legendary violinist Joseph Szigeti included the concerto on a triumphant tour of Europe and the United States, securing its position in the standard repertoire. On a recording with the Russian National Orchestra, Steinbacher plays it with a warm, healing sound. She makes the listener see the vital organs of the piece working harmoniously. “It’s such a poetic piece,” explains Steinbacher. “It has very wide moments, big contrasts between characters. It’s like a fantasy world.” That fantasy is demanding for both the performer and the instrument, even for Steinbacher’s 1716 Stradivari. “It’s happened many times with this concerto that my E string broke in the second movement,” she laughs. “So I just grab the concert master’s instrument and continue playing.” And of course, the audience goes wild. “At the end everybody talks only about that and not the rest of the concert,” Steinbacher says. Curiously, strings only seem to break in performance and not in rehearsal: “Maybe it’s because I play much more wildly in the concert.” Arabella Steinbacher will perform Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, Op.19, with The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero on Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22, at 8:00 pm in the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Also on the program are Dvorak’s Othello Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. Tickets are $36 to $170. www.arshtcenter.org.