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Patricia Kopatchinskaja is tired of classical music’s ‘institutional inertia’

The iconoclastic violinist will be back in town for her Boston recital debut

Patricia Kopatchinskaja is one of the most profoundly original musicians to have achieved wide recognition in recent memory.Courtesy HarrisonParrott

Because the classical music world is so strongly oriented toward tradition (a rather narrow slice of tradition at that), claims to nonconformity can be wildly oversold. Slightly upping the percentage of contemporary music in an orchestra’s diet, booking concerts in a venue that isn’t a concert hall, resistance to classical music’s stifling dress code — these can be enough to produce paeans to “unconventionality” even when, as in most cases, they barely edge away from the conventions in which this culture remains enmeshed.

The violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja traffics in no such pretensions, even though some writers have superficially noted her penchant for playing barefoot on stage. Far more important is the fact that she is one of the most profoundly original musicians to have achieved wide recognition in recent memory. Rarely has a performer of such talent and expressive power been so openly impatient with the numbing effects of tradition, and especially with what she calls “institutional inertia.” “To repeat the same immortal pieces has become the norm today,” she wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian a few years ago. “Wouldn’t a little madness be preferable to this normality?” And though some would probably describe her 2016 recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as a bit mad — given the dramatic range of dynamics and textures, and the unusual phrasing it contains — it is (to my ears) a brilliant, cathartic example of how truly fresh and radical an overplayed piece can sound when the commitment to unearth that side of it is present.


Contemporary music? She’s worked with an array of composers — witness her fiercely intense performance of Michael Hersch’s terrifying Violin Concerto. Neglected repertoire? The Soviet-era composer Galina Ustvolskaya, which she performed to overwhelming effect at the Ojai Music Festival in 2018. And she’s donned makeup and costume to perform in the speaking role in Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” in Berlin. Kopatchinskaja is creating her own artistic universe, and it’s a lot more interesting than most of what goes on outside it.

Kopatchinskaja gave her first American performance with the Boston Philharmonic in 2013. She makes her Boston recital debut on Jan. 23 and 24, in a duo program with cellist Jay Campbell (of the JACK Quartet) that stretches from the 11th century to Ligeti and Xenakis. She answered questions from the Globe by e-mail. An edited transcript follows.


Q. Unconventionality seems to be your calling card, whether it’s in performing unusual repertoire or bringing new life to canonical pieces. Is that something you strive for, or does it speak to how tradition-bound the culture of classical music is?

A. In my understanding, relevant, striking, timeless art is a space where any canon, or copy, or convention cannot exist. It can be shocking, questioning, uncompromising, unusual, uncomfortable, absurd, insane, breaking rules, etc. — there I feel needed and I do what I can. One needs the right partners, courageous presenters, and a curious audience with fresh ears.

I also try to get journalists in the boat: They can help us to keep classical music alive, by explaining to listeners the context of the musical history and by supporting creativity instead of looking for bugs or worshiping glossy copies and boring programs. Together we can change the concert routine, play more and more modern music without worrying about empty seats in the hall.


Q. Who was your greatest inspiration — not as a violinist, but as a musician more broadly?

A. My own imagination and everything around me.

Q. How much of your approach to music is intuition, and how much is intellect? Or rather, what’s the role of each of those ingredients?

A. Both are essential and shouldn’t disturb each other. But my nose says that intuition is the queen of the best decisions.

Q. You’ve spoken of bringing your vision of a piece to life in performance. How do you arrive at that vision, and how difficult is it to bring that vision into being when you work with other musicians?

A. First you have to forget everything, especially so-called “tradition” and standards, start from zero, and then share your visions together and let all ideas flow to a colorful, diverse togetherness. Go to the heart and nerves of the piece, talk with its story, listen carefully to what it does with you. Let yourself be surprised in the concert, don’t plan everything, [since] every plan closes a window. Keep your spirit fluent and attentive as you would discover a new planet full of beauty and danger.

Q. You recently released a recording called “Time and Eternity,” which ranges over 600 years of music from Machaut to John Zorn. What’s the thinking behind it?

A. The aim was to get to the roots of the main piece — [Karl Amadeus] Hartmann’s “Concerto funèbre.” Around this we built a mosaic of other elements giving context and background, including some songs he quoted in the concerto. Like in an art exhibition, we group different pieces together so that they become understandable and enhance each other.


Q. You’re making your Boston recital debut in a violin-cello duo, a somewhat unusual chamber music configuration. What is the importance of that repertoire to you?

A. Most of all it is Jay Campbell, he is the biggest joy. I’m thrilled to play with him again. The program is a small range of ideas we could collect together from the not-very-big repertoire existing for violin and cello. He and the JACK Quartet are among the most interesting musicians I’ve met. I’m literally hungry to hear him again. He is a very special magician without doing anything special.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Jan. 23 and 24, 8 p.m. Tickets $45-$60. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.