INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2015 Honorees

By Rebecca Schmid

The lissome Georgian violinist’s passionate musicality leaves no doubt of her longevity. Only 35, she is a regular guest of leading orchestras across Europe and the U.S., and this season she is artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic.

It is not unusual for today’s generation of violinists to tackle a full spectrum of repertoire, champion projects in which they believe, and hold a strong media presence. But if there is one woman on the scene who continues to knock jaws open while leaving no doubt that her career will still be going strong two to three decades down the line, it is Lisa Batiashvili.

Whether in Bach, Shostakovich, or Lindberg, the violinist’s passionate but meticulous musicality allows the notes to speak for themselves. She projects fragile emotional power without ever becoming overly sentimental, with an honest vibrato, burnished low range, and silvery high notes.  At only 35, she is a regular guest of leading orchestras across Europe and the U.S.

As artist-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic this season, Batiashvili explores a wide range of interests with concertos by Bach, Brahms, and Barber; a recital with Paul Lewis; and the American premiere of French composer Thierry Escaich’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe. Although her relationship with the orchestra predates the arrival of Alan Gilbert (at some point this season, she will be performing her 50th concert), she and the music director have been collaborators for over a decade.

“We understand each other very well personally,” she says by phone from Tbilisi, Georgia. “It is nice that there are younger directors today with whom one can build a friendship over a long period of time. That in ten years, we will still be standing together onstage.”

While the violinist is quick to downplay her advocacy of contemporary music, there is no doubt that—as with Gilbert—it has played a decisive role in her career. The Escaich commission is part of a series that she and her husband, François Leleux, began to expand the repertoire for violin and oboe, starting in 2008 with Giya Kancheli’s Broken Chant.

“We see it as a kind of duty to give life to music that we like and believe in,” says Batiashvili. “I don’t just play works because they are out there. I have to find a point of access. It is sometimes an adventure, but a very exciting one.”

Batiashvili’s first solo album featured a concerto written for her by Magnus Lindberg, who took notice when she became the youngest winner in the history of Finland’s Sibelius Competition, at age 16. She soon found herself playing up to 40 concerts a year, but it was not until over a decade later that she signed a contract with Sony.

“My goal is to do things of quality, that make sense,” reflects Batiashvili. “I didn’t take every opportunity that came my way because I found that it is only worth it if one can invest one’s heart and ideas and get something in return.” The recordings of Batiashvili, now a Deutsche Grammophon artist, have ranged from fresh takes on standard repertoire such as the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann and a recently released collection of solo, chamber, and orchestral music by Bach to an album of Pärt, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Kancheli, which featured a transcription by her father, the violinist Tamas Batiashvili.

Born in Tblisi, Batiashvili describes her childhood as happily spoiled by an atmosphere of constant music-making. While her mother taught piano, her father gave violin lessons and rehearsed with his string quartet. “I must say that this music still lies in the head and the heart,” she says. “I have the feeling that it is in my genes: the yearning for the harmony of these four instruments that are unbeatable.”

Batiashvili cites Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, and in particular Shostakovich (whom her father met on one occasion) as composers to whom she developed an early proximity. Although she learned to play under the tutelage of her own father, he was careful to keep the situation in balance. “He had me attend master courses so that I understood that his was not the only way—not like these typical fathers who want to control everything.”

The family history experienced a small rupture when, in 1991, the Batiashvilis moved to Germany for both political and artistic reasons. “I came to an age where I had to study somewhere else if I wanted to become a violinist,” says Lisa, who was 11 at the time. “And it was clear to my parents that the coming years would be very difficult for Georgia. All the republics had to stand on their own legs. It was not at all easy to leave everything behind and take this risk in an unfamiliar country, but in the end it was a savior.” 

Batiashvili studied with David Oistrakh pupil Mark Lubotsky at the Hamburg Musikhochschule before moving on to Munich for lessons with Ana Chumachenco. “My musical development and much of my own personality was influenced by arriving in Germany,” she recalls. “I tried to learn from everything that fascinated me without forgetting my roots.”

Batiashvili, who currently plays an 18th-century del Gesù instrument, recently brought 14 new violins for a benefit concert to support the music school in Georgia where both she and her parents studied. “The school needs pretty much everything. The children don’t have many opportunities to come into contact with the West. Wherever I go, it will be important for me to come back to the place I am from.”

This down-to-earth quality has been decisive in allowing Batiashvili to strike a healthy work-life balance. She and Leleux have two children, ages 10 and 6. “It is a matter of constantly being flexible,” she says. “One must be aware that life never stays the same. In general, though, it would be very difficult to be only a musician or only a mother. I think that the support of my family—not just my parents but my husband and his parents—made it possible.”

While being selective about the projects she undertakes has been crucial, the violin is such an inextricable part of Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year that her path was always clear. “My career developed step by step,” Batiashvili says, “with a lot of time, quiet, and happiness—without my having to strive directly for it. It came about naturally.” •

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes to publications such as The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Financial Times, and Gramophone.

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