People in the News

New Artist of the Month: Violinist Sarah Saviet

March 1, 2024 | By Steve Smith, Musical America

Plenty of violinists eager to make a name for themselves choose virtuoso fireworks in their inaugural public offerings. Sarah Saviet has chosen an alternate route in her clutch of recent recordings. That’s not to say pieces like A Coiled Form, a serpentine solo work by English composer Bryn Harrison, or Speak, Be Silent, Australian composer Liza Lim’s incantatory concerto, don’t require ample technical acumen—they do. But they also demand unconventional modes of intensity and expressiveness.

“What originally attracts me to a piece of work is often when I don’t understand it, or when I feel like I can learn something through it,” Saviet said, speaking from Berlin via Zoom. “But what keeps me learning, and certainly what has formed my core solo violin repertoire over the last six years, are pieces that require a certain stillness within myself, a certain kind of listening. That's also tied to certain kinds of physicality I feel I can take on as an organic language with my body and my instrument.”

Saviet, 34, has established herself as a performer in high demand since arriving in Germany just over a decade ago. Through impressive recordings like SPUN, her recent debut solo album, her renown is growing globally. The album, comprising works by Lim, Lisa Streich, Evan Johnson, Arne Gieshoff, and Lawrence Dunn, emphasizes a quality Saviet terms “interior virtuosity,” favoring intimacy over extroverted display.

That her career has taken root in Europe is more through serendipity and opportunity than design. Originally from Washington, DC, Saviet took up the violin after seeing her childhood best friend perform in the DC Youth Orchestra Program, a long-running organization that offers young players training and opportunity. Joining the program, Saviet explored the classical canon, and came to appreciate playing a role in a big ensemble sound.

Webern a turning point

Her journey into modern music began at age 16, when Rebecca Henry, her violin teacher at Peabody Preparatory, introduced her to Webern. She became absorbed with the Second Viennese School, and with the newer styles of Philip Glass and John Adams. Pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Saviet studied with the esteemed violinist and pioneering Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, who urged her to take up works like Berg’s Violin Concerto and Elliott Carter’s 4 Lauds. (Saviet’s impressive 2011 account of the Berg concerto with the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra is posted on YouTube.)

“I think about her every time I pick up the violin,” Saviet said of the late Fleezanis. “Some of the things I'm doing are, I think, much weirder than what she would be into,” she added, laughing, “but she put the fire in me. Being around a musician with as much integrity as Jorja—physical integrity, and also integrity in how she lived her life—that was the biggest gift I've ever gotten.”

On graduating, Saviet received a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Berlin. “I had this idea that I play mainly music that comes from Europe: let's go there for two years,” she said. “And I was also really interested in studying Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach in Europe, because the style is so different.”

Enrolled in the University of the Arts in Berlin, Saviet studied with Nora Chastain, an American violinist based in Germany, who encouraged her to take up canonical works like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. “And then on the side, I was finding people to collaborate with, sniffing out what's happening, and listening to so much music that I hadn't come across in the U.S.,” she said.

“There’s a big divide,” she added. “In New York and Chicago and Boston it's less so, but certainly in Indiana—I don’t know if I had heard of Lachenmann until I moved to Germany.”

Finding her family

Over time, Saviet joined Ensemble Mozaik, the new-music group organized by German composer Enno Poppe, and performed with other boundary-pushing groups farther afield, like Klangforum Wien, England’s Riot Ensemble and Australia’s ELISION. She also formed a duo with Joseph Houston, an English pianist and composer based in Berlin, with whom she plays modern classics and new music. The partners also improvise in concert and compose new works themselves.

The composers Saviet has championed, including Liza Lim, Bryn Harrison, and British composer Jack Sheen, write works in she consistently finds fresh challenge and inspiration.

“One thing I love about how Sarah plays,” wrote Lim in an email, “is the way she follows the violin right inside the sound, so you feel like you’ve got access to the inner voice of the instrument, of the music and of Sarah herself. It’s this ‘secret voice’ that I’m always keeping an ear out for as a composer—a feeling of alignment that shows up as a kind of truth-telling in art.”

Harrison recounted his collaboration with Saviet on A Coiled Form, commissioned by Riot Ensemble during the COVID-19 lockdown. “The original commission was for a very short piece,” Harrison wrote, “but it quickly became apparent that Sarah's enthusiasm for the new work, and her relentless discipline and commitment to learning new pieces, meant that we would be able to collaborate on something far more ambitious.”

What Harrison originally envisioned as a five-minute study in continuous flitting motion and repetition, with the tempo slowing at a pace the listener barely perceives, grew to more heavenly lengths in Saviet’s hands: 20 minutes in its London premiere, 40 minutes in a Berlin account, and 50 minutes on Saviet’s recording for the English label Another Timbre. (The CD has sold out, but the recording is still available as a digital download.)

Now firmly established overseas, Saviet hopes to establish a firmer foothold here in the U.S., with A Coiled Form as a kind of calling card. In February she played the work’s U.S. premiere at the Frequency Festival in Chicago. She’ll perform it again on May 17 for the Indexical concert series in Santa Cruz, CA, part of a 10-day California trek (May 10-19) that includes master classes and solo concerts in San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, and Oakland. East Coast dates are in planning stages.

She plans to remain based in Berlin, she said, but still have a relationship with her home country, not least to keep up with new music being written here, much of which doesn’t necessarily reach Europe. And she envisions meeting composers and performers on her upcoming trip who she might subsequently engage for European visits, collaborations, and commissions.

“The best way to do that is to make sure I get over there to play,” she said, “and see what's going on.”

Photos: Mostra Sonora (top only); Camille Blake



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