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Greek Violinist Kavakos Escapes Euro Crisis While Playing With NY Philharmonic

Leonidas Kavakos
New York Observer

By Carl Gaines

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto is a soaring, virtuosic work surprisingly full of optimism, given it’s taken in part from music the composer wrote for films about poverty, political corruption and squandered second chances.

So when Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos finishes a three-day run playing the work with the New York Philharmonic Saturday night—thereby missing the elections that could decide if Greece stays in the euro-zone or heads closer to the exit—it will not have been without a measure of irony.

“The last elections, even though this was in the middle of a tour of mine, I flew just for the day to vote and back to play but that was because I was on tour in Europe,” Mr. Kavakos told The Observer. “Now my last concert is on Saturday with the New York Phil and the elections are on Sunday. And on Monday I have a concert in Saint Peterburg, so there is no way for me to make it.” He’s slated to play the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 there, with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra.

Mr. Kavakos had just arrived stateside when The Observer caught up with him by phone earlier this week. He was preparing for the first of several rehearsals in advance of his performances with the New York Philharmonic. They were slated for Thursday night at 7:30 p.m., a Friday matinee at 2 p.m. and the Saturday 8 p.m. performance that, as he mentioned, would make it impossible to get back to Greece in time to vote in the country’s pivotal elections.

Asked about how the arts in Greece are faring, he seems more interested in talking about the broad reach of events there—the pensioner whose benefit has been dramatically slashed, or the cancer patient who can’t access the care or medicine they need.

“I do not know what has not been affected by the crisis,” he said. “Everything has been affected by the crisis and it’s not over yet and I do not think that it is going to be over very soon.” Like the majority of Greeks, he hopes the country will stay in the euro zone—but not at any cost.

“I feel that it’s absolutely existential for Greece to stay in the Euro and I am for that,” he said. Then: “At the same time I cannot see people that have cancer and they cannot buy their medicine because the economy is collapsed. And we get 100 billion Euros, of which only 3 billion goes to the Greek people. The rest pays the banks. This I cannot see. If this has to be the way than I would rather say that we should get out of it.”

Adding to the irony in Mr. Kavakos’s situation is the fact that, professionally, things seem to be going well for him. In late April it was announced that he had signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca Classics. Paul Moseley, the label’s managing director, said at the time that Mr. Kavakos had “slowly and surely risen to the top of the violinists’ tree,” adding that he had become “the first choice of great conductors and orchestras around the world.”

The partnership will produce recordings of some of the giants of the violin repertoire. First up is Beethoven’s cycle of violin sonatas. “The luxury of having a great company like Decca as a partner is that it helps me, and I’m sure any other artist, to create a recording journey that one wants to do,” he said. “I would say that the first thought was that I want to record two of what I consider the cornerstones of the repertoire on the violin and one is Beethoven violin sonatas because it’s of course one of the very few big cycles that you have on the violin—it’s a lot of music, it’s about six hours of music.”

The second cornerstone of the repertoire that he mentions will be the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas. They’ll be followed with the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. “For me it was important to create this line of the peak of violin repertoire because I have also a little objection to the way that the business goes today in the sense that you have more and more of these short little pieces here and there—arrangements, transcriptions—and all that we can do in order to become popular and likable which is of course the way to go,” he said.

For now, understandably, in addition to upcoming performances, his thoughts are at home. A possible way out of what he views as Greece’s moral as well as a financial crisis? The arts, he said.

“I think this is more than ever the time for humanity to look into the arts,” he explained. “And I’m not talking about music, especially, but into the arts in the sense that the epicenter of the arts is the gift of life for humans—that incredible gift that is at the same time a curse and a blessing. When that is not being appreciated—then that’s a source of problems.”