Gifted and Greek

Leonidas Kavakos
Wall Street Journal

He isn't yet a household word in the U.S., but word is starting to get out

By David Mermelstein

The immensely gifted Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos is not yet a household name in this country, but word of his talents is spreading. On Sunday, Mr. Kavakos and his frequent accompanist, the Italian pianist Enrico Pace, give the first of three recitals at Carnegie Hall in New York, where they will perform Beethoven's 10 violin sonatas over three consecutive evenings. The concerts are the culmination of a series of individual recitals they have performed throughout North America in recent seasons. But the Carnegie programs are also cornerstones of the hall's three-week "Vienna: City of Dreams" festival.

"We violinists don't have the huge repertoire that pianists have," Mr. Kavakos, age 46, said last Sunday, shortly before an all-Beethoven recital with Mr. Pace in the New England Conservatory of Music's gemlike Jordan Hall. He was explaining the centrality of Beethoven's sonatas, especially when performed in toto—he and Mr. Pace have also recorded them all for Decca. "You have a sequence and an evolution, and the change is absolutely fascinating from beginning to end. Here we have 10 different worlds. They all have the same face— Beethoven's, yes—but all the different talents and problems of this man are put into the music. Any cycle in its totality is a fantastic journey for both those who play it and those who listen to it, and you approach more humanly the composer after an experience like this."

Mr. Kavakos, a native of Athens who still makes his home there, is at his most eloquent when playing his 1724 Stradivarius—his tone glowing from within, like red gold, his phrasing molten. But he is also an impassioned, thoughtful speaker, his English honed while studying at Indiana University.

Listeners may find Beethoven's sonatas irresistible, but their power over violinists is even greater, because in these pieces the role of the instrument began to change—from junior partner, to equal, to superior. "Whichever genre Beethoven touched, he took it to the next step," Mr. Kavakos said in his dressing room, wearing blue jeans and a fashionable white shirt, his lanky frame complemented by thick, shoulder-length black hair. "The role of the violin grows even from the first sonata, but especially from the fourth—and in the last few, it goes even beyond that. In the 'Spring' Sonata, the violin plays the tune before the piano does. That's a big step, one that practically never happened before."

And Mr. Kavakos sees yet more here, a window into depths the composer would plumb later in his career. "Beethoven's personality is really growing in these pieces," he said. "When you look at the last one, the Op. 96, you can already feel what's coming with the late quartets a dozen years later. Yet when you hear the first sonata, you cannot imagine that. The last sonata is one in which everything is questioned. There is no hiding in this music. It's like the quintessence of Greek philosophy—not to give the answer, but rather to pose the right questions. Beethoven's later music is not the music of answers; it's music of questions. This is not music you can just enjoy. It provokes the listener. Even today, it still challenges the mind. There's always an open end, and that's fantastic."

Though some Greek classical musicians have achieved international renown—most notably the soprano Maria Callas and the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos —the country does not regularly produce such stars. Yet Mr. Kavakos comes from a musical family. His father was a violinist, his mother a pianist. And his brother is principal cellist of the opera in Athens. But the family's musical tradition extends even further back. "My grandfather played folk violin—and also lute," Mr. Kavakos said. "And my father started in my grandfather's band as a folk musician. Then at some point, my grandfather said, 'No, you should study in the conservatory.' It was there that my father met my mother. Later, he formed a quartet."

Despite his family history, Mr. Kavakos—who bows with his right hand but is otherwise left-handed—maintains that no professional expectations were placed on him. "I was not really encouraged to be musician," he said, "but I wanted it. As a small child, my favorite thing was to listen to my father practice. So they saw I had a musical ear, and I received a violin as a Christmas present. It was my favorite toy. I was allowed to play with it for about a year. And then, at 6, I had to get into the serious learning—position and intonation and producing some kind of sound. When you start on a string instrument, producing sound is just hell. The torture starts straight away. But I was very devoted and committed to it. And after I started, my father was quite tough with me, so it was difficult."

His family's folk tradition is now nearly lost. Mr. Kavakos never heard his grandfather play. More important, his father abandoned performing folk music once he began pursuing a classical career. "My father entered the conservatory playing the violin on the chest, not on the shoulder," Mr. Kavakos said. "But then he changed. And after that, my grandfather did not play in front of him anymore. He played only the lute from then on. The way the wrist moves is completely different between folk and classical violin. They are totally different technically. I can only imitate folk style, not truly play it, because my father never showed me how."

Naturally gregarious, Mr. Kavakos speaks freely—sometimes perhaps too freely—about many topics, including politics and social issues. But his enthusiasm for music and its power to enrich trumps all else: "When the playing is a distillation of enough personal experience and study and research, and when one is honest on stage and doesn't show off, then the connection with an audience is a great one for an artist. Concerts should be like a communion, like a world church. We live in a time of constant noise, bombarded by ads and useless information, and our brain has to process this whether we want it to or not. Yet music can bring hundreds of people together in silence, just listening. When there is this opportunity to have this communion, then this is different from a nice show. It is like the magnetism between two poles."