One of music’s joys is the way that it can spark mental images that have little to do with what you’re actually hearing. Last weekend, for instance, I was listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which the Russian-born virtuoso Alina Ibragimova will soon perform with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It’s a stormy and emotional work, yet I was suddenly struck by a sports analogy: playing the work’s diabolically difficult scherzo must be a lot like negotiating a taxing slalom course on skis. Both combine the exhilaration of nailing difficult twists and turns with the constant fear of breaking a leg.
The notion hadn’t occurred to Ibragimova before, but she doesn’t disagree. “It’s a workout, for sure!” the 34-year-old musician says, reached at home in London, England. “Yes, it’s fun and it’s furious. You have to be quick; you have to react quickly, as does everybody else in the orchestra—and the conductor, of course—because there is a lot happening. There’s something very feisty to it.”
Shostakovich’s concerto—paired, during the VSO’s BeethovenFest, with the birthday boy’s Symphony No. 5, from which it quotes—is a far cry from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, which Ibragimova will also perform during her Vancouver visit. One, as noted, is a fraught message from a composer fighting Soviet censorship; the other a long and lyrical song of praise for spring. “It’s very different emotions that you have to find in yourself,” the violinist says. “I think the whole approach to playing—the whole expression—is very different. I’ve lived with both for a long time now, and they’re very different worlds, but they are both very full. You know, they have really everything in them. You have the Beethoven that’s sunny and light, like in this ‘Spring’ sonata, and you have the Beethoven of his late quartets, but that’s still such a different world from Shostakovich and his expression.”
As for what the Violin Concerto No. 1 requires, beyond remarkable technique and nerves of steel, Ibragimova says that she has new insights to bring to her upcoming Vancouver performance—some gleaned from recently recording both the first and second Shostakovich violin concertos with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. “They have an amazing history of recording Shostakovich’s music, and a very different set of sounds,” she says, noting that their joint efforts should see CD release in the spring. “That is really inspiring, and made me see things in a different light. Vladimir Jorowski was the conductor for the recording, and we spent a long time talking together, talking about where each theme comes from, how it was all put together. So with all that history in Moscow and with that orchestra I really felt… closer. I felt closer to the work.”
And it’s not like she and Shostakovich didn’t already have a bond. “When you live with a piece for many years, you have your own interpretation of it, and that changes with everything that you live through yourself,” she explains. “So works like this are, in a way, our best friends.”
Alina Ibragimova joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum on Saturday (March 7), and a chamber ensemble of VSO musicians at Christ Church Cathedral on Monday (March 9), both as part of BeethovenFest.