Having the use of a musical instrument that’s worth more than a Point Grey fixer-upper carries with it certain responsibilities. For instance, if your Stradivarius needs a tune-up, you can’t just take it to the local music store, as Akiko Suwanai knows well. When the Georgia Straight reaches the Japanese-born violinist at home in Paris, she’s just returned from collecting her “Dolphin” Strad from a repairman in Berlin, one of a handful authorized to work on the instrumental holdings of the Nippon Music Foundation.
“I cannot go to anyone; I have to go to where the foundation asks,” Suwanai explains, speaking in English with a pronounced French accent. “But it’s very important to have a good luthier!”
It’s good to know that her 300-year-old violin will be in fine shape when she brings it to the Orpheum this weekend, for the second night of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s annual Pacific Rim Celebration. Both fiddler and fiddle will get a workout playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the VSO and conductor Gordon Gerrard, and Suwanai is taking pains to ensure that she’s also up to the task.
“It is really one of the most difficult concertos for the violinist, I think,” she says, before adding that the challenge it presents is more interpretive than technical. “The difficulties are different from the [Niccolò] Paganini concertos, those very virtuoso pieces. It has just a simple beauty, so you feel very exposed. You have nowhere to hide, because it’s so simple—but of course it’s so beautiful, too.”
Although Beethoven’s only violin concerto has long been a staple of the 43-year-old Suwanai’s concert repertoire, she says that it’s a piece that requires constant reappraisal. For insight into Beethoven’s thought processes, she’s delved deeply into the German composer’s chamber music. “With the violin sonatas, in particular, he has different periods,” she says. “He sometimes changes his style between those 10 sonatas, and so you can figure out his style in a different way.” She’s gained further clues by poring over a facsimile copy of Beethoven’s handwritten score for the Violin Concerto. It apparently differs in a few key ways from the authorized edition, and for good reason.
“Beethoven’s handwriting is very messy,” Suwanai says, laughing. “But you can see how he creates on the five lines, so that’s very helpful. First, I try to understand what is meant, and for that it’s very helpful to see the manuscript.”
Another source of inspiration, she adds, is working with living composers. Although Suwanai is best known for her vivid interpretations of the Romantic greats, she says that she’s been engaged with contemporary music for her entire life, and for proof of that she cites the music festival that she started earlier this decade. Split between Yokohama and Nagoya, the International Music Festival NIPPON has attracted significant corporate funding—Toyota CEO Tetsuro Toyoda is also the head of the festival’s board—along with an array of internationally acclaimed stars. Finnish conductor Paavo Järvi brought the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen to the event in 2014, for instance, where he and Suwanai premiered the French composer Karol Beffa’s A Floating World.
“Since there was the earthquake disaster, and also maybe because of my age, I started thinking I had to contribute something to my country—and not only by playing concerts,” the violinist says. “Through this festival I can commission new work once in a while.…And it’s very interesting to work with the composers. You can ask questions! We try to figure out what the music means from the score, but sometimes it’s more helpful to have the composer’s view.
“It’s also helpful for us to understand the ones who don’t exist anymore, the historical composers,” Suwanai adds. “For me, it’s very necessary to work both ways.”
Akiko Suwanai joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in A Japanese Celebration at the Orpheum on Sunday (March 1), as part of the VSO’s Pacific Rim Celebration.