Personality CULT-ivation

The rise of an impossible breed: the celebrity violinist.

SOME MAY CALL the past arts season The Year Benaroya Hall Opened, but I much prefer The Year of the Violin Soloist. In a single season, under a single roof, a remarkable procession of violin virtuosos played here to thunderous applause and audible sighs. The likes of Midori, Sarah Chang, Nigel Kennedy, Hilary Hahn, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gil Shaham, and Itzhak Perlman stood on Benaroya's stage in tuxes and spangles, each with a distinctive persona—ingenue, nice guy, bitch, rebel. . . . Whatever you think of the caliber of player these days, the cult of celebrity among violinists is unquestionably richer and more diverse than it has ever been.

In one way or another, violinists have always been music's cult figures. The violin emerged in the early 16th century when players were most often found doubling for vocalists at dances or churches. They were considered social outsiders, of lower status than the singers—the equivalent of the hired help. Toward the beginning of the 17th century, though, individual players—many of whom were also composers—experimented with the instrument's range and technique, and the violin found its niche as a solo instrument. Violinists became objects of admiration, capable of sonic feats that not only replicated but transcended the human voice, and there soon proved to be a cultlike aspect to their facility: the incredulity it inspired. "People are fascinated with something they can't do," my violinist friend Glenn told me recently. "I can imagine what it is like, as a violinist, to have that facility, to have such a height of consciousness, brain to fingers, but it's still a mystery. Is it [the product] of genetic makeup? Talent? Or did [famous violinists] go through a system that worked for them?" Add to that the physical relationship of the already anthropomorphic violin to the player's body—an awkward but visually compelling juxtaposition that relies on the violinist to animate an object of incredible value and craftsmanship as if it were just another limb.

Today's Cult of the Violinist is populated by players whose personal reputations precede their performing ones. It's no longer enough, as it was for violinists earlier in this century, to be known for playing brilliantly—audiences need to latch on to a persona to make art more accessible (either that, or it's just that music alone isn't enough in this media-driven age to hold our attention). "An audience's expectations are insatiable," Glenn said. "We want to soak up anything that comes our way." While we buy tickets because we know who we want to see and hear—the unmistakable lushness of the king, Itzhak Perlman, or the potential for an audacious, foot-stomping assault from the likes of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the player often referred to as the Bitch—audiences are becoming equally drawn to those violinists who are unfamiliar, whose compelling personas elude us.

"Everyone's allured by the more standoffish [players]," Glenn pointed out. "It's like they're behind a glass case and you can't touch them. But because you can't get to them, you want to even more." Take the ingenues: Midori, a fragile flower in appearance, goes only by her first name and has successfully put her "child prodigy" label behind her. During her October recital in Benaroya Hall, she bent at the waist through most of her pieces, making it nearly impossible to "read" her. Likewise, 18-year-old Hilary Hahn played the indomitable Brahms Concerto at Benaroya in February with a surprising polish, yet she was intensely aloof, her face compellingly blank; the less she showed her emotions, the more I yearned to decipher her. By contrast, Sarah Chang, 17, glided onstage in a flouncy purple gown in November, all smiles and confidence. Leaning into each phrase of the Strauss Concerto, she revealed an uncanny tenderness toward the music, and even managed to raise her eyebrows flirtatiously at Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz a few times. During the intermission I asked her how she felt on stage. "It's like skin and bones for me," she said, still smiling.

About her own aggressive, bad-girl persona, Salerno-Sonnenberg said in a recent telephone interview, "I've always played the way I play because that's the way I am," she said. "My approach to music is that I've always been the kind of artist that you either love or hate. With that comes a lot of controversy, a lot of uphill battles, and a large amount of adulation and fame that is not found by a lot of classical artists." Another rebel who plays by his own rules, the British violinist Kennedy (the artist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy, whose recent name drop is symptomatic of a celebrity identity crisis of one kind or another), known more for his Mohawk than his technique, performed his rendition of Jimi Hendrix as part of the Symphony's Pop Culture series last November. He addressed the audience on a mike, then executed guitarlike riffs on his plugged-in fiddle—and the audience sat up and took notice. Sadly, when he switched to Bach, which he performed with reverence and energy, people around me started to doze off.

WITH MORE THAN a dozen big names and up-and-comers stopping through in a mere eight months, Benaroya Hall offered more than its standard share of violinists this inaugural season. This would seem to be an anomaly, but one worth taking note of: The convergence suddenly equates Seattle with other major performance destinations, and it can only bode well for our future opportunities to hear many more Cult members (next season's guest soloists include Cho-Liang Lin, Lara St. John, Elmar Oliviera, Maria Larionoff, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Perlman). The increasing pool of personalities who forge their own niche with the violin will only serve to expand the repertoire and suggest even more possibilities for the instrument in different musical contexts. While the world of classical music has hardly grown accustomed to departing from its own rules very often, the borders between musical categories that call for the violin are being crossed regularly and strenuously. With events like Benaroya's Popular Culture concert series, the Seattle Symphony expanded our vocabulary in terms of what we mean when we say "classical music" and the role of the violin along with it.

This has, in turn, paved the way for the trappings of this new kind of violin star to inherit the stage. The all-black austerity that has long been associated with performing the standard concertos is being traded in for couture and a wave of media hype associated with crossover violinists (Vanessa Mae, Lara St. John) who pose seductively on album covers and actually look more like other kinds of celebrities (models, actors). The unforgettable soundtracks from Schindler's List and The Red Violin, as played by stars like Perlman and Nice Guy Joshua Bell, incorporate celebrity violinists' personalities along with the plot lines and lend a cachet to the films that is totally separate from the actors and filmmakers. The violin biz now is all about names, and the trend has helped make violin music more accessible to more people. The more violinists cultivate distinct personas, the more room there is at the top rung—and the variety of images is seen by the public as a variety of repertoires, of concert experiences.

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