The Violin Channel recently caught up 2019 Johannes Brahms International Violin Brahms Competition 1st prize winner, 25-year-old Simon Wiener from Switzerland.
A student of Ilya Gringolts at the Zurich University of the Arts, and former student of Zakhar Bron at ZHdK in Zurich and Renaud Capuçon at the University of Lausanne, Simon is a former top prize winner at the Wieniawski-Lipinski and Rahn Musikpreis International Violin Competitions.
How does it feel to be a 1st prize winner at the Johannes Brahms Competition?
“It feels great! … it’s a competition I’ve been wanting to do for a long time as I had heard about it as a child.
It was known for the transparent rating system – where the judges show their marks to everyone directly after your performance”
What will be your best long lasting memory from your time at the competition?
“Firstly, I really liked the place I stayed at: a youth hostel, where different people would come and go every night.
I found this atmosphere of transcience and indeterminacy an enriching contrast to the competition, where everyone had to be very determined to get as far as possible.
Secondly, I can’t express how much I enjoyed playing the Beethoven Concerto in the finals.
I particularly enjoyed the orchestra of mostly young people who were motivated and keen to work.
I wanted it to be a version of the concerto that’s not firstly a violin concerto, but one that transcends any instruments. I find that the greatest music renders it’s form, presentation, instrumentation invisible because it is so universal. Adorno said the concerto had the idea of stillness being expressed through motion. I think this should be at the core of the interpretation rather than any violinistic problem-solving”
What are the most important lessons you learnt from your preparation for this competition?
“In hindsight, I didn’t tackle it so much as a competition as opposed to an opportunity to engage with some great music, like the Brahms Sonata No. 1 or the aforementioned Beethoven.
I tend to regard every performance as an experimental ground … Experimenting in private leads nowhere because an experiment is nothing without an audience.
I stayed true to this approach even at the seemingly ill-suited background of a competition.
Self-composed cadenzas or a richly ornamented Bach payed off, because it is only through experimentation that art can become alive, can be felt to the bones.
A musealized performance is merely a sport, and I am now more than ever convinced that a performance that’s lively and sensitive to its surroundings is the most convincing for any kind of audience, even a jury.
The late Mark Fisher said, “Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.”
What tips and advice do you have for keeping one’s focus on the music even under stressful situations such as a competition?
“The most important thing is to take pleasure in your performance … if that’s achieved, your stress level immediately drops.
I like to play my favorite passages before I go on stage to myself, but not the most difficult ones.
I also improvise, which sets a needed contrast to the constraints of a competition situation because it helps you feel extremely liberated and in turn, releases tension”
Who have been your most influential mentors and inspirations?
“I am probably an oddity in the violin world in that I rarely listen to classical music.
My musical inspirations are pop artists, and at the time of the competition, it was mostly Ariana Grande and Drake.
I firmly believe that at the moment in popular music there is, similar to Hollywood cinema during war-time, an astonishing abundance of experimentation and artistically daring ventures, and I am always amazed at how many people buy it.
I think there is something quite similar in the quality of Ariana Grande’s music and in Beethoven’s violin concerto: the gesture of reconciliation is always present, the acceptance of being at odds with the world.
Lenin said he didn’t want to listen to Beethoven’s music because it made him want to caress people’s heads when it was necessary to beat them up. At the same time, Beethoven’s music is so revolutionary.
I think we’re hardly yet catching up with it. In his later works, like the 10th violin sonata or the Archduke trio, he’s laying the foundations of Stravinsky’s work (which deploys independent planes and moves away from horizontal development).
All of contemporary pop music like Drake’s music, uses the same principles.
Yet, as a composer myself, I find that modern-day pop music is also very similar to so-called contemporary classical music.
They should be regarded as two faces of the same gesture of music thinking. They both rely on an increased complexity regarding the ontology of the sound itself, so naturally then, the horizontal development of the sound is less complex.”
What important piece of advice have your learnt from your mentors that you’d like to pass on?
“From Renaud Capuçon, I learned to breathe freely and to play without force.
From Ilya Gringolts, how to listen closely to changes in harmony and to react upon that, which always reminded me of Stravinsky’s saying “Music expresses nothing.” Yes, but it acts.
Music in this viewpoint is no longer a medium, a mere translator of your own feelings. It is an agent in itself, empowered, a block of sometimes contradictory goings-on, and your task is to chart them”
Away from your instrument, what do you like to do to keep your sanity?
“Indeed it is very important for me to have time off of the instrument. Being a keen observer of life and history definitely helps your playing, because music mirrors it, even the most mundane or marginal happenings. Music isn’t about telling stories, but about telling history.
I like going to clubs and dancing. Dance is so beautiful because it is at once so simple and incredibly complex.
Writer Max Bense said (I paraphrase) that dance is to act upon the innate desire to reunite with the space we lost when being born, in the sense that from when we are born, we are forever confined to the prison that is our body.
I’m also very interested in other art forms, particularly the cinema and its role in society, like relations between aesthetics and politics”
What does your future hold now? What are your career goals?
“There are some concertos dear to my heart that I’ve never played with orchestra that I absolutely want to. For example, I hope I get the opportunity to play the Schumann and Alban Berg concertos.
In a long-term perspective, I also want to become a part of a fixed string trio. I want to wholly dedicate myself to some of the most beautiful but rarely-played music, like Schönberg’s Trio or Beethoven’s early Trio Op. 3.
Schönberg’s music is, when played well, not “difficult” at all but utterly relatable.
In the Beethoven masterwork, it feels like he barely lifts a finger, yet the music expresses everything there is, from the sound of the cereal in your breakfast bowl to the most intricate inner turmoil.
I’m also very much looking forward to start working in the Zurich Chamber Orchestra from next year! Playing in a chamber orchestra pleases me since democratic musical communication with everyone is, unlike in a big orchestra, still possible and indeed necessary.”