Belfast Telegraph

Violinist Elina Vahala looks to the future of music

Ahead of her Clandeboye festival shows, violinist Elina Vahala tells Audrey Watson about sharing her talent with the next generation

She may be the model of the cool, controlled classical musician up on stage, but when it comes to dealing with the unexpected, world-famous violinist Elina Vahala is certainly well-equipped to cope with those rather more amusing moments that sometimes arise during a live performance.

"I remember at one festival, which was being recorded for radio, my chair started squeaking – very loudly – to the extent that between movements a person in the audience shouted out, 'Elina, would you think about changing your chair?'

"I don't know if they managed to edit that out," she laughs.

"Another time, it got so warm in the venue where I was playing that someone decided to open the doors.

"A breeze rushed in and blew my music sheets closed in the middle of a very difficult section, so I didn't know where I was.

"Obviously, as I was playing, I couldn't reach down and reopen them, so I had to play from memory for a while. Luckily, it was a piece I knew well."

Whether such mishaps might occur when she makes her Northern Ireland debut this week at the annual Clandeboye Festival of Music remains to be seen. But then again, the 38-year-old Finnish classical music 'rock star' isn't just coming to perform, as she will also be sharing her skills and coaching aspiring student violinists and other musicians as part of the festival's Young Music Programme.

"I love the fact that I'm going to be involved for the entire week," she says down the line from her home in Helsinki.

"I'm as passionate about teaching as I am about performing. I like to meet young players from different countries and encourage them and help them if I can.

"I think every musician should teach and pass on their skills.

"I've never been to Northern Ireland before, which is ironic considering that one of the most memorable performances I've ever done has a strong connection with the province.

"In 2008, I was asked to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

"That was very special for me because our former president, Martti Ahtisaari, was awarded the prize for among other things his work on the peace process and decommissioning.

"It was a beautiful and powerful event and a wonderful experience."

As well selling out venues around the globe, Elina is also Professor of Violin at the University of Music in Karlsruhe, Germany, where she has a second home.

In 2009, she launched the Violin Academy – a masterclass-based educational project for young Finnish violinists. Introducing young people to the joys of classical music is clearly important to her.

"In some countries children aren't as exposed to classical music as they are in others, and I believe that the more young people are exposed and the more access they have to performers and performances, the more interested they become.

"That's why I enjoy visiting new places so much and doing things such as masterclasses and coaching sessions.

"I want everyone to love it as much as I do," she laughs.

"When I was growing up in Finland, classical music was introduced to schoolchildren from a very young age and there was a very extensive music institution and conservatorie system.

"Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, but we still have many orchestras, which is fantastic considering how small a nation we are."

Born in America and raised in Finland, Elina first picked up a violin at the age of three after watching a television programme called The Mini Fiddlers in Musicland.

"I was fascinated," she recalls. "In the show, there were young kids playing the violin, cello and other string instruments.

"They were having all kinds of adventures, learning about music and meeting composers and I was hooked immediately.

"Although my parents enjoy music and my father is an amateur keyboard player, both he and my mother are chiropractors.

"However, my grandmother was a professional pianist and when she saw how keen I was, she bought me my first violin and found me a teacher."

A child prodigy, Elina made her orchestral debut at the age of 12 with Finland's Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and although she admits she was totally focused on pursuing a career in music from a very young age, she insists that she enjoyed a normal childhood.

"The love of music was very natural for me and I realised very quickly that this was my thing," she says.

"Of course, I was interested in other things too, but not as much. I loved school and had lots of friends who I would hang out with and who had no interest in music.

"I never felt pushed or under pressure from my parents or my teachers. The desire to play always came from within.

"I also loved gymnastics and was very good, but because of the training and dedication involved, I had to choose between sport and the violin. It was no contest – the violin won," she laughs.

"I actually like the discipline this profession requires and I even liked it as a kid.

"It takes a lot of concentration and dedication and that feels good. But the constant travelling can be tiring at times."

Listening to Elina chat immediately dispels any notion that classical musicians can be dull and serious.

"Are you joking?" she exclaims. "Let me tell you, clarinet player Michel Lethiec, who is also performing at Clandeboye, tells more jokes than any other person I know.

"And what's really great about this profession is that you get to meet so many other musicians.

"In orchestras, a lot of those musicians are women, so there is always a gang to hang out with and have fun with.

"Yes, we are very passionate about what we do and we take it very seriously, but there is also a lot of fun involved."

Away from music, Elina enjoys the simple, "normal" things most of us do in our downtime.

"I love cooking and eating out in restaurants with my friends and I really enjoy nature and spending time in the countryside.

"While I have a lot of friends from the classical music scene, I also have a lot of friends from different walks of life and who have nothing to do with music at all.

"And of course, being a girl, I love clothes and shoes."

Not surprisingly, her most precious possession is her violin – a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, which is almost 300 years old.

"I rarely let it out of my sight," she says. "For nine years I played a Stradivarius made in 1678, which was loaned to me by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, but this one is my own.

"I had to wait almost two years for it to become available.

"Violins can be very sensitive to the climate and the Stradivarius was continuously reacting. Sometimes it would have to be glued on the seams. Violins are constructed in a way that the wood is always moving, expanding and shrinking.

"This affects the sound and how it feels under your fingers because the pressure is different.

"So far, I've had no problems with the new one and I'm very happy with it. I treat it like a priceless diamond."

To have one of the most sought after instrumentalists in the international classical music world making their Northern Ireland debut is quite a coup for Clandeboye.

Directed by pianist and conductor Barry Douglas and now in its 12th year, the festival brings together the best soloists from across the globe to participate in a vibrant week of performance, teaching and collaboration.

"I met Barry for the first time last summer in Finland," recalls Elina. "We didn't play together then, but we kept in touch and when he invited me to come to Northern Ireland, I was really excited.

"I know some of the other artists who are performing and have been friends with cellist Andrés Díaz for 14 years. I've also performed many times with Michel Lethiec, so it's going to be a nice reunion."

Elina has an enormous repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music, and has performed numerous world premieres of work she has commissioned from today's classical composers.

"I really love to work with composers because it is a luxury. Many times when you play Brahms or Beethoven you'd love to call the composer and ask him some things that are on your mind.

"So when you are working with someone who is actually there, it's phenomenal."

However, her 'desert island' composer is Beethoven and, among her numerous performances this week, she is particularly thrilled to be playing two pieces of his work at Clandeboye – the Kreutzer Sonata, which she will be performing with Barry Douglas tonight, and the Triple Concerto with Barry and Andrés Díaz on Saturday evening.

"The Kreutzer Sonata is a huge piece, it's one of the monumental violin/piano sonatas and absolutely one of my favourite pieces of music ever.

"The Triple Concerto is for violin, piano and cello and is another of my all-time favourites."

She laughs when I ask if she has ever been tempted to venture into the classical/pop crossover area like fellow violinists Vanessa Mae and Nigel Kennedy.

"No – in my humble opinion, I think that most attempts at that sort of thing end up being a bit embarrassing," she says. "There is so much depth and possibility in classical music that I think it's best to keep it pure.

"Even if I have played a piece many times, each time, I find something new that I wasn't aware of before. I love the fact that every performance is different and cannot be repeated ever again."

  • The Clandeboye Festival of Music runs from today until Saturday, featuring a packed programme of recitals, concerts and special events. Highlights include a fundraising fashion show tomorrow, the Barry Douglas recital on Wednesday and the Young Musicians' Showcase on Thursday. For full details and booking information, visit www.camerata-ireland.com or www.goh.co.uk

More power to their elbows ...

Other big names to have mastered the violin include:

  • Nigel Kennedy – born into a musical family, Kennedy showed a talent for music from a young age. His recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1989 became one of the best-selling classical recordings ever, enjoying sales equivalent to one copy sold every 30 seconds. He attracted some criticism for his outlandish dress sense and perceived 'Mockney' accent
  • Yehudi Menuhin – widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, Menuhin was born in New York and enjoyed a lengthy and successful career. In the early stages of his career, he performed for Allied soldiers during World War II as well as for surviving inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after its liberation in 1945. He died in 1999
  • Itzhak Perlman – at the age of three, the Israeli-American star was was denied admission to the prestigious Shulamit Conservatory for being too small to hold a violin – but taught himself how to play by using a toy fiddle until he was old enough to study properly. He contracted polio at the age of four and despite making a good recovery, still uses crutches or a scooter and plays while seated
  • Vanessa-Mae – the Singapore-born British violinist shot to fame for her energetic brand of "violin techno-acoustic fusion", which helped her become a successful crossover act selling millions of albums. More recently she competed for Thailand in alpine skiing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

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