As far as violinists go, Canada's Juno Awards - that country's answer to the Grammys - have a pretty good record. Among the winners, Lara St John, James Ehnes and now Alexandre Da Costa. The gutsy, visceral violinist won for his recording (for Warner Classics) of Michael Daughtery's Fire and Blood. But although he remains devoted to his home country and boasts a wide repertoire, it is Spain that has given Da Costa a new musical heartland. He lives there and, he believes, has come to understand Spain's musical heritage in a way that few foreigners ever do. But then, his mentor is the great Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, which may have given him a head-start in that understanding - and Da Costa has come to be something of a Spanish, and Spanish-style, music specialist (there are plans to record Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, also for Warner). But truly realising what Spanish music is about, one feels when talking to him on the subject, is a very personal journey. And where it takes you may not be where you expect, as he revealed to Inverne Price's James Inverne.
JI: When people discuss violin music, they tend to immediately think of the Russia and the Austro-Germanic schools. Spain doesn't really seem to have a central place in that repertoire, and when non-Spaniards do think of Spanish music, they think perhaps of a picture-postcard musical world. You have lived in Spain for some years now and played a great deal of Spanish music. And when I think of your playing, I think of intensity, of a kind of riveting concentration. Nothing could be further from the busman's holiday approach...
ADC: Spain in the last 20 years has seen a musical renaissance, since the birth of this incredible school where I studied - the Reina Sofia School of Music, where they chose the best teachers they could possibly find, like my teacher Zachar Bron who also taught Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin. People like Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel recommended these teachers and themselves would come and help to nurture this school. When I studied there, I was able to play for and with Maazel and Yehudi Menuhin. Couple this with the fact that after the dictatorship finished, a clutch of new orchestras were formed which brought in a lot of fine violinists from places where the training was very strong - from Poland, Russia, Romania. And they formed this core of excellent musicians who've been working in Spain now for 20 or 25 years, and so the level of music-making in Spain is very high.
So much for the modern times. But you also mentioned this whole idea of musical schools. I myself studied the Russian school with my Russian teacher, but Spain has been a powerhouse for so many musicians. The first figure to come to mind is Sarasate, a great virtuoso but a composer whose music is often only viewed as virtuoso. He really championed Spanish culture and put in his violin repertoire traditional dances from all the regions of Spain. So when one plays Sarasate, more than being a good technician one has to know about these regional cultures and the fact that they are very different from one another - Catalunya, Andalucia, Valencia, the North, they all have different cultures, even different languages, different musics, different traditions. I've played Sarasate a lot and recorded a CD of his music for JVC, so do tend to think of myself as an expert in Spanish music, but more than anything because I've lived in Spain for 14 years and understand the people.
JI: Some of the composers we tend to think of as part of a 'Spanish school' weren't actually Spanish.
ADC: Sarasate influenced other composers. In a couple of weeks I'm recording Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. It's a French piece of course, but Lalo's parents were from Spain and it's a view on Spain, OK with the eyes of a foreigner, but somebody who had an understanding. So I hear it as a tone-poem for violin and orchestra about what Spain really is, not just the typical French characteristics of lightness and beauty.
JI: Spain isn't light and beautiful? I suppose there is the bullfighting...
ADC: Spanish people are far more complex than we tend to think of, as foreigners. And the bullfighting gives us one insight into the culture, and so into the music. Seen from outside we think of it as savage and old-fashioned. But they bring a nobility and pride to it - pride in making every detail of the bullfighters and their environment immensely precise, and it's a tradition that requires a lot of preparation. It's not something that just happens. It's all at a very high level, and it has a great cultural depth to it. They prepare as carefully as a musician would prepare a concerto. So of course the music that is inspired by this, it's not light music, it's far more profound.
So with the Lalo, there are two movements that are light, but three of the five are really hard-core, really deep. Most of the versions I've heard, including from some of the all-time great violinists, bring to it a very light feeling. But it's completely the contrary! Very strong, the strength of standing in front of the bull that is about to try and kill the matador, but to just hold that moment, to hold the eyes, the tension. The strength of being powerful with traditions because traditions in Spain are everything. Change even a slight thing in a tradition and to the Spanish this is a drama. To be so strong with tradition needs a lot of power, and you cannot find that power if you think of the music as light or fast. A conductor told me once, "If you play and you accelerate in Spanish music, it just shows fear. Play slow, hold your tempo, it shows strength." That's the key element for me.
JI: So tempo is key?
ADC: You have to be strong about the rhythm. In flamenco music for instance, rhythm is everything, you can't be floppy with it. The way Spanish composers write is always somehow inspired by the traditional flamenco music, it's always there somewhere.
JI: People often compare Spain and Italy, but the way you describe the Spanish approach to tradition, that precision, instead calls to mind the Japanese.
ADC: They are very similar im some ways. Some of the best flamenco dancers are Japanese, and the same with flamenco guitar players. They come to Spain to learn the style and thenthey return home and have a huge following.
JI: Can you define exactly though the relationship between the pure Spanish musical traditions and the European core classical traditions?
ADC: It's a fascinating relationship. We misunderstand Spain also sometimes by comparing it to Latino music, but Spain as a country in Europe has the same structural guidelines that have always been alive in romantic and post-romantic music in the rest of Europe. Granados and Albeniz and others had European mentors. The structure is always there more than we would think, except that they feel this power I spoke of and let it go in a sometimes unfocussed way.
But it's so interesting when Spanish composers play with these structures. For instance, Lorenzo Palomo, a wonderful Spanish composer who lives in Berlin, wrote a concerto I recently performed, for violin, guitar and orchestra. That's very rare because the violin and the guitar are not natural partners, but Palomo integrated the two. He took the traditional Spanish gypsy guitar style - not the same as classical guitar - and mixed it with the classical style, And similarly the violin moves in and out of its usual classical style and then into the gypsy style, usually the province of the Spanish guitar. In itself, it's a fascinating comment on Spanish music!
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