We pause as Leonidas Kavakos’s phone beeps again. It is a hectic period in the Greek violinist’s career, and not only because of his fiddle-playing commitments. We are talking in London’s Maida Vale Studios, pre-rehearsal; this June takes him to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and London’s Barbican Centre, where, for the first time, he will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra.
But Kavakos, 46, looks remarkably relaxed. Sinking into a sofa, he informs me that conducting was his “first love”. “As a child, my favourite thing to do at home was to put any kind of book on a music stand – not necessarily a music score – and to conduct it.” His conducting credits include the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
As for his second love: with his individuality and intellectual rigour, he remains one of the most sought-after violinists on the classical music circuit. He has just released a CD of Brahms’s Violin Sonatas with the pianist Yuja Wang. His summer schedule includes dates with the New York and Vienna Philharmonics and he is booked for festivals including the Gergiev, Verbier and Tanglewood. Then there are his duties as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s artist-in-residence: a tour with the ensemble is planned for late summer.
Despite spending so much time on the road, Kavakos still calls Greece home. While he laments the country’s economic and political troubles (“Greece never before had a suicide rate like this,” he says), he speaks admiringly of the ancient Hellenic period and has a strong interest in his country’s folk culture. He still regrets not having learnt folk violin, as his father and grandfather did before him.
His father, who gave Kavakos his first violin lessons, taught him only classical technique, which he later consolidated in his studies at the Hellenic Conservatory with Stelios Kafantaris. Today, he strives to fuse the spontaneity of folk music with the discipline of the classical tradition. “For classical musicians the challenge is to play a score 1,000 times and yet make it sound special every time,” he says. “Folk musicians might play the same songs but they never sound the same because they feel free to improvise in a different way each time.”
It is difficult, he admits, to channel that freedom into classical music. But Kavakos seems to relish a challenge. In 1991, he became the first violinist to record the original version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto (a score so difficult that the composer had to rework it after its disastrous 1904 premiere).
Nor is he a stranger to complex contemporary music, with a performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra scheduled for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Nevertheless, he believes that the structural simplicity of certain composers will always remain contemporary. “Nobody will get tired of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. That is not because their music sounds good, rest assured. It is because there is something in the structure that touches the very centre of human existence.”
On this topic, and others, Kavakos displays a quasi-religious fervour. His speech is peppered with half-finished sentences that shoot off at tangents, as if battling to cope with the sheer force of his opinions. Before long, we are discussing the sanctity of the concert hall. He says, “We do have churches but the problem is that in church you have a communion of people of the same religion. In the concert hall, nobody asks about our religion. It’s a place where we can experience something together, in total freedom of mind and in silence.”
That silence, he believes, can be the ultimate point of communication. “I’m sure that everyone has had the experience where you look someone in the eyes and something goes crazy without you saying anything,” he says. “Silence is where everything is born.”
Such was the rationale behind one of Kavakos’s more unorthodox ventures: a couple of concerts in Athens, some years back, in which he asked his audience not to applaud at the end. “When we finished, everybody stayed there for five minutes in total silence. Can you imagine what that feels like – five minutes of silence, with an audience of one or two thousand people?”
He admits that repeating the experiment elsewhere might be difficult: “You could not start this in the Royal Festival Hall, for example, or at the BBC Proms.” But he insists that even after a high-octane piece such as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, “it’s not a problem to not applaud. We like to think that we always have to release our energy at the end of a performance but an implosion is much, much more effective than an explosion. After an explosion you feel empty, after an implosion, never.”
For Kavakos, music is not something simply to enjoy, applaud and forget. According to him, the ancient Greeks had it right. For them, music formed one of the main pillars of education, along with mathematics, reading and gymnastics. Now, he complains, people see art merely as entertainment, a beautiful part of life. “I’m sorry, art is not a beautiful part of life,” he says, “It is life.”
Leonidas Kavakos plays the violin and conducts the LSO on June 4 at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, and on June 6 at the Barbican, London, usherhall.co.uk, barbican.org.uk; he performs with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival on August 28, eif.co.uk