Wanda Wilkomirska discusses her life and music as a violinist
BROADCAST: Apr. 14, 1981 | DURATION: 00:33:59
Studs Terkel interview with Wanda Wilkomirska about her life as a violinist. They discuss her childhood and her musical family. Wilkomirska talks about the people and music that influenced her, and she describes the differences in audiences between large cities and smaller ones. She expresses her deep love for music and her need to play her music with emotion. Music performances are cut from this particular recording with Wanda Wilkomirska. Studs quotes Ray Erickson, critic from the New York Times and discusses other critiques of her work.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Wanda Wilkormiska is a remarkable artist, a concert violinist, known the world over, known, I suppose, for what? For her interpretations of contemporary as well as the music of other times as well, but mostly for being this remarkable, imaginative artist/violinist who has won all sorts of awards and has played with so many, so many other musicians, gifted ones, in different parts of the world. Mostly it's her interpretations, her tone, her way with the instrument and with the work of the composer himself, his thoughts, the interpreter, and she's my guest this morning. She took part the other day in the Dame Myra Hess concerts at the Cultural Center. And, so, in a moment, our guest graciously has consented to appear on the program, and we'll hear, perhaps, also some brief works she performs, too. Un momento. There's a phrase here that Wieniawski, an "Obertass" of his, a Polish mazurka, and Wanda Wilkormiska, playing this music of a fellow countryman, listening to this particular brief piece, Ray Ericson who is a music critic of "The New York Times", says you "have a way of sending phrases spinning." We just heard that.
Wanda Wilkormiska I was always very lucky with critics. I don't know how come. Here in Chicago I was lucky with critics. Sometimes, you know, of course we are supposed to play for the audience, not for critics, but anyway I have to confess that I never will be blasé. I always, I am almost unhappy when I have a bad critic. You know, I remember once I played in Salzburg, in festival, and there were, of course, not only Salzburg papers, but also the critics from other cities and countries and I had together 11 reviews of my recital, and ten were very good, more than good, and one was really bad.
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes, but wait, I remember sitting at the breakfast table and just, I just put aside the good ones, well, and then I was, I kept reading and re-reading this one, which was good, was just looking for some good sentence, but the guy didn't like anything. Maybe he was right, but funny because I really should know better. If ten liked it and one did not.
Wanda Wilkormiska That's
Wanda Wilkormiska No. I tell you a story about it. It was a very, very famous cellist, Tortelier, who played in Vienna and a fellow cellist visited him in his hotel in the afternoon and on the way he bought all papers just, you know, with the reviews of the previous day's concert. And when he came to the hotel and told Tortelier, "Do you want to read your reviews?" "No, no, I never read my reviews." "Pity," said the friend, "Because they are very good." "Oh, give here. Give here." So you know, it's human.
Wanda Wilkormiska Warsaw. I was born--you wanted me to stir my [coovy coup?] vitae? Okay. Well, the beginning was that I was born in a crazy family of musicians. And my father already had one trio formed. He had three adult children. He was a widower when he remarried and started on the second trio. He never got it ready. He stopped after the fifth child, I was the fifth one, my mother protested.
Wanda Wilkormiska He had not necessarily. He had the first trio was completed, a piano the oldest, the eldest brother played cello, the second brother played the violin and the sister played violin--piano. So now he started this 30 years later started next trio, it was my brother who learned cello and I was supposed to be violinist even before I was born. So you know.
Wanda Wilkormiska I know. I mean, nobody asked me what I want to do. I was surrounded by music that was the only subject of all discussions in my house. Everybody--you know, they just ate music, drank music, slept and everything. Music was the only interest in this house. Of course, you know, as long as it was just fun, so I could play piano. I don't remember even learning how to read music, I always could somehow. I always knew, but no, but I, you know, it was fun, but when I was five years old, my father bought me a tiny violin, it was a quarter or even anyhow an eighth of a violin, and just exactly in so many words told me "The game is over, now it is going to be work." And as you can imagine, soon I hated it very much. Because it had to be every day, not much, quarter of an hour, half an hour, but still.
Wanda Wilkormiska No.
Wanda Wilkormiska No.
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes, pianists, up to day when I want to listen to music for just for the joy of contact with music, it's piano. When I want to go to the concert I go to piano recital, the first night I came to New York I went to Andre Watts [world? will?] recital, same day because, you know, it is just what I really need.
Wanda Wilkormiska Wait. That's another question. I never tried and it is very easy to hear, I never tried to be a soprano. What I am influenced by what I am searching in, in searching the sound is some boy soprano, that's what
Studs Terkel Jazz.
Wanda Wilkormiska Do you know who whose voice was an enormous influence on me? I remember when I started certain concerto, it was Szymanowski's Second Concerto and I could not find it, this, I heard it somehow in my ears, but I could not found the sound I wanted. It, you know this color, this, and do you know who it was?
Wanda Wilkormiska It's
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes. When I'm playing violin I think of a human voice. I am talking, you know what I mean, I'm talk, I'm telling a story which I did not write, as a composer wrote it. And when I'm playing when I'm performing it is not the story that somebody lost somebody or somebody hated, no. It is a story of emotion, so I am--well, how do you say? I'm trying to emanate emotions, pure emotions, nostalgie, love, hate, fear, frustration, not as you know there was a prince--
Wanda Wilkormiska Not a program. Exactly! Unless the composer wanted so, of course. If it is you know, if it is an impressionistic way, that it is, it says I don't know, "jardin sur la pleur," it means "garden under the raindrops," it has to be like that. But if it is called sonata, or [peruvial?]--
Studs Terkel So, he Hungarian. So this is a Romanian dances, Romanian dances of Bartok, your interpretation. Now, in doing Bartok based on folk melodies and folk music, what do you think, is there something you think of here when you interpret
Wanda Wilkormiska I was studying, so I am an expert in Bartok, but this folks dances are not very typical for him. There are really dances and I am not thinking anything else, but just loving this music because Bartok climate is very close to me.
Studs Terkel What a way to celebrate Bartok. Wanda Wilkormiska is my guest, she is the artist performing recently at the Myra Hess, Dame Myra Hess concerts. Now, I was thinking, it said of you that your intonation is flawless, they speak of your sound. Various critical--Harold Schonberg of "The New York Times", or Don Erickson, Don Henahan or Robert Marsh or John von Rhein, the various critics different parts of the country speak of your sound as something special. One speaks of the emotional urgency.
Wanda Wilkormiska Urgency. Look, it is the needs to get through just right to your heart. As you know, I am never indifferent. I always play for people. That's the reason what makes it really difficult to me to make records, for example, when I always, only, I know the people are listening, the sound engineer and all those people in the studio. But I'm in front of a microphone and I'm playing knowing that it's going to be repeated or cut in pieces, I don't know what, what I really need is audience. And you know, I have a message for them and this makes this--
Studs Terkel So, do you play--okay, there's a concert hall and there's an audience there, several thousand people there, or say a thousand people there. And it's flesh and blood people listening. Is your performance different than it would be in a recording studio?
Wanda Wilkormiska Completely different. And this, you know the most difficult thing for me is when it is mixed like it was in Chicago. When you have microphones and audience, so you can't have everybody satisfied. I tell you why I am so afraid of microphones. I know that you know, I always, of course, aim perfection and that's of course the most important thing, but as long as I'm [in four walls in my home?], I want to be perfect. I work on perfection, flawless playing, intonation, everything you want. Yeah? But, when I already am onstage and have this ears, this faces, you know, I want to make music. I forget about notes, octaves, harmonics. I just don't care anymore. I want them to listen to beauty of this music and so often, of course, there is not such perfection. It's because, you know, you can't--I know perfect performances of people who are, and then I leave, go home and I feel not quite satisfied. Something was lacking. You know. So when I am in front of a microphone, I know that the microphone wants perfection, so it of course changes my performance. It makes it worse because the strong side of my playing whatever it is, is emotions.
Studs Terkel So it's connected. Even though the technology is all there, the machines are there, the sound is perfect. You need that other person or those persons there because your whole approach is not so much technical, although
Wanda Wilkormiska Not I need the concert as a happening needs another person, even if Mr. Horowitz sits and performs and then there's nobody listening, there's no concert, it's just pianist playing. A concert means somebody is playing and somebody else is listening, and then it's a concert, and the audience plays almost as important part as a performer. It's because without audience there is no concert. And I think that I make the people feel that they are so important for me, and maybe it's the reason I am popular with the
Studs Terkel On the subject of audiences, Poland you play there and different parts of other cities of the world, too. Are there different, not national characteristics in audiences, listening to a concert? Is there a difference in different societies?
Wanda Wilkormiska Of course, of course. First of all, you have to divide the audiences into big cities audiences and small cities audiences. Now the big cities audiences mean London, New York, Chicago, Leningrad more or less, you know, talking all those cities when you have three concerts or four until you just don't know which one to choose. I remember once in New York when I had to choose between Martha Argerich and [to see?Aldo?] Ciccolini, yeah? So you know, they are sophisticated, they are sometimes a bit spoiled--
Wanda Wilkormiska The audiences, I mean, yes, because well, they--but to be accepted by this audience is a great thing. Now, the small cities are either very grateful that you play, thankful, really appreciating and really enthusiastic or else sometimes very snobbish, like, "Well, don't you think that here are such a small city that we don't know what is going on?" And then sometimes quite a great artist has not such, I mean, [applause?] in a small city as he deserves. So you never know. You never know. But I, this is the only kind of difference because I wouldn't say--of course, there are also nations which prefer highly emotional playing, and other who are very, you know, controlled.
Wanda Wilkormiska Restrained.
Studs Terkel I'm going to ask you about Poland and later on in certain audiences there. By the way, on Poland, this is funny. I know you, Wanda Wilkormiska, traveling through the country and you perform in different concerts, and there are press conferences, and today the question that is asked you, what is it, what do you ask when you at a press conference today?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Wanda Wilkormiska Normally, what's the situation in Poland. Is it--well, I am, to tell you the truth, I am asked, I'm being asked much more political questions then musical questions. I was very pleased that you started with music because I was already prepared. Well, and you know, funny enough, with here in the United States there is absolutely not hostility in those questions, much more concern and sympathy. So, you know, I shouldn't feel in any way offended. I just sometimes feel I'm biased because I'm not an expert.
Wanda Wilkormiska Look, this man was not--it is now he is beginning to be internationally known. He was very neglected. He was neglected in a way like Delius, Frederick Delius, the English composer, it's like nobody really knows him. This music is beautiful, music is very exotic in a way, not very Polish, the early Szymanowski. Later on he changed. He also tried to put some, you know, later, later, in his later age he wrote some folkloristic music. But the difference between the two concerti for example the first is Opus 35, the second is Opus 62, is enormous, is different, two different composers. But this what's, this what is so thrilling for me, you know, what I'm doing last years, I am making the gigantic programs of, for example, all Beethoven sonatas in three evenings in a row. Just, you know, just making this, showing this progress of Opus 12 to 97. How this man developed, what differences in the beauty of the sonatas, this enormous work, and audiences love it. All six Bach partitas.
Studs Terkel He
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes.
Studs Terkel So
Wanda Wilkormiska Arethuse.
Studs Terkel Szymanowski's "The Fountain of Arethuse". I was thinking, we'll talk of this in a moment after this pause. Of course, some critics have spoken about your--always probing, going deep, deep, and almost times there's a mysticism to it. I'll ask you about that. And this particular piece we just heard, in a moment after this message. So resuming the conversation with Wanda, our remarkable--and she is remarkable, indeed--Wilkormiska, violinist, concert artist who was in Chicago recently with the, as a guest of the Myra, the guest artist of the Myra Hess concert at the Cultural Center. In hearing Szymanowski, that comment one of the critics made, how does that, how do you react to that, that you probe and it almost goes a little beyond the reality?
Wanda Wilkormiska Well, because it is, you know, exactly this kind of music which asks to play it that way. I remember once Mr. Silver, who is the president of Connoisseur Society, all those records we made.
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes, when he first heard me, I played in New York Szymanowski First Concerto, and he fell in love with this kind of music and with this kind of playing, I don't know, anyway, he chased me and he found me and he signed a contract and then he came to San Francisco to listen to my Mozart concert. He didn't like it that much. He thought, "Why don't you play Mozart the way you play Szymanowski? Why don't you try the same kind of colors?" "I don't know, but what it doesn't fit." "But try! Just for me. In this room." And believe me, I couldn't, because the kind of phrasing Mozart offers, just absolutely, I couldn't, my finger wouldn't, my bow wouldn't bring this kind of sounds. It was impossible. So, you know, then, I think probing means each music, not necessarily--I am not, I'm not now referring to, you know, what period of time, what century it was written, but which in each kind of music brings different feelings to me, and the sounds finds itself. You know what I mean? Maybe I don't--
Studs Terkel No, you're saying of course, the music of each, each piece of music calls for a different approach on your part. And, so, when this man asked you to do Mozart with the same kind of coloration you once gave Szymanowski makes
Wanda Wilkormiska Innocence and purity, yes. You know, when you play the same, you know, I think it--I don't teach, you know, because I have no time to teach and not really I have no confidence in what I could tell the youngsters, but if I would teach, I would, of course, first of all teach the children to first to understand what this composer is saying, to finding his approach to the, and then serve it. You know? Then serve the music somehow. I don't know if I am clear.
Studs Terkel Of course. Now, this is as you were, I'm thinking now as you were growing up and developing as a concert artist, a violinist, a five-year-old child playing in the schools and going to the conservatory in Lodd and then work in Budapest and Warsaw, I asked you if there were influences. What were there as far as teachers were concerned? We know that Heifetz and Milstein, they spoke of Leopold Auer, the teacher--
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes, I was lucky. I had many teachers, you know? I studied with my father, of course, because he was the first teacher of all his children. Even if he was himself a violinist, he never built it very far, he was not a concert violinist, he played viola and he also was the teacher of his children who played piano. First teacher. I mean, he just [unintelligible]. But you know, not only what I had
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes. But not only there that I had teachers who showed me how to play violin but, you know, the music I learned at home was chamber music. We played every day chamber music with brothers, sisters, uncles, students of my father, students of my step-sisters and step-brothers. So you know, we used to just to read music, to put the music on stands and play quartets, trios. Do you know that I treasure those things? I sometimes play with amateurs because colleagues are too busy to make music. When you want to make chamber music, they ask, "Where are we going to perform there? Who is going to sponsor, who pays, well and date"--
Wanda Wilkormiska You, I tell you something. Some big secret. I am not only professional musician, I'm a music fan as well. It does not necessarily is the same. I didn't lose this, you know, this joy of contact with music. I tell you more, I, when I stop performing, because you have to stop performing someday, I will still love music. I will not avoid concerts, I
Wanda Wilkormiska I mean, not just contact with music. I always say what I like listening to music, I make music, the concerts, the concerts are the worst part of it, because then I am scared, you know. I prefer rehearsals to concerts. I am going to rehearsal with a new orchestra, I, it's like, I feel festive. I am very happy. I smile at the people, and do you know when I play, that my husband used to orchestra, I always faced them. I stand with my back to the empty hall, because I take part in the rehearsal, well, and no feel no nerves. The concert is always where I'm very afraid of, I am, it is going with my, you know, with my growing demanding demands of myself and expectation of my audiences.
Studs Terkel And so, in your case the professional artist, at the same time, the fan. Combination. I'm thinking, you know, Garrick Ohlsson, you know, who won one of the Chopin competitions in Warsaw some time ago said when a Chopin competition occurs in Poland, specifically in Warsaw, is this true generally? The whole city is aware of it, you know, he said the old woman who made his bed, the chambermaid who cleaned his room,
Wanda Wilkormiska Well, I personally hate competitions, and I tell you why. I know they give the youngsters opportunities to immediate to start a career, true enough, but the audiences sometimes like the sports factor in this, you know what I mean. It's not the way--they are just, just not loving to listen to music, but who plays better. Who plays faster--
Wanda Wilkormiska That's what I hate. Yes, I don't like it because it's the reason I don't--you cannot play, you cannot try to play better than anybody else. You have--my only rival should be myself ten years ago.
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes.
Wanda Wilkormiska I tell you, no, no. Kreisler is one of my favorites. This man really and truly played violin. He didn't pretend he plays anything else. He was just a great violinist, you know? And those Kreisler pieces you know, I think it's the most difficult thing is to play Bach partitas and Brahms concerto and still be able to have fun and play those little schmaltzes like Kreisler pieces, you know. And I think we do them quite well. This like what is made with the Antonio Barbosa. Also the other what we play, the Szymanowski, but the first two pieces I played with David Garvey at the piano. Why don't we listen to one of those schmaltzes?
Studs Terkel This is "Tambourin Chinois". We're thinking of Kreisler and, as you call it, schmaltz, yet the tone is there. Kreisler we think of his color, his sense of independence, too. Many stories, some apocryphal, some true, told about Kreisler, and the obvious question is, because he would tell off those who would use the artist, the high society, "Oh, please come to tea, bring your violin with you, and what will you say to [unintelligible]
Wanda Wilkormiska Yeah, yeah. Do you know the story when there is some lady ask him to perform and offered him $3,000, "But you are not one of my guests afterwards for supper," and he wrote back, "Ah, in that case it's $2,000." Well, look, it did not change that much. I mean, the house concerts still are around, and the people either offer you a fee, I don't play really, I say if somebody wants to listen please do come to the harmonic hall. But a funny thing happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I was in Germany, I was in Wiesbaden, is nice city, and a very nice couple invited me for a party, specially made for me. So when I came, they were very disappointed, "Where is your fiddle?" "Oh," I told them, "Was I supposed to play?" "Of course! Here is Mr. So-and-so and he has his cello, and Mr. So-and-so, and he is a pianist, and we have a grand pia--" I said, "But look, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I adore house music and if you just, just because as I told you, I love playing with amateurs, I adore them, but I have to be told in so many words, 'Do come and make some music.' I think if I'm invited for a party, for supper, I'm supposed to eat." Well, [say no?].
Studs Terkel Oh, for a cause, a benefit, I'm not talking about, I'm talking about a, if I do a house party for someone who is not particularly a friend of yours [or anything?], and this still goes on, isn't it? It's astonishing.
Wanda Wilkormiska No, to make music with somebody is really fun for everybody, you know, not only for the listeners, but for us, we sit down, I remember once we played with Marta Ahrens here in, there in New York in somebody's flat 'til three o'clock in the morning. Almost a sonata [singalong?], like that, you know, just for fun. So when the artist have fun, why not sit down and play? But the house concerts--
Wanda Wilkormiska You know, speaking about playing other thing, I think you can't restrain yourself to some, it's easy way I am playing only Chopin, or I am playing only Bach. I play Vivaldi and I play Penderecki. I mean, not everything is the same as some, some things I play better, something I play as good, maybe I feel at home in the 20th century. But still you should
Wanda Wilkormiska Yes, I've played. I was the first performer of his puppet show and I happened to be his first soloist when he first time had started conducting, I was his soloist. Ravel is one of my favorites, so I'm glad that
Studs Terkel You know, a good way, you know the time goes quickly with you, and the hour is almost up, I was thinking we just touched on some of your reflections, beginnings, yourself, and you chose Ravel, an Allegro to close. Ravel.
Studs Terkel And from here, from Chicago, we're here we're doing a concert the other day, I know what, we're going to hear Ravel, and we'll hear the Allegro in a moment. But these are the Connoisseur Society recordings that have won all sorts of awards. They've won, you know, your recordings have won every award in the book. But one last question. The nature of concerts and the frequency of them. We know today the travel is fast. The plane in contrast to the boat. Now, is there too much
Wanda Wilkormiska I play too many, I tell you, in this I play about 120, 250 a year, and now I tell you something, in this profession that is never the proper amount. You either have too many if you are in, or you have not enough. So, you know, that said, if you are in, you are invited all the time. If you are forgotten, then you just don't play. So I think one has to accept them as long as you, as one is invited.
Wanda Wilkormiska Yeah, me, is a danger that you will not be prepared as good, then is a danger you would be too tired, and there is a danger you lost the joy of this proof. If you think, My God, so, again a concert, it's already on the edge of danger.