From Russia with Passion: Portrait of Olga Martinova

September 26, 2015, 9:49 AM · “Music is music" is the mantra that has kept Olga Martinova at the top of an illustrious concertmaster career. During an amiable afternoon conversation infused with laughter and light, past recollections and present-day hospitality a la Russe converge. For the First Concertmaster of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, all roads lead back to Mother Russia, or to be more specific, Leningrad in the late Soviet period, when the N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov Leningrad State Conservatory (now St. Petersburg) Russia’s oldest center for musical excellence was a breeding ground for musical talent and artistic encounters.

Martinova 's remembrances of things past are imbued with recollections of an artistic home in St. Petersburg. Her grandmother, an actress of note had a lasting influence on the young Olga. "She encouraged me to try everything imaginable and although my dream first and foremost was to become an actress, lessons in elocution, piano, violin were soon to follow." With a marked precocity for violin, the road became clear. Like many a Russian instrumental star, Martinova entered a special school in her native city and won many an important State competition. Furthering her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory, she entered the class of Professor Mikhail Waiman (1926-1977) described as 'the ultimate thinking musician who could also play from the heart.'

Olga Martinova
Olga Martinova

"Can you imagine what our artistic world was like at that time? I met Pavel Gililov when I was eleven, played sonatas with him throughout my training period and encountered artists such as Misha Maisky, Boris Pergamenschikov, Slava Zagursky and the young Valery Gergiev who was, by-the-way, a very good pianist.” Lessons with the brilliant Mikhail Waiman were the be all and end all of her Conservatory experience.

“To achieve freedom, a freedom in expression and playing, that is what the Russian school of violin was all about.” Students were steeped in an illustrious violin tradition: Waiman studied with Yuri Eidlin who was a pupil of the father of us all, Leopold Auer, a genius in terms of developing a method that was adaptable to so many different talents. (The great Hungarian Jewish violinist moved to Russia in 1868 making his mark on generations of violinists before moving to the US in 1918).

Although he won the second prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in 1951, the year Leonid Kogan took the first prize; Waiman never had a huge performing career. To his Leningrad students who included the likes of Philippe Hirschhorn, he was iconic. “Waiman was a true gentleman, charming and generous. He often allowed his students to practice at his home! When teaching he demonstrated all the time. He spoke and moved around the studio like an infatuated apparition and that he was: infatuated by music. He was an actor and when he was in a good mood, lessons were celebrations. All of his students at the highest level would attend each others’ lessons, and some of these sessions lasted for hours upon hours.”

Scales were at the very core of Waiman’s technical teaching, his students had to develop strong internal discipline to reach the level expected of them. ”Of course, speedy fingers and fast scales were important however the most important exercises were the slowest ones: slow scales at maximum intensity. And, don’t forget, your first year with Waiman was spent learning technique, learning how to play consonants with the bow in place of the sliding ‘sh’ sh’ sounds most students play. Once you were on a technical path, Waiman would introduce repertoire with Bach’s Chaconne as the crowning glory.”

“Waiman’s death was a total tragedy for me, after eight years in his class I was empty, totally empty, bereft without him. He left such a void, so young, so full of potential. I knew that I needed to take a decision and as I had never been outside of Russia, the time had come to experience the world, to learn about different cultures and traditions. Now I realize, I left to fill a void.”

First stop, Germany, the famed Bamberg Sinfoniker, where the legendary disciplinarian Eugen Jochum with his attentiveness to detail stood at the helm. As one of three women in the orchestra, she soon learned that to lead, one needs to be tough. "Music is music" and if you have earned the privilege to lead a section, you need to show control. When a male at the back of the section, yes an old-boy, a real local, articulated his criticism of my bowings loudly, I answered back in the best German I could muster ‘come, move up and sit in my chair, take my salary and do your own bowings.” Problem solved. Clear memories of the erudite Scottish conductor James Loughran and memories of Jochum’s deeply felt Bruckner resonate to this day.

Jumping back on the emigration train, Martinova headed north to embrace the rich musical traditions in the Netherlands. Schoolmates from her Leningrad days had made their careers there and encouraged her to come. "This was not as easy as it might sound: no visas for myself or the family, a Russian passport in those days really limited your freedom. Somewhere in a provincial town we jumped out of the train where Alexander ‘Sasha’ Warenberg (eminent Russian pianist) met us and whisked us away. The next day, I won an audition for concertmaster of both the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, later learning that Herman Krebbers, the famous pedagogue and concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw was on the jury."

As a concertmaster one is often faced with judging tempi, even before the conductor indicates his/her desires, it is important to have a feeling for speed within music. However, as Shostakovich teaches us, even to understand a metronome marking, you need to know yourself, and you need to understand the meaning of time. For example, we are taught that Andante means a walking tempo, but what does that mean? We hear cars, busses and airplanes constantly; so much so that we often do not separate noise from silence, does our walking tempo match Mozart’s??

“Music is music” has taken Martinova from her font of learning in Leningrad the world round to teach and give master classes. St. Petersburg 5 years “I love young people and when I teach, I try to be like doctor. A student comes to you, you see the problem, you hear the problem and then you go about healing. And, by the way, it is never too late. When I was studying with Waiman, I remember how he worked with a French student who played well but stiffly. To tell a student to be free means nothing, but to make them sing while they play might create physical freedom. Declaim while you play, play the words that lie beneath the music.”

Turning her attention to the difficulties encountered in playing chords, she opines, ”when you put too much pressure on the bow, you stop breathing properly, you put pressure on your heart. Can you imagine how the physical affects the chords you play? To put air in your Bach, for that matter in anything you play, you must breathe. You must listen carefully for the line within the music, and then you will create a long and flowing sound. And then there is detaché!” The secrets of the St. Petersburg sound, unleashed!

Waiman taught his students to consider compositions as a whole, to discover the line that flows throughout an entire concerto both in terms of energy and musical intention. “Often for me, the focus is the second movement. Consider the second movement in Mahler’s 5th symphony, a love story Gustav wrote for Alma. When I had the occasion to perform Lalo’s Symphony Espagnol recently my artistic urge was to tell the conductor, my partner, how I feel about him. For me, music opens the heart and is a sort of therapy to help heal us from life’s turbulences.” And beyond music, there is literature. Martinova reads and rereads Dostoevsky, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov and keeps St. Exupery’s Little Prince close to her heart.

“Music is everywhere” and I love all kinds of music, from jazz to vocal improvisations. I always look for good detaché, even beyond music. Perhaps this is the legacy of Waiman, even when I go to doctor I ask myself does he have detaché, do his hands move organically?”

What accounts for musical longevity? “There are so many great musicians who peak around age 40 while others continue to grow and discover new sources for inspiration. The soil nourishes you, the ground that brought forth great ideas, great genius and great creativity.”

Martinova’s present life partner, Jean-Bernard Pommier is “the soil”, her constant source of inspiration. "We spent hours and hours playing together and yes, talking about music endlessly." Laughing, she notes that agreement is not always the name of the game, "you have to understand one another musically, this does not always mean that getting to agreement is all laughs and smiles, but at the end of the day, the music itself shows us what we need to do."

As part of the musical elite at the Leningrad Conservatory in the 1970s, an encounter with Schnittke's fragile, soul-searching scores was inevitable. Martinova's performance of Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1 with the unforgettable Philippe Hirschhorn tells the whole story in music. "Of all the fantastic musicians I met his was the greatest tragedy. A pure soul, it is as if he was not destined to be with us for long. Like Waiman, he reached fifty and passed, leaving us to look back and remember his greatness.”

Let music take over where words fail:


September 28, 2015 at 07:48 AM · Great music, and great interpretation.Fantastic period in russia music

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