interview with Ilya Gringolts

February 4, 2014, 3:22 PM · The Menuhin Competition gets underway in less than a month in Austin, Texas, and as the clock ticks down, we have a few previews for you here at Also, I'll be traveling to Texas later this month to write about the competition, which begins on February 21 and culminates with a final Gala Concert (with the Cleveland Orchestra, no less!) on March 2.

Today, we are talking with Russian-born violinist Ilya Gringolts. Gringolts, who took home a prize in the Junior Division of the Menuhin Competition in 1995, will serve as a member of this year's international jury, which also includes Pamela Frank (Chair), Joji Hattori (Vice Chair), Olivier Charlier, David Kim, Brian Lewis, Lü Siqing, Anton Nel and Arabella Steinbacher.

Ilya won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also receiving special prizes for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final and the best interpreter of Paganini’s Caprices. Lucky for us, just last year he recorded the Paganini 24 Caprices.

Ilya Gringolts

In May, Orchid Classics will release a recording of the complete Brahms quartets, featuring his Gringolts Quartet, in which he plays first violin; his wife Anahit Kurtikyan, second violin; Silvia Simionescu, viola; and Claudius Herrmann, cello. In September, he will perform the original version of the Sibelius Concerto (recorded in 1992 by Leonidas Kavakos), which has seldom -- if ever -- been performed live. He also continues a busy performance schedule with the Gringolts Quartet, which in 2011 recorded the Schumann Quartets. A member of since 2002, Ilya has added substance and humor to many of our discussions here, over the years, as he is a true violinist in every way.

Ilya spoke to me via e-mail about how he got started with the violin, how competitions were always a part of his Russian upbringing, and more. With his usual candor, humor and humility, he shared his feelings about both the rewards and the stress of competitions!

Laurie: What made you want to start the violin, and how old were you when you did so?

Ilya: It was just a thing to do - not to be reduced to a stereotype, but in Russia a Jewish boy had to play the violin, so I didn't ask any questions. It was basically my parents' idea, but I warmed up to it. I was never good at sports, so it never felt like I was missing out on the outdoors.

Laurie: It's obvious that you had a lot of experience with competitions. How old were you when you entered your first competition? Do you remember the feeling?

Ilya: We had to compete in presenting ourselves from a very early age. Curriculum was interspersed with class concerts and at the end of each school year there would be something called "otchyotny koncert", loosely a "report performance", an animal of the bygone era where teachers were reporting on their achievements by exposing their unsuspecting students to a jeering crowd. Competitions, be it regional or country-wide, were part of the system. I did around one each year, starting at 9. My grand warhorse then was the lovely Concerto No. 13 by Kreutzer, a work duly forgotten by humankind the moment it left the publishing house, but lovingly preserved for competition purposes in Russia.

Feelings are another matter. I don't remember having any feelings at all really until a much later stage. I must've not minded - things mostly ran according to plan, and people mostly said good things about my playing. So as long as that was the case, there was no room for worrying.

Laurie: What made you want to continue to enter so many competitions? In the ones where you were most successful, what helped you win?

Ilya: This may sound beaten to death, but you can't win those things without a good tutelage and a fair amount of practicing. All the rest (including all sorts of psychological problems one loves to concentrate on these days) stems from the lack of either former or latter. Of course, as in any competition, you can't exceed your own level, so if others that are stronger happen to be competing - tough! Otherwise everything depends on you :)

Laurie: Competitions sometimes get a bad reputation; people can get very bitter about the politics, worn down by the work, or carried away by a competitive feeling. But it seems you embraced competitions, and there must be a reason. How did competitions help you? In general, what is valuable, for a young person, about doing a competition? And a related question: do competitions have value also for music lovers and the public? For the art itself?

Ilya: Let's not fool ourselves - even the staunchest competition supporters would concede that they do little in terms of adding value for music lovers and for the art itself (in fact, the art of music doesn't actually need performers - no performance is as good as the score. However, we are getting carried away here), but it is a fact that competitions have been instrumental in forging many careers. That might just be the single most valuable aspect of them. As to my relationship with competitions - it is indeed the one in which I was the most successful (Paganini 1998) that made me swear them off for the future (as a participant, mind you - turns out I am on the inside now!). In retrospect - and looking at some of my colleagues - I should have perhaps tried my luck at a few more, but the terror that I experienced in Genoa was simply much too strong. Bone-chilling stuff really - I don't think I had any sleep before the second round.

Laurie: What, to you, was different about the Menuhin Competition (in which you were a Junior Prize Winner in 1995) than the many other competitions you did?

Ilya: But I didn't do so many! I just remember being very surprised that I'd made it to the finals in the first place. I was competing against an 11-year-old Julia Fischer, who already at that point could play the Schumann Concerto on the piano and Saint-Saens Concerto on the violin on the same night (she won Junior First Prize); and there was Corina Belcea in the senior group (who won Second Prize), probably about 14 then. I also remember enjoying Yehudi's master-classes - a revelation! They way he taught how to speak with your bow, that's something that was also so special when he played - the 'living playing.' Only Szigeti had that same speaking quality. I have a photo with him - I am about as tall as him on the photo. What a personality - they don't make them like that any more.

Menuhin, and Ilya
Yehudi Menuhin, with Ilya Gringolts, age 12

Laurie: What was it like, to be a student of Itzhak Perlman? We all love the man, and I've seen many master classes that he has done, but I truly don't think it gave me a true idea of what one-on-one, continuous lessons with him would be like. What is the most important thing that you learned from him? What was he like, as a conductor, when you were recording Tchaikovsky?

Ilya: Well, the thing about Mr.P is that what you see is what you get. He doesn't make a secret of it, and that's how it's always been, I suppose. His master-classes in that respect are really like a one-to-one with audience present. Plenty of positive emotions - I don't think he was ever in the bad mood once - and lots of puns intended. He wasn't a big fan of demonstrating on the instrument which is perhaps a bit of a shame, but he would go at great lengths to explain himself verbally.

We played together on a few occasions besides recording the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Mozart 5, Beethoven, Prokofiev 1, Mendelssohn were just some of the things we did together. The orchestras adored him - in fact, I think he was what the perfect conductor would be for most orchestras. He let them play and was always on their side.

Laurie: I understand you are teaching now. Where do you get your inspiration for teaching?

Ilya: I like to say that there is a very selfish idea behind it - I like to get into the chemistry of it to improve my own playing and experimenting on my students helps :) Seriously though, I happen to think it's every performing musician's duty to share the experience, and I simply can't understand those who don't. Thankfully there are not so many these days. However, I am very far from being a motivator - as someone who looked for motivation elsewhere, I don't think it's a teacher's job necessarily - no one's in fact but one's own.

* * *

Ilya Gringolts plays Tchaikovsky's "Meditation" with pianist Itamar Golan -- exciting, beautiful, soulful live performance:

Ilya Gringolts plays the last movement of the Bach Double with Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Ilya's sister, Olga Gringolts) in December 2011 with the Moscow City Symphony "Russian Philharmonic":


February 5, 2014 at 04:50 AM · Such a great interview, Laurie! Teachers don't have to be motivators. Totally agree, especially those who teach adult students. On the other hand, there is nothing more exciting for me than being inspired by a teacher.

February 5, 2014 at 03:16 PM · I enjoyed this interview, but I have to agree that Mr. Gringolts really hasn't been in very many competitions, and I was puzzled why there was so much about that. He did a few until he nailed a big one and then he gave it up -- that's what I see from his Wikipedia page.

There is something good about competitions, though, because the players names are exposed to the public and those of us who are not insiders can have names of people whose careers we might watch, whose recordings we might anticipate, and about whom we might be able to learn more on our own.

The video you linked of the Bach Double was nice. Actually all three movements are on YouTube:

First Movement --

Second Movement --

Third Movement --

February 5, 2014 at 08:11 PM · Why such a big deal about competition?

Competition gives a musician the chance to perform in a way that no other performances can match. For one thing, how often if ever does a musician perform a rigorous program that some other highly accomplished musicians will also be performing, to the same audience, on the same day, and scrutinised by some of the best violinists in the world? The mental and physical demand is enormous not just on stage but also during the preparation of a mandatory contemporary piece they’ve never seen before. Not to mention the significance to one’s future career resulting from a win, the experience is invaluable in itself, as it is under such a “pressure cooker”, a musician gets know herself/himself and others really well.

February 5, 2014 at 08:42 PM · Yixi those are all good points, but who wants to listen to fifteen people in a row play the same piece? If I were studying a new piece I might do so just as "homework" but not for enjoyment. Judging those things must be very hard.

And, are they really stretching the boundaries of musical expression in competition performances? Probably nobody will come with a really unique interpretation of a well known piece, or a tempo that is marginally too slow or too fast, even though they might feel it's correct for them, because foremost they have to flatter the sensibilities of the adjudicators.

February 6, 2014 at 12:33 AM · “who wants to listen to fifteen people in a row play the same piece?” But they are not just fifteen people, they are fifteen super talented young soloists, each has his/her own voice and interpretation. There is probably no better way to get to know a piece really well by learning it oneself. Listening to different interpretations is next to that. But if you’ve played a piece and then listen to all these fine young violinists’ performance of it, that is where the real fun comes in.

As for whether they’ll stretch the boundaries of musical expression during such competitions, chances are some take risks and some play safe. Being unique is not everything. The music has to be convincing and has to move the listener. Winners are not those who played safe.

All that said, I think we need to suspend our judgement about competition and just watch and listen with heart open and ears sharp. Have fun!

February 6, 2014 at 01:45 AM · Although I agree there is a place for competitions, I like the way the Gilmore Artist Award is managed.

You don't enter; you don't compete.

Instead, a panel of anonymous judges hears you (along with many other, equally unsuspecting candidates) play in various venues over an extended period of time--thus, no single great or disastrous performance decides the winner, but the overall quality of musicianship over time. Less room for a spectacular outsider, more opportunity for a really splendid player to show what s/he can do over time.

Here's a link to the NY Times article about the most recent winner.

I think it's a very special way to identify special musicians. The whole person is evaluated.

February 6, 2014 at 05:02 AM · Nice interview! The violin world really needs more violinist like him :)

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