Iskandar Widjaja: Passionate perseverance for classical music
While other Indonesian children might have been more into playing drums, soccer, computer games, TV or just wandering around malls, German-born Iskandar Widjaja, the 26-year-old rising violin star, has firmly sided with his unceasing love for the violin since the tender age of four.
“Children with a special affinity to fantasy and fairy tales would love the violin. It’s such a unique, warm instrument. You can hug it because it’s small and it’s beautiful to look at. You can just relate to its sound when you’re a child because of its high pitch. It’s like a child’s voice, actually. So I fell in love with the violin right from the start and never regretted picking this instrument for myself,” said Iskandar, who is called Issi by his friends.
Born into a highly artistic and musically gifted family on his mother’s side, Iskandar’s mother is Batdriana Widjaja, a Berlin-based professional piano teacher, and his father is journalist Ivan Al-Hadar. His mother is daughter of the Chinese-Indonesian legendary composer Udin Widjaja and sister to Noorman Widjaja, the internationally acclaimed conductor and pianist based in Nürnberg and Dubrovnik.
“Violin is a part of my body and my soul. You cannot separate the violin from me anymore. I play violin for a certain number of hours every single day of my life — I don’t usually take practice breaks on Sundays — as soon as I don’t have my violin around, I feel like there’s a part of me missing. It’s like my hand is missing, something like that. I cannot think of a life without the violin, I am addicted to it,” said Iskandar, as he passionately described his
relationship with the instrument.
His dearest violin is over two centuries old, a 1793 Franciscus Geissenhof; he has three violins.
Iskandar had his initial encounter with classical music through Susan Mann’s Suzuki intuitive learning method from Japan, where children learn to play the violin like learning a mother tongue, without the necessary grammar, but through listening and picking up the tunes. At the age of 11, Iskandar was accepted as an extraordinary student at one of Europe’s leading music conservatories, the Hanns Eisler College for Music in Berlin. After studying at the Julius Stern Institute in Berlin — the pre-college division for the highly musically gifted — Iskandar completed his violin studies at the University of the Arts in Berlin in 2010.
Throughout his still-young career, Iskandar has won countless prizes, including the gold medal of the 1st International Hindemith violin competition, first prize in the German national competition Jugend musiziert, Best Bach and Best Beethoven sonatas in the XXI Concorso Violinistico Internazionale Andrea Postacchini, the Julius Junior-Young Talent category awarded by the mayor of Berlin, as well as the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben scholarship.
Despite his obvious genetic tendency toward musical greatness, Iskandar underlined the importance of a good dose of balance between hard work and talent.
“Being born in Germany and playing classical music may sound very privileged. But I did not start out very privileged. My mom is a single mom who raised me alone. At the beginning, we did not have much money. My mother always fought hard to give me the best education she could.”
Amidst the rigorous hours of daily practice and the fierce competitions, Iskandar acknowledged, “Many people are playing the violin out there, so standing out in the mass of people is quite tricky, and to get a first place in competition is not easy.”
“But my mother always believed in me, she once said ‘I love you anyway, even if you don’t play the violin’. There was a kind of strength that she gave me, so I could persevere,” said Iskandar. The violin prodigy expressed his concern about children’s education in Indonesia, which he viewed as lacking in balance and not teaching perseverance to children so they can reach perfection in specific skills, due to too much distraction from TV, computer games and malls.
Nevertheless, Iskandar said his Berlin-based upbringing never alienated him too much from his Indonesian roots as his mother frequently brought him home to visit his late grandfather. When asked whether he now felt more of an Indonesian or a German, Iskandar said: “It’s something like 50:50. My Indonesian roots give me a certain kind of freedom in my playing that I don’t think I would be able to receive in the German training ‘authentic playing’, in which you just stick to what’s written and are not allowed to leave your own fingerprints. I’m very grateful that this Indonesian heritage is still somewhere in my soul.”
Today, Iskandar has performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, the Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, to name just a few. Last year, Iskandar launched his debut album Bach and Blues and now reveals his growing obsession with the masterpieces of the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
“I fell in love with his music very early. But my love for his music and art grew the more mature I became, and I’m currently planning my second album, which is purely a Bach album.”
Iskandar, who believes in the life elements yin and yang, expressed his high respect for Bach, “He has the perfect balance. I think everything in life is about balance. You should always have a balance between discipline and being loose, between intellectual challenge and following your heart, between having reason and following instinct. There’s always this yin and yang, and I believe it’s the recipe for success.”
“Bach is quite elusive music. It makes us look inside, strive for the higher things in life, dig deeper into the material, and yet it’s such invigorating music. It’s very lively; at the same time it energizes me and calms me down. There’s no other music that can do that,” he said.
Over the past four years, Iskandar has been performing on various stages in Indonesia and is gaining popularity among a young audience with his easy-on-the-eyes looks. Aware that classical music has not yet been widely exposed in Indonesia, Iskandar aims to overturn the outdated perception of the music he is most passionate about.
“I believe that classical music has been played for decades and centuries for a certain reason, for its quality. This kind of music really challenges the mind, challenges the intellect, and balances the emotions.”
“People have the idea that this music is old-fashioned and only for old people; we have to remove the dusts that covers classical music through presenting it in a very attractive way and giving it a nice balance also.”
“I would love to help young people to become interested in this kind of music. I see great potential and interest in the younger generations. I try to be a sort of ambassador for this music,” said Iskandar, who himself is a fan of the American pop singer Beyonce Knowles.
When asked whether he was aware that his looks had captivated the hearts of most of his female fans, sometimes more than the music itself, Iskandar smiled and brushed off the idea.
“I am not sure if they like me more for my looks. I can’t help my looks, it’s all due to genetics. My mom is a gorgeous, beautiful woman, my dad is not super handsome, but he is OK looking and intelligent. Well, I appreciate the great buzz, as long as it helps educate the people to listen to this kind of music, because that’s my biggest concern.”