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Iskandar Widjaja: Pulling all the Right Strings

  • Kindra Cooper

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Sun, June 9, 2013 | 09:00 am
Iskandar Widjaja: Pulling all the Right Strings

Berlin-born violinist Iskandar Widjaja sees himself as a mere mediator through which the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Strauss and Beethoven find reinvigorated realization.  

'€œI try to become an instrument myself for the energies of the universe and become part of the music myself,'€ the award-winning musician explained. '€œThere is no border between me and the violin and the music anymore.'€

With innate talent comes humility, stemming from a belief that the gift is God-given, but he still practices for an average of seven hours a day.

This diligence, he posits, enables him to pare down the technicalities of rhythm, tone and hitting the right notes to an exact science and focus instead on basking in the emotions of the music.

'€œThe technical demands [of classical music] can be obstacles for performers to deliver their emotional message,'€ the 27-year-old says.

'€œAnd if the performer is busy trying to play the right notes but missing the original reason '€” to convey a feeling to an audience '€” it might become a frustrating experience for the listener. But if played masterly and from the heart, there is nothing better than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.'€

Despite not being pruned like an archetypal child prodigy '€“ the violinist, better known as Issi '€” attended public school until the age of 11, when he was accepted to take classes at the Hanns Eisler College of Music.

There, he managed to catch up with peers who had been taking music lessons since toddlerhood by training daily playing open strings and Paganini 24 Caprices, one of the most difficult pieces ever written for solo violin to which he, some 20 years later, nonchalantly refers as '€œgoing back to basics'€.

He studied under the Suzuki method '€” which maintains that music can be learnt just like a mother tongue through repetition, listening and playing by ear, with the ability to read music being secondary.

During high school, he trained in the pre-college division of the Julius Stern Institut in Berlin, one of Germany'€™s leading music schools, ultimately completing his studies in 2010 at the University of the Arts in Berlin with several awards, including First Prize in the Jugend Musiziert, a German national music competition, already beginning to collect dust in his cupboards.

Although bolstered by a rigorous, regimented education, Issi, who has performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra and the Symphonie-orchester Berlin, confesses that he mostly thinks of Bach as his teacher.

'€œThe music of J.S. Bach is perfectly balanced and commands a clear mind. His fugues are the most challenging thing in the world, his set of Sei Solo is the best [learning method] for any violinist out there and if you manage to go beyond the notes into the spiritual zone, his music will make you fly to heaven,'€ he said, referencing the sonatas and partitas (a single-instrumental piece composed of a series of variations) that have become a benchmark for studying solo violin.

Trips to heaven seem not to be an infrequent occurrence for Issi. At his every performance he seems transported to a land to which he gives color with every stroke of his bow, his facial expression contorting with every soar and plummet of the music, mirroring and embodying its flux.

'€œThe audience and fans help me to be the best I can [be]. It is this extra thrill that a live performance evokes that will never happen when you are playing on your own,'€ he explains when asked why he says he plays '€œfor other people'€ rather than for himself, in a departure from typically self-fulfilling artistic pursuit.

'€œI believe that everything is energy and in the setting of a concert it'€™s all about this extra spark that can lift the listener and the interpreter up to greater heights of being.'€

He rues the rarity of classical music in Indonesia, acknowledging that facilities such as the Aula Simfonia are up to scratch but that the broken link lies in manpower.

'€œWe need key figures with young mind that are passionate performers and emanate their enthusiasm for Bach and Co.
I will do my best to serve as a mass media ambassador for the music I love,'€ he vows, adding, jokingly, '€œAnd I only drink the best!'€ '€” a tagline from an ad for JJ Royal Coffee in which he starred, playing Vivaldi on his 1973 F. Geissenhof, which marked his introduction in Indonesia as '€œthe good-looking violinist with the tousled curls in that coffee ad'€.

His debut album, Bach '€˜N'€™ Blues, released in 2011, which, he warns, is '€œdefinitely not an easy listening album'€, is no crash course for those uninitiated in classical music.

Combining the Chaconne from J.S. Bach'€™s D minor Partita and Biber'€™s Passacaglia for solo violin and the violin sonatas of Poulenc and Ravel, the album is rightly, as he describes, '€œhighly specialized music for connoisseurs of classical music'€.

'€œIt'€™s an album of contrasts: baroque intricacies versus French impressionists inspired by jazz and chanson,'€ he clarifies. '€œThese two worlds are as far apart as Bali is from Berlin, and I wanted to display my capability to adapt to both musical languages idiomatically.'€

Juxtaposing opposites does not seem to have been too ambitious a mission statement, for the album garnered critical acclaim.

It is easy to assume that a classical musician would scorn popular music, however, Issi, a self-confessed fan of R&B star Beyonce Knowles and pop singer Lady Gaga, does not discriminate between music genres, believing the immortality of quality music transcends categories.

'€œI think music is always formed by the time that we live in. So, there will always be high and low quality products. The question is: What will stand the test of time? Most classical composers were not rich superstars during their time, but because of the quality they produced, we still listen to Beethoven and Chopin nowadays. Their music has survived the centuries and [has] made them live eternal, the eldest desire of mankind,'€ he says, conceding, '€œI reckon
I play Beethoven better after a good Beyonce or Lady Gaga concert!'€

With three violins in his possession, his weapon of choice is a 17th century Franciscus Geissenhof made in Vienna.

'€œThis violin was built during the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and all of them lived in Vienna and became the key figures of Viennese [classical music], which is known to be structured yet revolutionary music which broke with tradition,'€ he says.

'€œI define myself as a traditionalist with futuristic visions. I love old school with a twist, and all this my Geissenhof can give me.'€

Having struck musical gold, he has what all performers yearn for '€” his performance schedule is already booked solid until June 2014 and a new album, titled Clear as Bach, is in the pipeline.

'€œWe are in the final editing process. Bach'€™s music is a universal language. Analyzing it, you will find the most complex mathematical structure; listening to it, it goes straight to the heart.'€

'€” Photos courtesy of Iskandar Widjaja

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