Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who will be performing on Friday, February 15 at the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall as part of UCSB’s Arts and Lectures program, has had many triumphs in his distinguished career, but he is in the spotlight now primarily because of a new set of recordings and a series of recitals of the 10 sonatas for violin and piano written by Ludwig van Beethoven. Kavakos recently signed a major new recording contract with Decca and then released a three-disc set of the complete Beethoven sonatas with Enrico Pace on piano in October 2012. Critical response has been outstanding, as have been the reviews for Kavakos’s extensive public performances of the material. He performed the entire Beethoven cycle with Emmuel Ax at Wigmore Hall in London last fall, and he and Pace did the same at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2012. Interspersed with these mega-engagements, and alongside such other demands as playing and conducting Bach and Lutoslawski with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kavakos slips in the occasional one-night stand for an all-Beethoven program like the one he will perform here on Friday, February 15. For perspective, Friday’s concert is the sort of special evening that one might expect as a resident of Berlin, where Kavakos will play a similar program with Emmanuel Ax on piano next Friday, February 23.
With such high-profile recitals and the new CD set working for him, Leonidas Kavakos stands poised to receive the broader public acclaim that’s ordinarily reserved for a mere handful of exceptional figures per musical generation. But when I caught up with him recently by phone from his hotel in Washington, D.C., I got the feeling that for Kavakos, the really important milestones and landmarks in his career are not necessarily measured by externals. Although he got where he is today primarily through the extraordinary brilliance and clarity of his playing, Kavakos is as much a natural-born thinker as he is a virtuoso, and in conversation he manifests the deep and soulful philosophical tendencies of his home, Athens. In the liner notes to the Decca recording, Kavakos compares his experience with the music of Beethoven to standing in front of the Parthenon, “an Ark of Knowledge and Wisdom.”
When asked if he felt that the big effort with Beethoven was helping propel his career to a new level, the violinist reacted by saying, “I’d rather not even speculate on that. What I can tell you is what it has done for me as a person to take on the challenge of learning this music. Together with the works for violin of Bach, these sonatas make up the core of the repertoire, and thus to play them is the quintessence of being a musician. To deal with scores like this is to stand in front of giants, and when I am practicing and playing them, I can feel that they are making me a better person. To play this music is to become enriched, more aware, and more sensitive to life itself. For the true musician, Beethoven is the composer that one has been dreaming about.”
Santa Barbara occupies a very special place in the musical history of Leonidas Kavakos as he made his North American debut here with the Santa Barbara Symphony under the baton of Varujan Kojian. He was just 19 years old and had recently shot to fame with a first place in the 1985 International Sibelius Competition. Now, after many years and at the fine ripe age of 46, Santa Barbara can welcome back one of the most exciting musicians of his time.