The soloist of BFO’s concerts on November 26, 27 and 29 describes herself humbly as “a musician, who happens to play the viola”. Nevertheless, she is one of the most popular and best-known players of the instrument, who, in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons was Artist in Residence with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Berlin Philharmonic, respectively. Júlia Váradi spoke with Tabea Zimmermann, who also accompanied BFO on its European tour before her concerts in Budapest.
Your first name seems special. Is Tabea a common name in Germany?
It’s a biblical name from the New testament, and we understand that it was used in the Old Aramaic language. It was translated like that by Luther from the original, and so it used to be very popular in Protestant families. I myself grew up in a Protestant family, so probably that was why I got this name. None of my siblings have such special names, so it seems that I was treated with “favoritism”.
You come from the Black Forest, which I guess must be a beautiful region.
Yes, I grew up in a very small town, Lahr, in southern Germany. The surroundings are really beautiful, but the place is not special at all. At the same time, I was extremely lucky, as a rather excellent music school was established in the town when I was a small child. I might as well call it a conservatory. The level of musical education was unbelievably high.
I saw a short film, it was almost unbelievable, you were probably not yet three years old and held and used the violin and the bow as if you had been born with them. I had to watch it three times as I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The explanation might seem a bit complicated but it is also very simple. There was a famous Greek doctor and musician in New York who introduced healing through music to the world. He cured great musicians with the help of music. One of them was George Neikrug the famous cellist, who passed on this valuable knowledge to his son, Marc Neikrug. Luckily, the maestro moved to Germany and he taught almost all the teachers at our music school who played string instruments. This methodology is way beyond just teaching how to play an instrument. It helps students find such harmony in body and soul that it will have a tremendous impact on every moment throughout their lives. The important thing here is not the posture or how to touch the instrument, but a kind of flexibility which allows you to harmoniously connect to every instrument, particularly through your ears. So I, too, learned later that for a musician, ears are the most important body parts.
But you surely didn’t know that at the age of three! So how could you use the violin so perfectly? With a little family background maybe?
Not at all. None of my parents played any instrument. They were both born right before World War II, so it was a given that they were very poor and lived in difficult circumstances. My father started to work in a printing house at a very young age, while my mother earned just a little as a nurse. So just imagine a really poor family. And maybe we were driven by the desire to somehow leave that kind of life behind. That was why we were extremely lucky that the music school opened where my parents immediately enrolled my siblings (two sisters and a brother), who were a little older than me. From that moment on my siblings’ and later also my own progress was up to the teachers. But when I was two and a half and saw them practice every day, I asked my mother to take two wooden spoons from the kitchen cupboard and then put one onto my shoulder, and that was the violin and the other one was the bow which I kept drawing. So that’s how it all started.
Did your siblings also become musicians?
My two older sisters did, but my brothers only make music as a hobby. But with my sisters, we formed a string trio already at the very beginning and soon we played almost as professionals, from when I was five up to the age of twenty.
Why did you choose the viola from among the strings, which is typically an instrument that is rather difficult to handle?
The answer is simple. From the beginning, my teachers encouraged us to play chamber music and suggested that we should each choose an instrument that was really close to our heart. As the cello, the violin and the piano were already “taken” as my siblings had secured them for themselves, the only thing left was the viola. Added to this was the fact that violin was taught by an excellent teacher, who really got to like me already as a small child, so I always accompanied with my mum my elder sister to her violin classes. And the teacher made it clear for my parents that I too should start studying music as soon as possible, and choose a string instrument. As the chamber orchestra was missing a little violist, I was given the smallest viola at that time.
Could you explain to me, a layperson, the real difference between the viola and the violin apart from the viola being bigger with a deeper sound?
The most important difference is perhaps in their role in the orchestra. The viola is a “center player”. Therefore, its most important characteristic is adaptability. It performs a lot more tasks than the violin, which are also different. I had to be aware from the very first moment that each sound I played on the viola worked only in some context and that my task was to place the sounds I play appropriately in the blend. It can never happen that I play the melody and the others adapt to me. My instrument can always be heard in relation to or set against another one.
I have now understood what I read about you: “the most important thing for Tabea Zimmermann is creating communication”. Perhaps the instrument capable of creating this kind of communication is the viola.
Exactly. Probably it was starting my studies early that made me firmly believe that you can never be individualistic as a musician. I always find the best solution in the harmony of accepting each other. Maybe that’s why we found each other with Iván Fischer, because we are very similar in that respect.
How did you find each other?
When I worked as an Artist in Residence with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2019, I often met Iván Fischer, who visited us several times. And then once we had this idea, what if we performed together? Isabelle Faust was the soloist and we played Mozart conducted by Iván. It was awesome. We had long conversations each night after the concerts and it turned out that we had the same ideas about music. And also, as I’ve already mentioned, about how good musicians are able to adapt to the requirements of the given moment, the venue, the acoustics, the audience, but also to the atmosphere. And this perfect adaptation happens mainly through our ears. Maybe another small link between Iván Fischer and me is that - and I don’t think this is just accidental - he studied together with my first husband, David Shallon, an excellent musician, at the Vienna Conservatory under Hans Swarowsky. Iván and David knew each other, and although they may not have been friends (conductors usually don’t choose conductors as their friends), they started their careers in much the same way.
I guess it is a unique thing that you are going to play the Schumann Cello Concerto transcribed by yourself at this upcoming concert. This piece has never been performed like that. And, of course, Kurtág’s Movement for Viola is also a special composition. What are your expectations?
First of all, I’m very grateful that I can perform this transcription, which only very few conductors would be willing to do.
Look, it’s well-known that music written for the viola is really scarce, you can hardly find anything. In fact, the viola as a solo instrument was really only discovered in the 20th century. Of course, I am pleased to play any of those pieces, but this composition came to my mind as Schumann himself had transcribed it for violin, so this encouraged me to adapt this beautiful, virtuoso concerto to the viola. I can’t say that it’s not extremely difficult to perform, but it ‘s extremely enjoyable, as well. But I must admit that although I’m now over 50, I’m still nervous about it.
Kurtág. Have you met him?
Yes, I have. I first met him in 1984 in Lockenhaus at the Gidon Kremer Festival and since then I’ve played the beautiful pieces composed by him several times. His trio for clarinet, viola and piano is an homage to Schumann. This work is full of tension, which is so characteristic of both composers. So I deeply appreciate him also because of his spiritual affinity to Schumann, and I understand that he will come to one of the Budapest concerts.
You have just returned from the tour with the Festival Orchestra. What was it like to travel and perform with them?
I was so glad to finally meet and get to know them. I have now understood what exactly it means when a whole orchestra plays with the appeal of chamber music. That each musician of the BFO participates in the performance as an individual, while there is a perfect harmony among them. This is something very rare.