As a child living in Russia, Ilya Kaler knew he would become a professional musician.
He grew up in a musical environment – his father was a professional violinist in Moscow – and he began studying the violin himself when he was 7 years old. “Like most small kids, I was resisting the routine of practicing,” Kaler said from his home in Chicago. “But when I was 10 or 11, I became more enthusiastic.”
He went on to study music at the esteemed Moscow Conservatory, and he is the only violinist to win gold medals at three separate international classical competitions.
Kaler, who moved to the U.S. in 1991, will perform with the Spokane Symphony twice this weekend, kicking off the 2013-14 season with a program called “Virtuosity Required.” The symphony, conducted by Eckart Preu, will perform P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra; Kaler will accompany them for a performance of American composer Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14.
Kaler has played Barber’s concerto before, but not as often as he would have liked. “It’s very melodic, it’s beautifully harmonized, it has a very nostalgic feel,” he said of the piece. “It’s written with a wonderful knowledge of the instrument. … It allows violinists to demonstrate the tonal qualities and phrasing and a huge dynamic range.”
The history behind the piece is famously tumultuous. Barber was commissioned to compose the concerto for violinist Iso Briselli in 1939, but because of the outbreak of World War II, as well as a documented disagreement between Barber and Briselli regarding the concerto’s third movement, the piece didn’t premiere until 1941.
“It had a very difficult birth,” Kaler said. “And now, of course, (it) is one of the most popular concertos of the 20th century, and definitely the most popular and well-loved concertos in American violin repertoire.”
“It’s really a virtuoso showcase for what the orchestra can do,” Preu said, “and what the individuals in the orchestra can do.”
Preu says Kaler’s appearance in Spokane, especially at the start of the season, helps inspire the symphony to maintain a particular degree of excellence for subsequent performances. “It sets an artistic standard for everybody – for the audience, for the orchestra,” Preu said. “If you have a really, really great soloist out there, you have to live up to that level.
“Having the opportunity to get him here is really miraculous in many ways,” he added.
But despite his renowned musical aptitude, Kaler points out that his connection with the audience is a purely emotional one, and that his feelings toward the pieces he performs are critical to his success.
“There are a lot of wonderful, technically equipped performers today, but I think sometimes it makes for rather indifferent interpretations,” Kaler said. “People sometimes feel they have to perform pieces they do not closely identify themselves with. I’m trying to go inside the piece and inside the composer … to really understand their style.
“It is a performer’s art,” he added, “and without us, it would probably remain just a pile of sheet music.”