Liana Isakadze

«Risk is necessary even in music!»

Interview by Ekaterina Sokolova

Translated by Anton Fedyashin and Anita Kondoyanidi

Liana Isakadze

If a crossword question asks for “the brightest, most smiley, and most expressive violinist of all time,” don’t hesitate to write down Liana Isakadze!

She is the winner of two of the world’s most important violin competitions—the Long Thibaud Competition in Paris and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki. In 1970, she shared the pedestal with world-renowned performers such as Gidon Kremer and Vladimir Spivakov. She is also all of the following—a child prodigy from Tbilisi, a student of the legendary David Oistrach, the founder of the Oistrakh Academy of Stringed Instruments in Germany, a People’s Artist of the USSR, and a conductor.

She is scintillating and always in a good mood, but also principled and impulsive. In 1994, Liana withdrew from the jury of the Tchaikovsky Competition because she disagreed with the majority of the judges. In 1998, she returned to chair the jury committee and this time nobody challenged her, while the competition’s results were universally recognized as fair. At the Fifteenth Tchaikovsky Competition, Liana Isakadze will be judging the young performers again. We decided to discuss with her some lesser known details of her biography.

Liana Aleksandrovna, would you please tell us a bit about your childhood? There is a photograph on the internet of you and Van Cliburn where you are still very young. Did this meeting play a role in your decision to participate in the Tchaikovsky Competition?

​When I was a child, I played my violin well only to please my parents. My first violin teacher professor Lev Shiukashvili started sending me to competitions. I won the Transcaucasia Competition when I was ten years old and then, as an exception, I was allowed to become the youngest participant in a festival-competition in Moscow. David Oistrakh chaired the jury. He asked that I be transferred to Moscow and that’s when I started studying under him. When I played for Van Cliburn, I was thirteen. The Ministry of Culture paraded me before all the visiting dignitaries as a child prodigy. A year after this meeting, they made an exception again and allowed me to participate in the All-Union competition where all the other participants were no younger than seventeen. I was the youngest, but I won my second prize there! I was lucky enough to have grown up in a blessed family which never thought in terms of a “career,” although that’s precisely why people participate in performance competitions! I was never terribly interested in participating in them myself.

And yet you’re the winner of numerous musical competitions! How did you prepare for the Tchaikovsky Competition?

In 1970, all the Soviet participants were sent to Serebrianyi Bor, a leafy suburb of Moscow, to rehearse and prepare for the competition. But I was unlucky! They put me in a room next to Gidon Kremer who practiced for 18 hours a day. I couldn’t handle it, so I spent days walking in the park! By the way, when Gidon first arrived in Moscow to study with Oistrakh, he refused to make him part of his class. But I liked Gidon and I started convincing David Fyodorovich to accept him. And Oistrakh only did so a year later after Gidon returned to Moscow from Riga! I did the right thing! (She smiles.)

Liliana in Helsinki. 1970 

Can you describe your attitude towards competitions? And what do you prefer to perform, teach, or serve on the jury?

I think that the performers who win these competitions are the ones who do not aim to conquer the world for they are the ones with God’s gift. As for myself, I prefer to play because it’s not only my life, but my very essence! But I also like to teach and I have given master courses at the Mozartium in Austria and in Sweden. I have been offered professorships at the Munich and Frankfurt Conservatories, but this would have required a minimum of fifteen individual students, which I could never have juggled with my performance schedule.

You once said in an interview that you have an adventurous spirit and like to take risks. How so?

Yes, when I was a student, I once jumped headfirst into a river and found myself being pulled by a current towards a turbine that would have made a cutlet out of me. I managed to swim to shore, nearly lost my sight and turned blue, but was saved! I also loved racing horses at enormous speed and I was once thrown from the seat in Berlin and was pulled behind the horse with my foot stuck in the stirrup! Music also demands risk, but I’ve loved that since birth!

Liana Isakadze and Van Cliburn

People who like risk usually attract attention, but your attitude and friendliness tell me that you’re usually the life of the company. How often do you get to see your friends and what country do most of them come from?

Life of the company? That’s because I’m always happy without reason! That’s why they called me the laughing girl at the Conservatory. Some called me the penguin because that’s the symbol of happiness! I think it comes from an inborn naiveté. God was very fair when he created me by compensating my unpreparedness for life with great talent. I am a total contradiction in this world of highly developed self-interest. I have friends all over the world, but my favorite ones live in Moscow—they’re the only ones who maintained the purity of soul that I value most highly!

Liliana Isakadze and Victor Tretyakov. 1985 

What are your favorite jokes that you share with friends?

Georgia has an ethnicity called the Racha who are slow, but very honest! My father was one. (She laughs.) There are a lot of jokes about them. A man from Racha arrived in Tbilisi for a relative’s funeral, but forgot his address. So he sent a telegram to Racha: “Do you know the deceased address?” The answer was: “Yes, we do!”

Thank you! I’ll add that one to my collection! You are a citizen of Georgia and Germany, but you live in France and you perform all over the world. How many languages do you speak?

I speak Georgian, Russian, German, English, and bit of French. But what’s the point? When I speak, I hear music in my head—I exist in a different world at that moment! So I can never concentrate and listen to my interlocutor! (She smiles.)

But we always listen to you with great pleasure! And we concentrate! Do you like to cook? After all, Georgian cuisine is a dream!

I don’t know how to cook and I have no desire to learn. I love Georgian food so much that if it weren’t for the willpower to maintain my diet, I’d have turned into a piglet violinist! (She laughs.)

What is your central project these days?

In 1982, I started the “Night Serenades” Festival, which took place in Pitsunda, but stopped because of the war. Now it takes place in the town of Batumi and is accompanied by an orchestra that I founded with the comical name of Facebook Virtuosi. I renamed it the World Chamber Ensemble Virtuosi for our concert in London since London snobs would never appreciate the original title! On June 16, 2015, this orchestra will perform a concert entitled “Love and peace” at Carnegie Hall and I will donate the proceeds to St. Nino Georgian Orthodox Church in New York City!

Your husband made a gift of your diary entries and notes in the form of a book titled Meditations. What kind of a book is it and will it be published in Russia?

The book’s epigraph reads: “Conscience is a declaration of man’s freedom in God.” Meditations are thoughts that I had while touring the world by myself and occasionally my hand would jot down things—on accidental pieces of paper, tickets, napkins—involuntarily, in Russian, so that I would never forget these truths. I never expected to publish them! But it turns out that my husband, a poet of genius, an essayist and philosopher, collected all these thoughts thinking of them as world-class literature, translated them into Georgian and English, and published them despite my protests that bordered on scandals! They will also appear in Russian, but only after I publish my memoirs as an addition to the Meditations, which I have already started writing.

Liana Isakadze

Liana Aleksandrovna, we’re looking forward to your book! One last question, what are your most important traits?

My most central and important trait is my sense of obligation and responsibility to God and to people. And if I am praised, I want to be sure that I have earned it!

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