Victoria Mullova

“I am learning to love myself”

The rehearsal at the Tchaikovsky Hall is over. There are still six hours left before the concert. We have much luck with the weather and can dismiss the taxi. The hotel is only one metro stop away, so we can walk and talk on the way…

- May I carry your massive case? I feel embarrassed walking next to you light-handed.

- Yes, thank you.

- Which instrument is that? (it can’t be THAT VERY ONE… you cannot be walking in the street with a Stradivari without security guards …)

- It is a Stradivari. Our program is called “Stradivari in Rio”! Just don’t walk close to the kerb, someone can snatch the case from you…

Perhaps only a very self-confident person, strong, calm, with a streak of adventurism since we were taking the Metro, could afford the luxury of entrusting a real treasure to a stranger. But this is just like Victoria Mullova. The winner of the most prestigious competitions -- Sibelius Violin Competition, The International Tchaikovsky Competition -- Victoria has made a brilliant international carrier after an audacious defection from the Soviet Union. People have always expected faultless performance from her. On the stage she reminds a Greek goddess, perfect in every detail. Today Victoria can afford another luxury – to be her real self. In the fall, under the auspices of Grand Festival of the Russian National Orchestra, Victoria presented a new disc and a new program in Moscow (from “Stradivari in Rio”) performed with her Mullova Ensemble, with the assistance of her husband, cellist Matthew Barley. 

Why is this program related to Brazil?

– Brazil is one of my favorite countries. I have played many times with Brazilian singers and guitarists. We played these tunes just for ourselves. That’s how we got an idea of recording a disc, and for this purpose I went to Rio with my Stradivari. This is a wonderful city, the songs, bossa nova, are very dear to me. I am simply mad about them.

– It is not your first disc not dedicated to purely classical music, you also recorded “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Peasant Girl”.

– I have always listened to different musical genres and I love music from different countries. The main idea of “The Peasant Girl” is the common theme uniting all the compositions, showing the influence of the gypsy and the eastern music on classical music and jazz.

– Do you travel a lot?

– Oh, quite a lot, and I always discover new music for myself. I am fond of Indian, Japanese, and African music…

– When you say you travel, you mean your tours?

– I have already learned to find time to rest and plan my vacations two years in advance. This summer my husband and I had almost a three month vacation when we did not play at all.

– What a luxury!

– Yes, indeed. And in the winter after the December concert in Moscow, I will not play for three months. I just want to relax. I even do not keep my violin at home during that time. I give it to master craftsmen to keep it.

– Where did you spend your summer?

– My last trip was to the Carpathians in Romania, we walked in the mountains, and I nearly broke a finger of my left hand. I made a wrong step and had a fall…

– So it was quite a serious journey...

– Yes, we had an instructor and even climbed some mountain peaks. Before this trip, we travelled to Siberia; the entire family travelled to the Baikal Lake. I took my children with me.


– Your father comes from Irkutsk, doesn’t he?

– My father grew there. When the war began, he, as a child, was evacuated to Irkutsk with his family and stayed there. He died five years ago, so I brought my husband and my children to Irkutsk to get to know my relatives on my father’s side, who live there.

– How did you like Siberia?

– I liked the Baikal Lake a lot; the nature is breathtaking. It is very different from Moscow. I have no more friends in Moscow; in fact I never had any friends there. I trusted nobody, mixed with few people and never shared my plans, including my plan to defect from the country.

– It must have been hard psychologically…

– Indeed. Even my family knew nothing. It was quite a shock for my father. But in the long run my parents were glad that I made it. Although it was harsh for them, they were interrogated at the KGB and my mother lost her job… My father worked at the Central Institute of Aerohydrodynamics; he was not fired, but he was dismissed from important aviation projects, and had to design some kind of benches.

– Your talent for music – did you inherit it from your father or your mother?

– Probably, from both of them. My father helped me with my studies. Being an engineer and a designer, he looked at the hands of violinists, at their motion. He watched Oistrakh on TV, studied the right way to produce the sound - the elbow should not be very high, the bow changes, and so on… So my father helped me a lot. We sang a lot in my family; when I was quite young, my parents understood that I had an ear for music and it looked like I had musical talents. They enrolled me into a violin class because there was no space for a piano in our room. We had one room for six people in Zhukovsky district.


– So your brilliant, ideal violinist’s hands are your father’s achievement?

– My father visited all the classes of my first teacher, Boris Levin, in the Zhukovsky musical school for children. He followed all his recommendations and helped me practice until I entered the Central Musical School. 

– Was he strict?

– Very strict. He would take no excuses like I do not have to practice today, I am not willing, or I am tired… It went without saying that I had to practice every day for almost three hours, even when I was quite small.

– When did you realize that this is your profession which would determine your future?

– Immediately. I could not imagine my life without a violin. I was taught to practice like children are taught to clean their teeth or do arithmetic.

– In other words, your perfectionism that has been admired by everybody, your ideal performance, the iron will, and an absolute guarantee of a brilliant concert – was it all taught in your childhood?

– We tried to make a performance a hundred percent perfect and ideal. However, during the past years I have learned that you can never have a hundred percent of anything. You can try, but sometimes it is harmful for you. You need some freedom on the stage. 


– In many ways you are different now. You are not the Vika Mullova remembered by everyone at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

– No, indeed. Performing at the competition was quite a different thing. you could not make a mistake or play a false note. It was so stressful!

– Do you still remember it?

– It was a nightmare. You feel hot. There is television, live broadcast, and the judges. It was horrible. I did not show how frightening it was and the audience thought that I was so austere on the stage. In fact, everything was turning upside down inside me, I was so scared!

- I saw the recording of your performance at the competition…

- Standing there and playing in such a cast-iron way. Oh, my God!

– But you can’t find fault with a single note!

– It just seems so. I found fault with every note. A lot of notes were played not the way they should have been played…

– This fear should have been given vent to…

– The stress was inside me for a long time. Nobody but me knows what I felt then. But a technically ideal performance is bad for the music because minor errors make the music living. When I recorded Bach, for instance, I even left those imperfections during editing. It should not be ideal as if it had been performed by a machine.

– But your recording at the competition is impressive, anyway!

– I remember the conductor Vakhtang Jordania say to me: “You must go on the stage and you must not smile.” I wanted to smile, but I remembered that I was told not to smile on the stage at the competition. Such nonsense… Why did they tell me that?

– Your defection became a watershed in your career. But you were looked upon like an “iron lady” on the stage.

– In the West, they often take motion for emotions. If you move little, you display few emotions. I moved little on the stage. But they said the same things about Jascha Heifetz and Leonid Kogan… I have nothing against demonstrating emotions when they really come from your heart.

– Tell me about Leonid Kogan.

– I knew very little of him. He gave very few classes. He toured most of the time. Everybody was afraid of him because he looked so severe and never smiled.

– Did you communicate at all?

– No, I came to his classes, scared. If I started playing Tchaikovsky concerto he took his violin and played in unison. That’s what the class was like. I mainly learned from his recordings. I loved Kogan in those years; all I learned from him in music can be found in his old recordings. 


– Let’s talk about your family, your children – there are three of them and they are grown up. I saw your son’s family name – Mullov-Abbado – on the program. What is he doing?

– Misha has just released his first disc “New Ansonia.” He has his own group, plays the double-bass, and tours a lot. He is an interesting composer and composes for his band.

– What about the girls?

– The younger one, Nadia is a ballet dancer. She studies at the London Royal Ballet School. She is 17 and has two more years to finish; I do not know where she will dance after she graduates, in which country… Nadia was the one who especially needed our support. She has had injuries and operations. In some way the ballet is even harsher than music.

– What about Katya?

- Katya is at Oxford, studying literature. But she is also a musician – she composes, plays and sings to the guitar. It’s her hobby.

– Three children are quite a lot. How did it organize and change you?

– Children are such happiness! Of course, it means a lot of work, but the feeling of happiness prevails. The children helped me develop as a human being and a musician.

– How did you manage when they were small?

– At first, it was quite easy because they travelled with me. Later when they went to school, it became much more difficult because they could not miss classes and I had to go on my tours. My husband and I tried to make my touring program in such a way that he would be at home when I left. We were lucky to have good nannies and people who helped us at home (most of them are Russian). 


– You look quite fit. Do you do any sport?

– I do exercises to keep fit.

– Yoga?

– No, not yoga, you need an instructor for yoga, otherwise you can harm yourself. I have my own exercises that I do every morning at home for 30-40 minutes. It is very important, for violinist need training for their hearts.

– Talking about “you” today. How can you describe yourself? What are your strong points?

– It is not for me to judge myself. One of my strong points is that I am always open to change and learning. That’s why I love to listen, to learn, and play different music instead of living with one and the same repertoire all my life – Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms, and Paganini.

– Which traits of your character do you dislike?

– Oh, there are quite a lot of them! Too many! But now I am learning to love not criticize myself.

– Who is the boss in your family? Is it you?

– That’s a good question… You have to take a lot of effort not to have “a boss.” It is very important for any family!

By Alexey Korolev
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