Guy Figer and Anna Khanina Chat About Their Concert Careers
Guy Figer grew up in Israel, where he studied violin even when he was doing his compulsory Army duty! Anna Khanina grew up in Russia, where for many years she studied piano at a special school for talented children. Each of them graduated from a major conservatory with honors. They began concert careers that eventually led to their meeting and forming a duo in the United States. They are truly children of the world who can write in three alphabets and, more importantly, communicate the beauty of classical music to audiences far and wide.
Q: When did you move to the United States?
GF: I came to the U.S. in August 2005, half a year after getting married to my wife, Efrat. Moving to a new country was much easier as a married couple, or so I believe because I have never done it differently. When I got to the U.S.A., I was considered quite old, at the age of 25. I decided to study for a master of music degree with the wonderful violinist and teacher Shmuel Ashkenasi. I had met Mr. Ashkenasi at a master class with the Carmel Quartet a couple of years before, and I knew I wanted to study with him. I entered Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts just because Mr. Ashkenasi was teaching there. He definitely was the teacher who influenced me the most, both as a violinist and as a musician. I did learn a lot from my two former teachers, Irina Svetlova and Hagai Shaham, but Ashkenasi influenced both my playing and my musical views.
At Roosevelt, I met Anna. She was assigned to be my accompanist at a master class on the Sibelius Concerto. I was tremendously impressed with the way she played the orchestra part. It was full of life and rich musicality. I knew immediately that I wanted to play chamber music with her. At the beginning of 2006, we formed our duo. We were lucky enough to finish school together and move to New York City at the same time, where we worked on our doctoral degrees. Anna entered the State University of New York at Stony Brook and I entered Rutgers University. I studied with Arnold Steinhardt, a great musician and a wonderful man, and with Ashkenasi again since he had joined the Rutgers faculty.
AK: I went to a competition in Spain where the renowned piano instructor Solomon Mikowsky, a professor from the Manhattan School of Music, was on the jury. He told me that he really enjoyed my performance and suggested that I should come to the United States to continue my studies. As a result of listening to him, I moved to the States in 2005.
Q: Guy, Why did you move back to Israel?
GF: In June 2011 our daughter Danielle was born and that made us want to move back to Israel so we could raise her close to the rest of the family. Because of my career it was a hard decision, but it had to be made. Anna and I decided to keep the duo. We already knew each other very well musically and we knew how to work together. A violin-piano duo, unlike a string quartet, does not need to rehearse together on a daily basis. We can work on projects at various times, so that is what we are doing at the moment.
Q: Do you teach?
GF: In Israel I teach violin and chamber music at two major institutes: the Ra’anana Music Center and the Polyphony Conservatory. Teaching, for me, is a mission and a way of life. Of course it is also a way of earning a living, but it is definitely my choice. I had an option to get an orchestra job, but playing chamber music and teaching is always the way I have imagined my life. I chose my teachers so that I would be prepared to do that. Both Mr. Ashkenasi and Mr. Steinhardt are string quartet players. I get a great deal of satisfaction from educating a new generation of musicians.
AK: I have always combined studying, performing, and teaching. I teach at three music schools in New York City and enjoy it immensely. My goal as a teacher is to transform my students into independent artists at the end of our journey. I want to build a strong musical background in each student so that each will be able to make cogent artistic decisions about interpretation. In order for them to become independent, they need to have sufficient knowledge about each of the many different aspects of music. It is my responsibility to provide my students with strong fundamentals including technique. Piano technique is not only about velocity, but also about the production of sound. It is essential for my students to learn how to use their arms and their wrists. They must know how to involve the whole body in order to produce a variety of sounds. Although technique is an essential part of playing, it needs to serve the bigger purpose of making music. In my teaching I always try to achieve my main goal, which is to impart my passion for music.
Q: Where do you usually perform and what composers’ music do you like best to perform?
AK: I usually play in the United States now, but competitions have taken me all over the world. I have often played in Germany, in Israel, and I have been to the Banff Music Festival in Canada. The duo has been to many of the same places.
GF: As a duo, we started to perform in different cities and states in North America. We played in Chicago, of course, and after that in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and so on. We toured Germany and have toured Israel a few times where we played at festivals, recorded for radio, and enjoyed some interesting collaborations. One of the most interesting projects had us playing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata while a dance group performed live to original choreography. When we formed the duo we decided to focus on rarely played pieces. Later, that was also the theme for our debut album,
. I think Anna loves to play the classics, too, but I prefer less standard repertoire. For instance, the Five Pieces by Malcolm Arnold, which we play on this recording, is a work I really loved from the first time I heard it on a rare compact disc featuring Ruggiero Ricci. As a duo, we try to combine the less-known repertoire with the bread-and-butter pieces such as the works of Brahms and Beethoven. One of our goals is to perform the full cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, and we are almost there! At the moment we have many ideas for our next recording, but logistically it is not so easy since I live in Israel and Anna lives in New York. We are sure it will happen, but we just don’t know when and where.
AK: As a duo, we love to play Beethoven together. Personally, I love to play classical composers; Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven are my favorites, as well as Schumann and Schubert. I also love to listen to Rachmaninoff.
Q: What can you tell us about the composers whose music you play on your recording,
, we wanted to be true to our goal of exploring the rarely performed works for violin and piano, so we collected four little-known pieces that were written in Europe around the middle of the 20th century. In choosing our repertoire, we always try to search for interesting, original music that communicates a message to the audience. Although there is almost a 20-year gap between Poulenc and Bacewicz, and two years between Rodrigo and Arnold, there is a very clear line that connects all of these pieces. They are romantic in character, tonal in language, melody-driven, rhythmically strong, and they all show the influence of folklore.
GF: Francis Poulenc was the youngest of the French composers who belonged to the group called Les Six. They were against Wagnerism and Impressionism. They wanted to achieve a new simplicity with a strong jazz influence. Poulenc destroyed two violin sonatas before he completed this one in 1943. He wrote it for the young violinist Ginette Neveu, who lost her life in a 1949 plane crash. He revised the piece during the year of her death. The sonata is dedicated to the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot by Fascist Falangists shortly after the outbreak of civil war in his country. At the top of the score is a quotation from Garcia Lorca: “The guitar makes dreams wee ” The piece opens with a fast Allegro con fuoco that is followed by an Intermezzo, a most beautiful and lyrical slow movement. The last movement carries an uncommon indication: Presto tragico. It starts with a very fast beat, brings us to a lyrical theme, and inevitably drives us to a tragic ending where we completely lose the sense of tonality and have a feeling that life was suddenly interrupted. Only at the very end does Poulenc bring us back to the original key.
AK: Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz was a violinist and pianist. She was one of the few composers who premiered her own compositions for both of these instruments. Her Fourth Sonata was dedicated to her brother, Kiejstut, who was a pianist. They premiered the piece and recorded it in the early 1950s.
GF: It is said that the piece is neoclassical and maybe it has a historical background. In 1949, Poland was under the Soviet influence and many composers were accused of writing incomprehensible music. The Soviets wanted art to be easily understandable by everyone. For that reason this sonata has a very classical structure. The sonata has four movements, the first of which opens with a slow, mysterious introduction. It is followed by an Allegro that shows the influence of Hungarian folk rhythms and begins with recitative-like rolled chords from the piano. The middle part is reminiscent of the funeral march from Chopin’s second piano sonata. The third movement is a lively, carefree scherzo, almost like something Shostakovich would write, and the finale is built on three contrasting themes: a slow introduction, a melodious neoromantic theme, and a rhythmical
. The latter brings us to the end in which the tonality of the whole piece reveals itself as C Major.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
AK: When I am not practicing and teaching, I like to travel, go to museums, read, and watch movies. Recently, I discovered that I have a passion for tango and right now I dance almost every day. I read a lot of Russian fiction, some of which is not very well known. Recently I enjoyed reading
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer and a Russian book by Lyudmila Ulitskaya. I do like to cook at home, but I cook very simple things, none of which are really special. Guy knows good restaurants in New York.
GF: I like to cook, but life in Israel is very hectic. It was in New York, too. I don’t often find the time to cook because I am constantly working. When I do find some time, I want to spend it with my wife and daughter, but I love good restaurants. I know many of them in New York. As sushi lovers, my wife and I like Matsu on the Upper East Side. It’s affordable and has great food. Now, I am slowly getting to know the best ones here in Israel. Not having been here for six years, I find that things have changed. Old restaurants have disappeared and new ones have taken their places.
Q: Do you have an amusing story for us?
AK: When I saw this question, I could not think of anything funny. Then I thought that couldn’t be true! I have a sense of humor, I like to laugh, and my friends know that I can be very funny. Almost all of my stories have something to do with travel. This one has to do with traveling in China! Not many people I know have had the opportunity of going there, but thanks to my profession and my studies, I had the chance to explore Shanghai and some of its nearby cities. I went there for a piano competition and at the end of it I had some free time to go sight-seeing. Luckily, a good friend of mine also came to Shanghai because of his job, so I had company. We went to a beautiful city with a great many canals and boats that reminded me of Venice. We had the chance to see the tea ceremony and we visited many wonderful temples.
One afternoon, when it was already four o’clock, I wanted to visit one more town. We took a bus, thinking that the ride to the next town would only take a few minutes. Unfortunately, it took us nearly two hours. As soon as we arrived at the bus station, I asked when we could get a bus back to Shanghai. The problem in China was that almost no one really spoke English. So with some help from hand signals, we tried to ask the woman at the station when the next bus would leave. She made a sign that clearly indicated that there wouldn’t be any more busses leaving that day. My friend was shocked. It was late. There were no lights, no hotels, and no one could understand us. With no bus connection, we would probably not get back to Shanghai that night.
This situation was so bad that I started laughing. I thought it was very humorous to be in the middle of nowhere in China and have to deal with something totally new. After I laughed, my friend was relieved and we started thinking about a solution. We decided to explore the city first and then to try to find a taxi. We could not find one. Finally, we stopped a woman driving a small rickety bus, and somehow we explained to her where we needed to go. Since we could not communicate well, we did not know if she really understood what we said. However, we did not have any other chance to get back to Shanghai that night. We were very lucky, though, and she brought us to the city. We were so happy! We wanted to give her money, but she merely shouted at us. What was she trying to say? We will never know, but this true and amazing experience with a very gracious lady will always be a part of my memory of China.
NEW FOCUS FCR123 (58:96)
Violin Sonata No. 4.
The Figer-Khanina Duo, made up of violinist Guy Figer and pianist Anna Khanina, presents innovative programs, often containing rarely performed works by both famous and lesser-known composers. They dig up interesting pieces, so they call their latest compact disc
It contains works by Francis Poulenc, Grazyna Bacewicz, Malcolm Arnold, and Joaquín Rodrigo.
Poulenc’s Violin Sonata is a strong, rhythmically expressive work that lives up to its dedication to the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Figer and Khanina play the driving rhythms of the first movement with energetic glee and follow it with a poignant meditation as they begin the second movement. It does not last long, but the duo’s rendition of Poulenc’s slow theme with its use of the violin’s low tones is simply exquisite. It’s just a tiny appetizer, however, and we are soon back to an exquisitely played
. There is a comparable disc by Midori. She plays the Poulenc with a great deal of fire, but her accompanist, Robert McDonald, does not seem to be her complete equal on their Sony recording.
The second piece is Grazyna Bacewicz’s Fourth Sonata. She was a Polish violinist and composer who lived during the troubled times between 1909 and 1969. A brave soul, during World War II she continued to compose and give underground concerts in Warsaw. She wrote this sonata in 1949. During the Stalinist period from 1945 to 1955, like all other local composers, she was subject to ideological control by the Polish government. Initially, she continued to travel and perform abroad, but eventually she stopped performing and became a full-time composer. She and her pianist brother, Kiejstut, recorded the sonata in the 1950s but the recording is no longer easily found. Hanssler Classic released a two-disc set containing the sonata in 2006 with violinist Ewa Kupiec and pianist Piotr Plawner. I prefer Figer and Khanina’s rendition, which opens with a lovely dance melody followed by dark arpeggios from the piano and an exquisite melodic line from the violin. The Figer-Khanina Duo seems to have a genuine affinity for the works of this composer, and they play her finale with a dazzling display of virtuosity.
In 1964, Malcolm Arnold wrote his Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 84, for Yehudi Menuhin, who wanted to use them as encores. The violinist had a great interest in the music of India, so that is why the second movement, called Aubade, is based on a raga. Actually these fascinating pieces do form a suite and have earned their place on the concert stage as more than encores. The third movement is a sad, lilting waltz, the fourth a ballad without words, and the last a jazz-influenced rendition of a furious perpetual motion that Figer and Khanina bring off with cool brilliance.
The CD’s finale is Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1966
, or “smart” sonata. Rodrigo’s goal was to give new life to the musical forms of the past while remaining faithful to the traditions of his country. Actually, I also hear some French sonorities in this music, but Figer-Khanina’s exquisite rendition of the moody middle movement and its virtuosic finale are incontrovertibly Spanish. There is a rendition of this piece on Columna Musica’s 2003 recording by violinist Alla Voronkova and pianist Malcolm McClure, but currently the disc is not easily available.
The sound on
is close and clear and the disc is packaged in cardboard, which I find is much stronger and longer-lasting than the usual plastic. Although there is no separate booklet, adequate information is printed on the package. Any listener who wants more material on these compositions can easily find it on the Internet.