Violinist Bruno Monteiro Explains Why Musicians Become Citizens of the World
When I spoke with Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro, he was sitting in his home in Porto, the country’s second largest city. Located in the northern part of Portugal along the Douro River, it’s a very old city that was once an outpost of the Roman Empire. It’s well known for its Port wine, but it’s also a center for classical music, good food, and nightlife.
Q: Did you grow up in Porto?
A: Yes, I was born here and grew up in the nearby beach area. It’s a wonderful place for a child. Since it’s warm here for a good part of the year, it’s a fine place to swim! Music has been with me from my earliest memories. My mother had studied piano and there was one in the house, so I started learning to play it when I was seven. After four years of piano lessons, I took up the violin. It was a major transformation for me because there was a chamber orchestra in the school I was attending. One day, while I was on the playground with the other kids, I heard that orchestra playing Vivaldi. I was enchanted by the sound of the orchestra. I was particularly interested in the playing of the violins! I left the playground and my playmates to listen to the orchestra’s rehearsal. The next day I went to a record shop and bought a recording of Isaac Stern playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. Then I began to beg my parents to get me a violin and allow me to take lessons. That’s how it all started! My family had recordings at home, but my mother was the only one who had completed a really serious study of music. In Portugal, children can attend music academies where they can begin to study instruments at the age of five or six. I always enjoyed practicing because I had wonderful teachers right from the beginning. One of them was Osvaldo Ferreira, who currently conducts in Brazil. He was an excellent violin teacher for beginners and I studied with him for about a year before beginning lessons with the former concertmaster of the Porto Radio Symphony, Carlos Fontes. I studied with him for about five years. When I was 13 I won the Portuguese National Violin Competition for Youth.
Q: How did you get to study in the United States?
A: Two years later I began to work with Gerardo Ribeiro, who is the chair of the string department at Northwestern University in Chicago. He was, and still is, Portugal’s premier violinist. He is also a wonderful teacher and he eventually became my mentor. It is through his efforts that I was able to come to the United States to study. First, I came to New York City and earned my bachelor’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. There, I studied with Patinka Kopec, the associate teacher to Pinchas Zukerman, with Isidore Cohen of the Beaux Arts Trio, and with members of the American String Quartet. When I first arrived in the States I found that there were many things I had to change in my technique and in my musical persona. At that time, practice was not easy for me, but I then discovered that it was not how long I practiced, but how well I did it that mattered. You cannot concentrate 100 percent for six hours. If you practice for three hours with total concentration of both mind and body you will get optimal results. You have to understand what you are doing and you have to know how to go about it. All of my teachers have been wonderful to me.
I finished my graduate work at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts, where I worked with Shmuel Ashkenasi of the Vermeer Quartet. Working with such an excellent and dedicated teacher was a great experience. I was very fortunate in that aspect of my training. I was also able to take classes from other teachers, such as Linda Cerone of the Cleveland Institute, Victor Danchenko of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and Daniel Stabrawa, the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. They have all been fine influences on me.
Q: Have you ever played in an orchestra?
A: Yes, I did as a student and I represented Portugal in the Jeunesses Musicales World Youth Orchestra. Back then we had only two ensembles for young players, the World Youth Orchestra and the European Youth Orchestra. Now there are many more. I traveled throughout both Europe and Asia with those orchestras. I also played at the magnificent Philharmonie in Berlin. With the World Youth Orchestra, we had sessions during the school vacations. I actually spent two months in Asia with that orchestra.
Q: What are your thoughts on competitions?
A: I’m not a big fan of them. Music is not athletics. It’s a very personal experience. I’ve known competition winners who have never made careers and I’ve known musicians who never won any competitions who have made impressive international careers. If a young musician does not approach the competition in the right way, he or she can be hurt. I entered a few when they were the only way I had to become noticed, but only when that was the case. I won a special prize in the Ibla Grand Prize International Competition in Italy. As a result, I was invited to play in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. Before that, in Portugal, I had won several national contests. Other than that, I have tried to make my career outside of competitions. I think there are better ways, such as by recording, appearing on YouTube, and playing for presenters and conductors. Another thing is that these days there are so many competitions that their value has been diluted. There were only a few 20 or 30 years ago.
Q: What composers’ music do you most enjoy playing?
A: I enjoy all the composers whose music I play, but I especially like to play Romantic and 20-century music. They touch me more deeply than the others and they best fit my temperament. I particularly love French music and my next compact disc will contain Ernest Chausson’s concerto for violin and piano. I will also play his
. I’ve recorded quite a bit of French music including the beautiful Franck Sonata in A Major, Fauré´s First Sonata, and Ravel’s rhapsodic
. I also love the music of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. They are my “fach,” so to speak. They fit my ability and my temperament.
Q: What are your thoughts on your new Schumann recording?
A: First of all, the three romances by Clara Schumann are gorgeous, unpretentious pieces. Although they do not have the deft compositional touch of her husband, they are beautiful, lyrical works that have a different ambience from his compositions. Robert Schumann was a pianist and his trios are very much the work of a composer who does not play either violin or cello. They are not totally intuitive. The music is difficult technically and it requires a great deal of passion. They were written late in his career, so he was already suffering from mental illness. There was a great deal of conflict in his mind and it comes out in his music. It demands a wide variation in dynamics from
to explosive bursts. There are a great many contrasts in this music, and that’s what I tried to achieve in my recorded interpretation. The Clara Schumann pieces are not often played and I thought that it would be interesting to include them instead of Robert Schumann’s Third Sonata. When I listened to her work I thought it would be a really good idea to pair the couple’s pieces. If she had been born later, she would probably have progressed much further as a composer.
Q: What kind of violin do you play?
A: I play a violin by Antonio Capela, the most famous maker in Portugal. There are three generations of Capelas who make violins, and the father is still making instruments even though he is in his 70s. Their violins are known and played all over the world by many renowned violinists. I’ve had mine since 1993 and I have become very accustomed to its sound. It has more or less grown up with me. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to buy a Stradivarius or Guarnerius, and with the current economic crisis it would be hard to find a sponsor who might want to buy one for me to play. While it is true that no one has matched the work of the old Italian masters, there are truly fine instruments being made these days. There is a renaissance in the craft and the prices of the new violins are nowhere near as outrageous as those of the old ones. Right now I’m happy with the sound of my Capela. I love looking at its beautiful form as well as playing it. For classical music to continue into the future, we have to continue to produce excellent instruments. Sixteenth-century fiddles cannot last forever.
Q: What kind of bow do you use?
A: I have four bows: a French one, a German one, a Portuguese one, and a Brazilian one. The one I use the most is the Brazilian bow that I bought in New York. It’s very reliable and neither too heavy nor too soft. It really meets my needs. When I was in New York, I asked a violinist friend what kind of bows he used and he let me borrow his Brazilian bow for a while. I liked it so much that I bought one like it from a New York violin shop. Of course, the repertoire you play has to really determine the bow you use. For Mozart or Bach I need a lighter one, but for the work of most composers, the Brazilian one is fine. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is probably the most physically and technically demanding repertoire for the violin. Musically, his works almost overwhelm you. I recorded the pieces I studied in New York some years ago, but now I leave that territory to the specialists who do historically informed performances. In Europe, playing Bach on a modern instrument could create controversy. I usually prefer to play music that is less well known because I want to bring something new to my audience. For that reason I recorded sonatas by Karol Szymanowski, Ottorino Respighi, and Ernest Bloch, as well as Portuguese composers Óscar da Silva and Armando José Fernandes. I also recorded the four pieces by Korngold. So many artists play Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, so I like to go a bit further out than that. I want to reach out to wonderful music that may be overlooked because it is not often performed and recorded. However, I also like to play some of the standards that fit my personality well.
Q: How do you describe your playing?
A: I think people find my playing full of passion and temperament. I try to convey the composer’s message. For me, music requires both heart and brain. Both must be working for the interpretation to be complete. I try to put my whole heart and all of my brainpower into my music. When you first approach a piece, you have to work through it completely before you can make decisions about what you will do technically and what you want to say when you play it. Then you arrive at an interpretation by means of an intuitive process.
Q: What influences have helped you with your interpretations?
A: Background is very important. That is why Portuguese musicians are different from French or German players. Portuguese people tend to be outwardly emotional, maybe too much so. Because I’ve had contact with a number of other cultures, my reactions are a little bit mixed. For example, I like to analyze pieces in the German manner. I want to arrive at a formal understanding of the work. Also, since I lived in the States for seven years, I am influenced by American thinking. I would say I have become a world citizen at this point. I’m very fortunate in that. So many people stay in their own countries and do not get any experience with other cultures. That becomes evident in their music, too. I’m a mix of cultures and of schools of music. Portugal is very different from much of the States. If you get stuck in your car, you can be sure that someone will ask if you need help. The Portuguese are generally more outgoing than many of the people in New York or California, who seem to prefer not to know their neighbors. Someday, but not in summer, I would like to visit Arizona and enjoy its interesting culture.
Q: How hard was it to start your solo career?
A: It is really difficult these days because there are so many artists who play so well. Fortunately, I’ve become very well known here in Portugal so I get plenty of engagements. Although this is a small country, it has many musical opportunities. I know the important people in the musical world here and they know me. As a result, when I play here, they usually reengage me for another performance. Now, I’m hoping to extend my career to other countries. I plan to spend more time in the States and I hope to get to know the concert presenters there. Of course, one way of doing that is to make recordings. That enables them to conveniently hear my work.
Q: Do you teach?
A: Yes, and I enjoy it a great deal. I guess it runs in my family. My parents taught and my sisters are teachers. Teaching and performing go hand in hand, anyway. You learn from your students, too.
Q: What else will you record?
A: My French CD will come out later with Chausson’s concerto and his
. After that I would like to record the Brahms and Korngold concertos.
Q: How do you see the future of classical music?
A: I think we see classical music differently from the way it was seen at an earlier time. We have access to so much more music than previous generations had. We have more orchestras and we have all sorts of methods of listening to recorded music. Now everyone can record and be seen as well as heard on the Internet. In the ’50s and ’60s only the top artists could record and have their work noticed. To make a career today, you have not only to perform, but also to record, teach, and write. When you do all that, however, you do make a good career.
Q: Do you have an amusing story for us?
A: I was practicing in my apartment in New York City and I was really lost in the music when the doorbell rang. The neighbor asked me “to turn down the volume on the violin”! That has happened to me in other places, too.
Concert in D.
Bruno Monteiro (vn); João Paulo Santos (pn); Lopes-Graça Qrt
CENTAUR 3120 (54:14)
Violin Sonatas: No. 1; No. 2.
Bruno Monteiro (vn); João Paulo Santos (pn)
CENTAUR 3086 (58:35)