A life in music

Carolin Widmann plays at the Dunedin Town Hall on Wednesday. Photo: Supplied
Carolin Widmann plays at the Dunedin Town Hall on Wednesday. Photo: Supplied
Sibling rivalry may have led Carolin Widmann to pick up the violin, but a dedicated teacher’s influence inspired her career. She tells Rebecca Fox of her excitement at coming to New Zealand.

One look at the shiny feathers of the violin-playing owls in a performance of The Carnival of Animals and 6-year-old Carolin Widmann fell in love.

''I loved the costumes of the owls so much. I'll never forget that, how beautiful they looked,'' Widmann, now an award-winning violinist who has played many of the top concert halls, says.

''If I'm very honest it was the look of the owls. It was the instrument I wanted to play to have shiny feathers like that.''

She first picked up the violin because her older brother Jorg Widmann - now a composer and clarinettist - had played most other instruments.

''It was the only thing left that my brother couldn't really play, so I decided I want to try that one. I didn't want to be in competition with him.''

Her parents loved music but were not musicians.

''We were surrounded by music but in quite a playful way. My parents loved to play different instruments. We were supported in doing music but not in a serious or professional way.''

When she was 9 she was ''incredibly lucky'' to get a new violin teacher, Igor Ozim, who was very serious about his instruction.

''Still to this day I remember what he said how he practised with me. I practised so much from age 9 or 10 onwards just to be good at the lessons. When you try to be good at all lessons it adds up at the end of your life.''

That grounding led to her decision to make the violin her career.

''I feel everything has grown and expanded over the course of time and I'm incredibly grateful for that. My life and career haven't been an overnight success at 16 or 17 years old and not knowing how to continue. It was a steady process.''

At 18 she left her home in Germany to travel to the United States to further her studies with Michele Auclair in Boston, where she completed a double degree in philosophy and music.

''That was fun and lot of work.''

She returned to Europe, London this time, where she studied with David Takeno at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and began her professional soloist career.

After 11 years in the United Kingdom, she was made professor of violin at Leipzig's University of Music and Theatre in Germany.

''I tried to commute to start with, but found it too tedious with the amount of travel I already do, so we moved to Leipzig with the entire family.''

Widmann is known for her ability to switch between genres.

''I love contemporary music. It was completely normal for me to play the music of my brother and living composers. That helped me to create a signature. All of a sudden I was the one who would play this music and do a good job of it.''

Last year she premiered her brother's second violin concerto with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted. She has also performed it in Paris, Frankfurt and recently Stockholm.

''It's a piece very close to me. It's dedicated to me. Means very much to me.''

Music is the backbone of her life - the works of Bach, Mozart, Schumann and Beethoven are constants.

''They're so close to me, also my upbringing, my history. My grandfather was a pastor, so all the biblical texts were close to me.

''I love music so much; there is not just one favourite. Like if you love food it is not just chocolate you love.

She finds collaborating with dancers or actors or different art forms incredibly rewarding.

''I love these experiences but this past season coming to an end now held so many highlights for me. One of the very big ones, a childhood dream of mine, was my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

''It was the typical thing I was dreaming about my entire childhood, something I didn't think I could ever achieve. When I stood there on stage it felt incredibly natural and wonderful. There is nothing else in life than standing on that stage.''

She played Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Concerto For Violin And Orchestra.

''I have played it many times before. Nobody knows it. It is like a secret tip. And they specifically asked me for that piece, so it was all falling into place.''

Widmann said her career required a lot of travel, something she is comfortable with.

''I don't mind if I'm in a hotel room by myself for a week. I take a few books with me and some good music.''

It also means she needs to look after herself.

''I realise what a highly athletic job we have. Everything needs to be fine-tuned mentally, physically to bring out the quality I expect of myself in the evening.''

But she looks forward to her summer break of six to eight weeks, which she spends at home with her children and husband, and works on her repertoire for the next season.

''I do my solid work in the summer while I'm at home; that fills my energy levels and my batteries are recharged for the next season.''

Spending time with her children during this break is important to her, given she spends a lot of time talking to them on Skype or Facetime while she is travelling.

They spend the time at home where they have a pool in the garden - something that is unusual in Germany.

''We have an incredibly lucky living situation here and thanks to global warming the summers in Germany are wonderful now.''

They might go away to a Greek island for a week at most, she said.

''For me it is exotic to be at home.''

During this time she loves to cook, watch good movies, go running, meet friends or visit a new gallery.

''So much there is not enough time.''

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