Isserlis 'glad to be alive' when playing Beethoven 

click to enlarge Steven Isserlis - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Steven Isserlis

English cellist Steven Isserlis is among today’s most distinguished and widely respected classical musicians. San Francisco Performances presents him in two recitals with pianist Robert Levin, performing all five Beethoven cello sonatas on his Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius from 1726.

In addition to performing and transcribing the lesser known works of the repertoire, you’ve also written music books for children. How can we help to secure the future of this art form?
The first thing is we mustn’t play it boringly. It isn’t enough to play the great classics, we need to bring them to life. I love giving concerts for children because I love talking to them about music. We mustn’t be condescending or patronizing to them. Children have a wonderful way of listening and a child’s imagination is beautiful. There are ways of talking to children about music that make it exciting for them, and hopefully, this will stay with them. There is no reason a little child should be more conditioned by pop music than by classical music.

What have you discovered about Beethoven’s understanding of the cello?
I’ve actually played on Beethoven’s own cello, a really gorgeous instrument, very warm and mellow. Beethoven writes wonderfully for the instrument. There is a strength about him and it’s elemental. I’m glad to be alive when I play Beethoven. There’s an incredible quality of energy, power and strength in his music, no matter how tragic. I was involved in the new Bärenreiter edition of the Beethoven cello sonatas, and the more you follow what he writes, the more differently you sound from everybody else — which sounds like a paradox, but it’s true.

Music competitions today are concerned with digital and technical perfection. Has the young musician’s ability to sing on the instrument suffered because of the expectations of the jury? I’m not a fan of competitions. They have helped some very great musicians, but I think the danger today is that people are trying to play ever louder, ever faster. There is a lot of classical music, including Beethoven, where you need this childlike simplicity in your playing, but you can’t exaggerate relaxed emotions. People are trying to make a bigger impression to get the standing ovation, at all costs. It’s not what they should be thinking about.

In your opinion, Mr. Isserlis, what is the importance and purpose of art? I’m going to quote the French composer, Gabriel Fauré, “For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” I like that one.

If you go

Steven Isserlis, cello with Robert Levin, piano
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. May 20
Tickets: $30 to $60
Contact: (415) 392-2545,

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Elijah Ho

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