Frances Wilson in conversation with Maxim Vengerov

I’ve admired world-renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov ever since I first heard him at the Proms in 1999, when he played a fabulous, varied programme which included Brahms’ Violin Sonata No 3, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Ravel’s Tzigane, and a selection of glittering concert showpieces, including a spellbinding performance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. It was just him and pianist Vag Papian, on a special stage set up in the arena (promenading) area of the Royal Albert Hall, playing to a packed house.

In September this year he returns to the Albert Hall, for a special concert celebrating 40 years on stage – or rather 42 years on stage as this concert, originally scheduled for June 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic. In addition to a celebration of his remarkable performing career, it is, for him, also a celebration of his connection with British audiences. “I’ve been here from right at the start of my career. This is like my second home.” As well as giving many concerts in the UK, since 2016 Maxim Vengerov has been a visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Music.

London was also where he studied with Mstislav ‘Slava’ Rostropovich, an adored mentor and friend, whose name comes up frequently during our conversation.

I have great memories with Slava, of visiting his home in Maida Vale. Without him I would be a different musician today. He opened my vision for music and he inspired me also to continue and to share music. Not just to be a performer, but to share it. That’s why I became a teacher at the age of 26. I always wanted to make space for teaching, in spite of my busy schedule.”

The two years of the pandemic and lockdowns, and the shutdown of live music, have had a profound impact on the lives of musicians, and for Vengerov, like many others, it was a time to reflect on the demands of the profession. With an empty concert diary, confined to his home with his family and parents-in-law, the first month of lockdown was an “amazing time with family. I’ve never stayed so long with my family…. But after a month, my elder daughter Lisa says, ‘Daddy, aren’t you going away?’. It was the biggest shock of my life! I realised that for my family, I was the father who was always travelling and sometimes coming back. Today it is different; despite my heavy schedule….in my family’s mind and my own, I am the father who is at home and sometimes on tour.

During lockdown, Vengerov was keen to do something for other people. “It was horrific that we weren’t able to make music, and people weren’t able to listen.” So, as Artist in Residence at ClassicFM, he gathered together a trio and organised a livestreamed concert, an hour of live music, broadcast to some quarter of a million listeners worldwide. This inspired him to continue, to communicate to the world and to share his experience, this time via the medium of interactive online lessons. With the help of a brilliant tech team, he built a platform, created a website and held in excess of 150 free live online lessons with optimal sound and high-quality visuals. These remain in the archive of his website, available to all, while new material is regularly added.

Of this particular lockdown project he says “It was so traumatic to see so many people leaving the profession, but so understandable, because nobody cancelled paying mortgages or bills! But we needed to continue what we feel passionately about and we needed to give some hope. And I did that in my own little modest way.

Now live music is back and audiences are thrilled to have concerts again “Every venue was full – Elbphilharmonie, Salzburg festival, Carnegie Hall, all amazing experiences! People were crying.”

With such a long performing career, how does he maintain the interest, the excitement and the inspiration? “I am never bored!” Vengerov replies immediately, and then goes on to illustrate this point further:

“How many things are involved in the process of making a concert? It requires great preparation, great delivery on stage, great spirit, great instrument [he plays a 1727 ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivari], great hall, acoustically – a wonderful acoustic together with my instrument is always a different experience because my instrument reacts differently to every concert hall and I always play differently in every hall. Then of course partners that I work with, chamber music…. And audiences…they don’t necessarily have to be educated, but they have to be open, and they have to be there for the right reasons, to discover music. And if you’re not in love with the composition you’re performing you should better not do it! There is not a moment when you can be bored….it’s pure enjoyment and pure challenge.”

Away from the concert stage, he draws inspiration from his family and friends, good food and socialising, playing tennis, and walks with his Shiba Inu dog, Toto. And of course the music.

Returning to his forthcoming London concert, we talk about the Shostakovich Violin Concerto, the centrepiece of this concert, and a work which he has played many, many times. The challenge here is keeping the music, and the performance, fresh, and once again the conversation turns back to Slava, and his advice to always play the work as if performing it for the very first time – or “perhaps the last time”. Deep knowledge of the music is important too, and this is where training to become a conductor has helped Vengerov gain crucial insights into the score which inform his performances and lend greater enjoyment and fulfilment. “Once you know the full score, it adds a new dimension to your performance. It’s no longer a violin piece with orchestral accompaniment… you can refer to one or another line in the orchestra and that’s where you draw your inspiration….The impact that the orchestra has on the soloist is vast. And if you’re not part of it, then it’s a different piece.”

The other major work in this concert is Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, for which Vengerov will be joined by cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Simon Trpčeski. Too often regarded as a “party piece”, Vengerov asserts that the Triple Concerto is “a most profound work” that requires a very particular relationship between each member of the orchestra and the soloists. The orchestra in this instance is the Oxford Philharmonic, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, with whom Vengerov has a long-standing association, having shared “so many wonderful things” during his residencies with them. “They are like family members.” Orchestra and soloists will also be joined by students from the RCM for a special arrangement of Sarasate’s Navarra, to celebrate the joy of music-making and music education.

How does it feel to play in such a large venue as the Royal Albert Hall, I ask him, and he replies that it’s important to make the venue “feel cosy”, regardless of its size. He tells me that he encourages students to “play to the last row” when performing at a hall like RAH, to encourage them to think less about volume of sound and more about projection and vibration.

It’s evident from our conversation that for Maxim Vengerov the ongoing pleasure comes from performing and sharing his music to impact people emotionally.

At the age of 5 I didn’t understand why, but when I played in front of an audience, I understood. It gave it [the music] purpose. I’m the lucky one that can bring it alive – and this is the greatest joy.”


Maxim Vengerov celebrates 40 years on stage in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 19th September, with Mischa Maisky, Simon Trpčeski, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and Marios Papadopoulos, and students from the Royal College of Music.

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Image credit: Diego Mariotta Mendez/IDAGIO

I know I was not alone in hoping beyond hope that the Proms might escape the dreadful cull of music and culture the virus has wrought. The delay by the Proms management in making an annoucement about this year’s programme surely indicated that they too were keeping everything crossed. When the inevitable cancellation came, there was a sense of resignation amongst my classical music community; sadly, we have just had too many of these announcements since March. (Perhaps the only plus in the midst of all this is that without an announcement of this year’s programme, we have been spared the hand-wringing and eye-pulling and general chorus of disapproval about the roster of concerts, performers and music.)

The Proms are an integral part of the British summer – along with tennis at Wimbledon (also cancelled), strawberries and cream, warm beer and wasps at a picnic. The sad thing is that now, on the day of the First Night of the Proms, we have got used to not having live music. Sure, there have been some great initiatives to bring live performances to audiences via livestreams and radio broadcasts, but these can never replicate the experience of “being there” – and the “being there” of the Proms is pretty special.

Yes, the venue is not great – the Royal Albert Hall is too cavernous, its acoustic too uncertain. It’s often too hot, and its circular design means one can spend far too much time traipsing to the loos (of which there are far too few) or one of the bars (which are often far too crowded). But what is so wonderful about the Proms is that much of the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today – to encourage people who would not normally attend classical music concerts to come, enticing them with the low ticket prices and a more informal atmosphere.

It’s the First Night of the Proms tonight, but it’s not the First Night as we usually know it: in this the Proms’ 125th anniversary year we have “the alternative Proms”. The virus has forced the Proms online, and instead of concerts by leading orchestras and artists from around the world, playing to a full house, BBC Radio Three will present “musical greats – from the past and present”, “treasures from the archive”, and some live performances – albeit to an empty hall. For many of us, this will be a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the great performances of past years (and we each have our own “back catalogue” of memorable Proms concerts – mine include hearing Lang Lang before he was famous, a recital by Evgeny Kissin (1997), the first solo piano concert at the Proms, Mahan Esfahani’s Goldberg Variations (2011- the first solo harpsichord concert at the Proms) and hearing Messiaen’s Turangalila live for the first time). In many ways, these “highlights” broadcasts will confirm the enduring spirit of the Proms, and the exceptionally high quality of music-making. There will be some tv broadcasts too, and at the end of August, there will be a live concert at the Royal Albert Hall, culminating in a Last Night of the Proms (what this will be like is anyone’s guess!). In short, we are in for a treat – to be enjoyed from the comfort of our homes. One thing I learnt from listening to the Wigmore Hall livestream lunchtime concerts last month is that while one may be listening in isolation, there remains an important sense of connection through the music, and I hope the Proms will create a similar shared experience.

Proms 2020 season guide

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On the pages of Musbook.com, a sort of “Facebook for musicians/musical people” to which I subscribe, there has been some interesting and rather heated recent discussion about the rightness, or otherwise, of the Royal Albert Hall continuing as a venue for the Proms. Two journalists, Matthew Tucker and Jessica Duchen, have argued eloquently and thoughtfully for a change of venue (see http://www.classicalmusic.org.uk/2010/07/new-direction-for-bbc-proms-change-venue-south-bank-centre.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/classical-music-venues-not-for-the-fainthearted-2036136.html for their articles), and I have to say I agree with them. I have avoided the Proms in recent years because I find the RAH so uncomfortable: it is airless and hot, with insufficient loos and not enough places to have a drink/snack beforehand, or during the interval. I find those corridors that run around the auditorium rather like a dog track, full of shuffling, befuddled people trying to find their seats, and the numbered and lettered entrances are incredibly confusing. The auditorium itself, more like a giant ‘corrida’ than a music venue, is stuffy and on several occasions, I have nodded off during a performance, only to be woken by the applause at the end of a piece. Rather galling to have missed much of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart when I spent £25 on a ticket!

The real problem though is the acoustic. Despite various attempts to improve it, such as the “mushrooms” suspended from the ceiling, the RAH still ‘boasts’ an appalling acoustic. In a recent interview in International Piano magazine, pianist Paul Lewis talked about performing the Beethoven piano concertos at the RAH at this year’s Prom season: “you need a big piano and you just have to play it loud”. At first I read this remark as simply facetious, but on reflection, I think it is an example of just how up against it performers are with the RAH acoustic. It’s a great venue for music on a vast scale, such as Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (which I have performed at the RAH with massed school choirs), or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand which opened the Proms this year, but it lacks the appropriate intimacy for smaller scale chamber works or solo recitals.

I am not sure why we sentimentally cling to the RAH as the natural home of the Proms. The concert series originated at the Queen’s Hall (which was bombed in 1941 and subsequently demolished), under the direction of not Henry Wood, but a Mr Robert Newman. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the new BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”.

After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

So, the Proms have existed at the RAH for less than 70 years, so pressing the case for “historical precedent” seems a little weak to me. I’m all for a complete rethink of the Proms, and have joined in the lively discussions on Musbook.com, arguing for consideration of the South Bank and its excellent venues as a new home for the Proms. Not only does the Royal Festival Hall boast a fine acoustic, but it is also centrally located, being close to Waterloo, is a lively arts and cultural centre, and has many good restaurants and winebars close by, whereas the RAH is out on a limb in South Ken, devoid of eateries and other amenities for pre-concert drinks or suppers.

Supporters of the RAH claim that the “spirit” of the Proms would be lost in a change of venue, but I do not see why this should be the case. The flag-waving can continue, as well as yelling “heave-ho!” as the lid of the piano is raised. Indeed, why not spread the Prom concerts around the fine concert venues of London, places which tend to close down during August, such as the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls (which is currently used for some Proms), or St John’s Smith Square and St James’s? Rather like the London Open House and Art Open Studios events which take place periodically, I would love to see as many music/arts venues as possible across the capital throw open their doors to concert-goers. London is blessed with so many great venues, but which are only known to a select few. One could enjoy a sort of “musical safari”, going from Handel at Cadogan Hall (Chelsea) to Haydn at the Wigmore (West End), Vivaldi at a City church, then up to Highgate for Schubert at The Red Hedgehog, heading south to the Purcell Room for a drop of Bach, east to Shostakovich at Sutton House (a charming National Trust property in Hackney with a very nice, intimate concert space), finishing off with Korngold at King’s Place…..

Another argument for the continuation of the Proms at RAH is its inclusiveness. Anyone can attend a Prom, everyone is welcome, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at any concert venue – and I believe that it’s often the personality or manner of the soloist/orchestra/musical director which sets the tone for the evening rather than what the audience are wearing. Mitsuko Uchida can, for example, make the large space of the Royal Festival Hall feel as intimate as Schubert’s salon. Maria Joao Pires at the Wigmore made us feel we were enjoying music at home with her and her friends, while Stephen Hough turned the hall into a vast, cold and unfriendly place, and Paul Lewis always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the concert platform. When I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Beethoven piano sonatas a couple of years ago, when he presented the entire cycle at RFH, the sense of awed reverence had begun even before we entered the hall, and it felt as if a vast barrier had been put up between him on the stage and us, the audience.

Of course, this whole argument for a change of venue for the Proms is hypothetical, as the process of moving such a great leviathan as the Proms would be far too complex and expensive, and I suspect the vast majority of people – audience, performers, concert promoters – are quite content to remain at the RAH, accepting its shortcomings and embracing its (few, in my view) benefits (capacity being the main one).

But we have a coalition government, which somehow, seems rather daring and new (though not unprecedented). So, why not a coalition of music venues with the single purpose of presenting music for all?

Just a thought……!