AKMI Duo are Valentine Michaud (saxophone) and Akvilé Sileikaité (piano)
Who or what inspired you to take up the saxophone and pursue a career in music?
VM: I chose the saxophone in the first place for a very simple reason: with such a golden instrument, it was love at first sight! I was 7 at the time and I knew 3 or 4 years later that music would be a huge part of my life. I had a fantastic first teacher who really transmitted his strong passion for his art and provided me with incredible opportunities for my first concert tours and groups. He really made me want to be a musician. I received the first instrument of my own at the age of 11 and I am still playing on the very same saxophone today.
AS: As I remember, we always had piano at home and I was quite curious as a child to try it. I received my first lessons from my mother, as she is piano teacher. I guess this is quite a typical beginning for the majority of musicians, but it was also so for me. I do not know how I started to build my musical career; maybe I had brilliant teachers, and my parents supporting me. Maybe it is my passion for what I am doing, but it is definitely making me thrilled and excited.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
VM: My first teacher, Slava Kazykin, was a very big influence in the beginning, as he taught me the basics of the saxophone, but also the joy that music making can give. Then I met other teachers who all had an important impact on my artistic vision, such as my two last teachers in Switzerland, Pierre-Stéphane Meugé, who initiated me into the strange world of contemporary music, and Lars Mlekusch, who helped me flourish as an artist with a real identity, and encouraged my interests in trans-disciplinary performances. But also of course the friends that I meet, the ones that I hear perform, and the ones with whom I’ve played, such as my duo partner Akvile Sileikaite, and also the travels have had a strong influence on my musical path.
AS: My family’s support, teachers, people I’m playing with, people I’m meeting, music itself.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
VM: I think one of the biggest challenges of a musician’s career is the organizational side of it. Nowadays probably even more than fifty years ago, a musician has to be multi-faceted, and has to manage very different things at the same time: communication, planning, traveling, programming, teaching, and of course practicing, without mentioning obviously performing! All this requires a lot of energy and you can never take real ‘holidays’ from it. Also, as a classical saxophone player, I face the challenge of convincing people that this instrument has its place in the classical music world, even if it is not so well-known yet. And as the repertoire for the instrument is very contemporary, I also need to present to as broad an audience as possible pieces that are not especially ‘friendly’ to listen to, and make them love it!
AS: I have to force myself sometimes to not be lazy and just practice. This can be challenging! On a more serious note, the greatest challenge I find is the music itself because it is something that you need to express, literally, getting your feelings, thoughts, expressions, yourself naked in front of the other people, the audience, in a way that they would feel it and believe in it, believe in music, in their own feelings. To do this in every concert is challenging. I also find it the greatest experience because it’s unique every time you go on stage.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
VM: Performances can always be perfected of course… but one performance I remember was our AKMI Duo debut concert in the Lucerne Festival in 2017. It was not perfect, but we really enjoyed our time on stage as the connection between us and the audience was very strong and the atmosphere there was very special.
AS: The ones when I feel the audience is almost not breathing. And the ones which people remember and are excited to share their feelings about afterwards.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
VM: I am definitely more at ease with modern repertoire, virtuosic and highly rhythmical pieces that demand a lot of energy. Romantic pieces are not really my cup of tea…
AS: Denisov and Albright sonatas for saxophone and piano with Valentine.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
VM: I always try to find a balance between modern pieces, new music, new commissions, and transcriptions, so that our programmes in recital are varied and can demonstrate the incredibly wide range of possibilities of my instrument. I often have ideas when going to concerts to hear colleagues, not necessarily saxophone players. Also, if I have a more trans-disciplinary performance in the season, then the programme is determined by the content of the show.
AS: It varies, from trying to choose the best pieces from the repertoire of the particular instrument I’m playing with, to pieces less-frequently played. Both so that people can enjoy and find something new for them. It is also sometimes very much dependent on a concert organiser’s wishes.
Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why?
VM: I don’t have a particular one, but I do prefer the smaller halls: they have a human dimension that I like, and I find it easier to connect with the audience and really share something stronger. When the audience is really far away or sitting really high in balconies, it is much more difficult for me (at least until at the moment!).
Who are your favourite musicians?
VM: I have a lot! There are many musicians that I admire, not necessarily classical ones. I also love artists who are multi-faceted or really committed to contemporary music, as I think this is very important. And of course the people I play with are among my favourite musicians! But for the big names, it could range from Barbara Hannigan or Patricia Kopatchinskaja to Michael Jackson, Queen or Charlie Parker…
AS: Valentine obviously, then Mirga Gražinyte, Parvo Järvi, Martin Grubinger, Fabian Ziegler, Asmik Grigorian, Hilary Hahn, Kian Soltani and many others. These are the names that come into my head first, there are so many I admire. I still have a secret wish to play with some of them.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
VM: There were many funny or epic experiences through the years… maybe a funny one was in Moscow. Akvile and I were playing a duo recital and programmed a humorous Swiss contemporary piece. We had to speak a text before each movement, and an old woman in the audience started to stand up and complain that we shouldn’t be talking during the concert, and that she didn’t need explanations. I don’t speak Russian, so I didn’t understand what was the matter. Akvile was trying to answer the woman from the stage and they were debating about it while I was just standing on stage wondering what was happening. Then other people in the audience started to take part to this animated discussion. The scene was really absurd. In the end we started playing again but the woman stood up and left with great noise and slamming the door of the hall. So far this is the one and only time I had such a scandalous performance!
AS: My debut at Lucerne Festival. Or if an interesting story, a little scandal Valentine and I had in Moscow when playing contemporary music. We performed a piece by R.Gubler, called “Very Important Things”, a piece that needed us to ‘describe’ the subject we are going to perform, preferably in the language of the country we were playing in. So in the middle of the composition, one lady stood up and said in Russian that we don’t need to explain every subject, people knew what we were doing. Then someone shouted her back that she was disturbing the performance. I tried gently to explain that this was part of the piece and the composers required us to do it. Quite an interesting discussion started then we just continued to play. Then in the middle of our playing, the first lady stood up, said something like “I cannot stand it anymore” and left the hall closing the doors as loudly as possible. I guess she didn’t like the piece so much…
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
VM: I think to succeed is when you make people feel better when you play. Smiles on the faces of my audience are the best rewards, and to see wide open eyes of children as I play is probably one of the best feelings ever.
AS: Working hard, meeting people, not forgetting to invest to “yourself” by reading, attending galleries and concerts, and having hobbies.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
VM: As a teacher, I try to give to my students a taste of the joy of playing music can be. Curiosity is also a very important concept to me, to keep an open-minded spirit and to be interested in all kind of arts, not just in your instrument, not just in classical music, and not just in music in general. Of course, working hard and always trying to be better than your yesterday-self is also a very important idea. And sharing is also one of the most important things to me. I don’t think a selfish person can be a truly good musician…
AS: Believe in what you are doing, have goals and enjoy the process of reaching them. And practice.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
VM: On a stage, surrounded by friends that I like to play with. It doesn’t really matter where!
What is your present state of mind?
VM: At the moment I am extremely enthusiastic and full of energy for what is coming up in the next months! I have many very exciting projects to come and I can’t wait for it!
AS: Trying to enjoy everything I am doing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
AS: Family, enjoying the process of learning, playing and being on stage and having time for myself and holidays.
What is your most treasured possession?
AS: People around me, ideas and arts.
AKMI Duo won this year’s Swiss Ambassador’s Award and embark on a UK concert tour from 15 October at Wigmore Hall, 16 October at Carol Nash Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester and 17 October at Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff
Valentine Michaud and Akvilé Sileikaité first crossed paths in Zurich in 2015; and with that, the AKMI duo was born.