Interview on Actual de Cluj

At the end of March, in the beginning of the spring, the Transylvania State Philharmonic announced a “big event”: violinist Sayaka Shoji, “a superstar of the international musical scene”, came to Cluj. The young artist who played in countries all over the world climbed on stage with the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Gabriel Bebeşelea. She plays on a Stradivarius “Récamier” in 1727 a program dedicated to the centenary of the famous composer Leonard Bernstein – “Serenade” after Plato’s “Symposium”, a reinterpretation of the dialogues about love. The concert celebrated another centenary – that of the birth of one of the greatest creators and interpreters of the last century – Leonard Bernstein. Between a rehearsal and a concert, in a small room where news came from the stage with musical instruments, the young violinist told about her journey into the world of music.

Sayaka Shoji is not on her first visit to Romania – the first encounter with Enescu’s country she had was in Sibiu. “I was told about the region, I knew it was a very rich one in terms of musical background. I wanted to come here. Too bad I could not stay longer to explore, maybe next time, “she says.  What gave the interpreter curiosity? “It’s the region where Bartok (Béla Bartók, Hungarian composer) did research, the region brought musical influences to many composers, some were born here or spent their first years. There must be something here”, the artist makes the connection. About Bernstein’s Serenade, she says it is not part of her standard repertoire, but she’s been working on it for nearly five years now. In 2018, the artist’s 100th anniversary is celebrated, and his work is performed everywhere. “This piece is a curious music. It’s very profound. I am very happy to play it.

-You said it was not your standard repertoire. How do you choose what you play? Do you experience or have an area where you feel comfortable playing?

The work must talk to me personally, feel like I’m capable of transmitting something to that piece. When I do not feel that, I do not play.  Sometimes I hear something I do not connect immediately, but by working, I feel attached to that music, and I can find a lot to say. Sometimes I just like to listen, but I can not play.

-You say the music is talking to you. How?

It’s hard to explain. Most classical music I listen to … I just listen to it; and music that I avoid or about which I’m not sure I can say anything. There are musical pieces that I like to listen to, but I know it’s not music I can play well. There are also music that I feel something very strong, but for which there requires a lot of work. Like Bartok. I’m drawn into this music, it’s magnetic. There is a lot of work to play some pieces, you have to think a lot. But it is worth working. There is also contemporary music that I hear but I do not understand. I have to motivate myself first and try to see if I can do something with it or not.

-Is it always necessary to be your contribution when playing?

I think our mission is to convey what the composer meant. But what do we think he meant to say is subjective. So, after all, it’s a mix.   I thinks he meant that, another interpret thinks he meant something else. When we work together, we have such discussions. But I do not believe the same lure I thought about something at 20, 25 years. Things and interpretations always change due to experience, new knowledge.

-You are described as a “superstar of the classical scene”. What does this mean for you, do you feel in such a position?

I am not. I do not know. My career started at 16, or just before. Without trying. Of course I worked hard, but not for the sake of successful career, but because I love so much what I play. I’m invited to play concerts, indeed. But I don’t see what I do in terms of superstar.

-But what’s important to you?

I want to serve the audience and share the wonderful music, so people say “what a great music!”. This makes me happy.

-How is the audience today? We may have a preconception that young people are not listening to classical music. How do you see this from a classical musician – do you feel that an artist in this area has to make an effort to attract people? Is it more difficult to make people interested in this music, which you do not always hear in the car, on the radio?

Time has changed a lot, even over 30, 50, even 10 years ago. With the internet, with social networks. It’s less and less time to appreciate such things. You have to find a way to communicate with the audience. I do not know exactly how, it’s not my domain. But there are artists who try to attract young people through their fashion, through the way to communicate, precisely by trying to be “superstars”. It’s another way of dealing with things. What I can do and what I’m trying to do is to approach something new – to bring the visual art into the background. I like to meet people interested in art. I tried to make video art, from the image of the music I listen to or play. It’s a dream yet, it’s work in progress, but I would love to have concerts of this kind or music show, a mix of these worlds. There are still many people going to museums. When I go to Paris I see many young people interested in contemporary art. In a way, I think you can build something in this way. Everyone does it in his own way – to open the door to his work.


-Q & A sessions like the one after the Cluj concert are a way to open the door?

Yes. It’s interesting not only for the public but also for us. It’s interesting to find out what the spectators think or feel.

-Does your viewer influence you? Or do they have to be specialists to influence you?

I come from a non-musical family, I am accustomed to talking with people who are not musicians.

-How did you discover the music in the non-musical family?

I was in Italy, my mom studied painting, in Siena, near Florence. I went to kindergarten there, I spent my first years of childhood there. In Italy there is a culture of singing, we used to sing. I began to dream of being a singer, but I had this very low and “broken” voice. I was told to forget about it. Then came the idea of an instrument. Violin. In Siena there is a music school, a place with music, classical concerts, you could go and listen. At first, I knew only vaguely that I wanted to do this, to play an instrument. It was simple. I did not dream of a great career.

-How is your life now, when you travel so much, with a program of concerts?

It’s important to spare time for me. At 20, I had a season with 30 concerts in two months. It’s the only season I did that. I told the manager I would not do that anymore, I’d go crazy. I’m trying to keep the level at a maximum of 50 concerts a year. I need to rest, to study, to practice, to feed myself culturally. I listen to recordings, go to museums, do video art, read, meet people, have a normal life.

-Are things that you have sacrificed or quit, for artist work?

Maybe I did not go to discos, I did not do some things a young man would do, but I have many good friends and that’s very important to me.

-Is it different to play a Stradivarius to another instrument, a violin surrounded by so many myths?

I have not tried enough instruments. But it is certainly something that can be explained exactly as an old wine that has a certain quality. There’s something you can not explain in scientific terms.

-Is it important for you to have mentors? Or can you learn from anyone, from any experiences?

I always try to learn from the people I work with, sometimes I learn a lot from an interpreter or conductor. It’s an important treasure for me. There are more people. Obviously, Yuri Termikanov, a conductor we have worked with for many years. I’ve been working with him since I was 17 years old. I learned a lot, especially on the Russian repertoire. There are a lot of people I learned from.

-Encourage a young man to follow this path? How?

Each interpreter is different, so the tips would be different. When I have time, I do lessons or masterclasses. I do not do much because of lack of time.

-What advice do you give, for a career start? Sayaka at 16?

I am very pleased with my decisions, even if they were sometimes against business; I got some difficulties in the area of business. It was not easy for me to manage this part. I did not expect such challenges at the age of 16. I did not expect that. I might have wanted a counselor in this area. But I regret nothing. I appreciate what’s important to me – music, to be honest with what I can and can not do. I think there are many artists who want to be successful. But business and musical success are different. Sure, I think you can both have it. But there are many amazing musicians who do not make career at all. I am grateful to be able to continue concertising and do what I can best to share music with people. The other side is not more important.

-Do you still have difficult decisions to take, where are still artist-manager disputes?

I’m lucky to have a very understanding manager who does not push me in a direction I do not want. Sometimes he thinks I can do something, and I say “No”.  But is ok.

-What are you going to do? What are the future projects?

Let’s take a new repertoire for me to learn. I still have a lot to learn. Continue with work on the video side. One of the thing from the big list of “to do” is Enescu’s sonatas. It’s a new language for me. I hope I can learn. With Bartok, when I started learning, I went to Hungary. It’s another culture. It’s not like Western music, like Bach, Beethoven, it’s another musical language.

-How do you invite young audiences to the classroom to listen to classical music?

I do not know if I’m a good speaker, that’s why I play. All I can do is play and convince people it’s great music. In general, curiosity is everything. For me it’s not just for classical music. But for everything in life. For good music, for literature, or contemporary art.

-The most difficult part of your work?

Journey. I like to travel but it’s tedious. Physically, it becomes more and more difficult, with time-differences specially.