“Life itself inspires me”
Alexander Ramm was born in Vladivostok in 1988. He began studying music at the R. Glier School in Kaliningrad. Later, he graduated from the F. Chopin Moscow State Junior College of Musical Performance (where he studied with Maria Zhuravleva), then Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory (studying with Professor Natalia Shakhovskaya, People’s Artist of the USSR) and finally the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin (studying with Professor Frans Helmerson). He has won numerous prestigious international competitions and considers his performance at the 15th Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015, where he won second prize, to be his most significant and challenging. Alexander Ramm has performed solo and with an orchestra in the leading concert halls of Moscow and Saint Petersburg and has toured many other cities in Russia and abroad. The cellist has never doubted his choice of profession and considers his childhood meeting with Mstislav Rostropovich and the letter the maestro wrote to him as a confirmation that he chose his profession wisely, though what the maestro wrote to the then nine-year-old Sasha will remain a secret. Above all, despite some abrupt changes in his life’s trajectory, the cellist feels that his creative path has always led him to the stage.
Alexander Ramm: My first truly mature performance on stage was in Kaliningrad when I was nine years old and performed Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor in its entirety with the orchestra. By then I had been studying the cello for two years. During that performance I felt myself communicating with the audience through the language of music and found in that this emotional, energetic payoff. I knew then that this was going to be my life. Since then, every appearance on stage has been a joy for me, a celebration. As for the people who helped me get here, the list is huge—starting with my first teacher Svetlana Ivanova, who consoled me when I was not allowed to play the violin like I wanted to, offered me this larger “violin” instead, sat me down with it and showed me how to draw the bow across its strings. When that sound struck me, I was lost. Another teacher I would like to mention is Alexei Seleznev, who sadly passed away recently. He came to Kaliningrad to do master classes around the same time that I played my first recital there. It was he who told my mother that I could content myself being a big fish in a little pond or that I could go to Moscow and grow. We were just getting settled in Kaliningrad, so starting all over again in Moscow was a really tough decision for us to make. It was a pretty abrupt turnaround, but without it, nothing would have happened. After that I trained for several years with Lev Evgrafov, who has also sadly left us. In my final year at the music school and then throughout college, I studied with Maria Zhuravleva. At the conservatory, I studied with Natalia Shakhovskaya, who remains my favorite professor. And for two more years, I studied with Frans Helmerson in Berlin. I am very grateful to all these people. There were also unforgettable meetings, such as with Rostropovich when I was nine years old. I consider the fact that he accepted my letter, which I had handwritten to him, and that he replied to a few months later, as a further sign that I have chosen my profession, my way correctly. It’s a kind of confirmation, and so I still have that letter—Rostropovich’s reply to me—framed like an heirloom. My collaboration with Saint Petersburg Music House, which began ten years ago, has also had a profound effect on me as a person and as a musician, simply due to having played so many concerts organized by the Music House over this time. We continue to work together, and I am insanely grateful to Saint Petersburg Music House and to Sergei Roldugin personally for having supported me for so many years.
Saint Petersburg Music House (SPMH): Has the Tchaikovsky Competition been your greatest challenge on stage?
Alexander Ramm: Although I took part in this competition in 2007 and 2011, I was unlucky for various reasons. That said, I believe that everything happens in its proper time, and I have never wanted to turn back the clock. By 2015 I had already gained a lot of experience, both in competitions and live performance, thanks to Saint Petersburg Music House and the Moscow Philharmonic. Experience with live performance turned out to be most important because, besides trying to outdo myself in competitions, I try to play in them as I would in a live performance. After all, professionalism is very fine, it is fundamental in a way that is not even up for discussion, but above all, I wanted to play in an interesting way, to play vividly. And thanks to the concert experience I earned, I could do this. Of course, the Tchaikovsky Competition is the most serious competition in all respects, especially when it comes to stress. No other competition I’ve been through compares in terms of the stress, endurance and stamina required.
SPMH: Does your instrument have some special history, a particular character or special features?
Alexander Ramm: It’s special if only because it wasn’t made 300 years ago, but as recently as 2009. For the first two years, Alexander Buzlov, of blessed memory, played the freshly-cut instrument. He liked the sound so much that he decided to change it for a newer one from the same luthier. I realized that this would be my instrument from my very first encounter with it, and we’ve been together for more than ten years now. This is my longest relationship with a single instrument. We’ve certainly grown close by now. It was made by a luthier of Russian and Syrian ancestry, a native of Saint Petersburg. His name is Gebran Yaqub. His mother is a Russian cellist and his father is Syrian. That’s why he has such an interesting name. He is an amazingly talented and very versatile individual. Apart from making instruments, he is a cellist himself, which is important, I think, for crafting cellos specifically—to understand what cellists need. Most luthiers play the violin or perhaps the viola, and it is rare for one to be a cellist. Yaqub also does jewelry, watchmaking, sails, has a pilot’s license, and so on. He is a very vibrant person. My cello has an Italian woman’s name—Alessandra. You could say that the two Alexanders played and play an instrument named Alessandra.
SPMH: You have been appearing as a soloist in Saint Petersburg Music House performances for ten years. What have been your most memorable performances over the years?
Alexander Ramm: Every concert is a celebration and a blessing for me. It is simply impossible to single out one or two concerts in these ten years, as each one is special to me. And each one is unique, of course. You can’t really play the same thing twice in the same way. That’s why it’s hard to choose, it’s impossible.
SPMH: Your next performance in Saint Petersburg Music House’s Music of the Stars project will be in the Capella on February 16, where you will be playing Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto. Is there something special you find in this piece that evokes an unusual emotion in you?
Alexander Ramm: Cello Concerto by Myaskovsky is one of my favorite concertos. For a while, I didn’t get it because whenever I heard Rostropovich’s recording of it, the reference performance of this piece, somehow, the music did not convince me. But one day I came across a recording of the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk. He is quite famous in Europe, but we rarely have him here, so our music lovers hardly know him. Nevertheless, he came twice to the Rostropovich Festival and was due to come the year before last, when unfortunately the pandemic struck. It was his interpretation of Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto that inspired me to study this work. I learned that this is a very, very profound composer’s statement about the first half of the 20th century, and about the Second World War in particular. The Cello Concerto was composed in 1944–45. I really love the cello repertoire precisely because most of the time I’m allowed to express myself, rather than merely show off my skills. Myaskovsky Cello Concerto is the most striking example of this.
SPMH: When you listen to distinguished musicians like Rostropovich, Casals, Piatigorsky, or other superstars, do you ever disagree with them about their playing style, articulation or specific techniques, etc.?
Alexander Ramm: Each age has, in my opinion, its trends, fashions, and standards, which are subsequently modified. So what seemed normal in Casals’ time is not considered normal today. Casals has gone down in history as an outstanding cellist, but no one plays like that now. The same goes for Piatigorsky, Shafran, and Rostropovich. Of course, Rostropovich is a different story. He is larger than life, a demigod to me. Rostropovich is someone who took the cello to a transcendent level, cunningly inspiring—and sometimes forcing, if we recall the story of Benjamin Britten—a huge amount of new music to be written for the cello. In so doing, he enriched the repertoire by a thousand percent. Whatever he took on came out as well as it could, as great as it could possibly be. As for disagreeing... I can’t disagree with the greats because, firstly, they are the greats, and secondly, we are just different people. Everyone plays it in their own way. There can be no opinion but your own. Everyone is different, everyone plays as they are able, taking into account their cultural background, their evolution at their given stage of life and so on.
SPMH: Compared to the piano or violin, the cello’s repertoire is not as extensive. Are there any contemporary composers of interest to you?
Alexander Ramm: Thanks to Rostropovich alone, the repertoire has been greatly enriched. But that only applies to the 20th century. As for contemporary composers, an original one, in whose every piece I feel real, serious, and sincere expression, is Efrem Podgaits. Then there is also the Lithuanian composer Arvydas Malcys. I play his music sometimes too. And I like it a lot. There are not so many composers as there were in the 20th century for some reason, I mean at such an outstanding level, but still, they do exist.
SPMH: Other than music, what inspires you in life?
Alexander Ramm: Life itself inspires me. I’m the kind of musician who draws inspiration from everywhere. You can certainly read a lot of books, but until you experience things for yourself (at least in my case), you don’t get a good feeling for the experiences of characters in books, films, and so on. That’s why I find challenging life situations, as well as the moments of happiness, so influential and inspirational. When it comes to the happier moments, these of course include watching my children grow up. I have two: a boy who is almost six and a girl who is almost three. They are totally different; they may as well be from different planets. And the inspiration comes not just from watching them, but from taking part in their upbringing because when I’m not on tour, I am, of course, at home. And the bad moments inspire as well, through having strengthened my spirit. Four years ago, I slipped and fell on my elbow, which resulted in a fracture with a dislocation, and I had absolutely no concert life for two months, which were instead full of pins and physical therapy. Thank God, I recovered pretty quickly. In two months, despite the pins in my arm, I was already performing on stage and even recorded an album of Britten’s suites. By November 2018, I had fully recovered, and I’ve been doing sports ever since. I mean, it has encouraged me to start doing something for my health. I’ve been watching my diet and exercising regularly for almost four years now. I think it’s important for cellists in particular to have physical strength and stamina. Before lockdown in March 2020, at the peak of my form, I was asked to replace Alexander Knyazev in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory for two days with a truly enormous set: Brahms’ Double Concerto, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I would not have been able to play on stage the entire evening—three full concertos with the orchestra—without the physical endurance and strength I had developed.
Interview by Tatiana Mikhailova