"A competition is like a game of roulette - it doesn't matter the number, it's your attitude to the likelihood of losing that matters."
The "Roulette Game" at the ARD International Music Competition 2021 in Munich, which took place in September this year, brought violinist Dmitry Smirnov an award-winning second place. The German Radio broadcaster's ARD competition was founded in 1947 and has since been considered one of the largest and most prestigious in the classical music. Participation, and even more so victory, can be considered a serious bid for a successful career.
Dmitry Smirnov was born in St. Petersburg in 1994. He graduated from the music school at the St. Petersburg Conservatory "N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov" in the class of Honored Worker of Culture Elena Zaitseva and Anastasia Milka. He then continued his studies at the University of Music Lausanne in Switzerland in the class of Professor Pavel Vernikov and the City of Basel Music Academy in the class of Professor Rainer Schmidt. His music career was an early and meteoric rise: at the age of three he picked up a violin, at eight he began performing, at thirteen he made his stage debut at Carnegie Hall in New York, at fifteen he performed at the Wigmor Halle in London. From a young age, Dmitry has won high prizes in serious music competitions. In 2006, he won the 1st prize and a special prize of the Moscow International David Oistrakh Violin Competition in Moscow. In 2011 - the 2nd prize award at the All-Russian Music Competition in Moscow. In 2015, he won The Tibor Varga International Violin Competition in Switzerland. In 2017, the musician won in two Swiss international competitions: the Music Competition in Lausanne and the Rotary Excellence Prize Competition in Lugano. This year he won the 2nd prize at the ARD competition in Germany. Dmitry Smirnov performed Frank Martin's Violin Concerto in the Finale.
Dmitry Smirnov: In a competition, everything depends on chance. A competition is like a game of roulette - it doesn't matter the number, it's your attitude to the likelihood of losing that matters. There were four rounds, and each one had to be staged differently, be it in style or manner on stage. I went with my gut and, of course, experience from previous competitions helped too. The programme was offered in such a way that one could not limit oneself. The main thing is always to have black and white and some green: more contrast in the choice of repertoire and in the manner of presentation - the preparation process will immediately become more fun.
SPDM (St. Petersburg Music House): Tell us about the pieces that you performed.
Dmitry Smirnov: With pleasure! Let me start with the finale, for which I had to make a choice between Concertos by Paul Hindemith (1939) and Frank Martin (1951-1952). The choice of candidates tilted heavily towards the former, and in the end, of the 80 candidates who qualified for the first round, the chance that someone would play a Martin concerto in the Final was, well, marginally small. I chose this particular one after accidentally finding sheet music while helping to sort through the Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger's archive. It was a copy of a handwritten clavier, moreover 4-handed (the orchestral score was very dense and it simply could not fit into two hands) with a solo violin part, marked 1951, and probably written before the orchestral score went to press, as there is one measure missing in the clavier. The detail is minor, but I wanted to discover the source of these notes. Other factors that influenced my choice of this particular Concerto for the competition were Schneeberger's performance of it in 1952 and my own recording of Schneeberger's solo sonata in February 2021. This record, by the way, has already been released.
For the semi-final, the choice of a Haydn concerto was obvious to me, as since January 2019 I am taking part in the HAYDN 2032 project, which aims to perform and record at the ALPHA label all Haydn symphonies on historical instruments conducted by Giovanni Antonini, founder of the legendary ensemble Il Giardino Armonico.
For the first and second rounds, it was important to find a compromise between what you love to play and what will produce a good score to pass in the following rounds. And, naturally, make sure to offer something related to Russia for me as a candidate from this country. I've made the mistake many times when playing abroad of forgetting to put Russian music into the programme, which is exactly what everyone expects the most. In the end it was Sergei Prokofiev's 5 Melodies, the most beautiful cycle. There was also French music by Pierre Boulez and Claude Debussy - very well put together, in my opinion. And, of course, you could do without the maestros - Paganini, whom I absolutely adore as a composer, and Beethoven, who had the misfortune to celebrate his 250th birthday in the silent year of 2020... But on ARD there was plenty of it. And for good reason, for it is feared in vain to be played in competitions, for there is and has never been a specific tradition by which to judge its interpretation.
In essence, the competition is a dreadful thing, because it creates unnatural phrasing and imagery in the performance of music, based on the stress of the performer, because "what if you get kicked off for something like this". And then there are silly questions that all teachers have been agonising over for decades: "how to play this and how to play that, how not to play this note and how to play that note".
I remember back in the summer, 2015, in Moscow, one participant from outside the violin category in the 14th Tchaikovsky Competition played late Beethoven in just an incredibly special way. This episode, with 20 minutes of applause after the last C major curtsy, was a colossal challenge to the very essence of the musical selection system.
What's funny is that on ARD for the final round in the violin category in previous years at least one famous Concerto would be left to choose from. ARD is known for lobbying unpopular classics. So, for example, the 2017 selections were the unpopular Samuel Barber, Bela Bartók's short first concerto and Sergei Prokofiev's D major concerto. Here it is immediately clear that the choice was between Barber and Prokofiev, and in the end it was Prokofiev in the final. This year, no one suggested a famous concert at all, but most chose Hindemith, simply because his name, and not even the music, is more on everyone's lips. Digging deeper, it is the concept that manipulating the choice between the known and the unknown may in the long term simply transform the competition format. After all, it is such a pleasure to offer something new to those interested in music.
SPDM: What about the musician who beat you - Seiji Okamoto from Japan? Have you heard him play?
Dmitry Smirnov: Seiji and I met in the second round after his performance. We played the same day, he in the morning and me in the evening. I listened to him in the hall because I needed to get my bearings on the acoustics and listen to the piano, which was, by the way, bad. I was given an acoustic rehearsal 20 minutes before the performance, so it was a smart decision to listen in advance from the hall to see what might happen there. I think it looked brave through the eyes of the jury to see one of the candidates in the audience before his own performance.
Going back to Seiji, he's first of all a great guy with a healthy ego and a great communicator, so he'll do well. His career in Japan is already in full swing. I have listened to all his tours from the audience and I can tell you that he is a professional. In chamber music he could react more to his partner, but this is a detail, and not many people bet on this element in a competition. I personally have no interest in this style of play, but again, this is all very relative. I love drama.
SPDM: Did winning the contest change your creative plans, if so, how?
Dmitry Smirnov: I was told after the Final that I would have made a good conductor. We'll see. There was plenty of planning before the competition for next seasons too, now more is being added. Along with all that, I recorded my first solo CD this year for First Hand Records in the UK and am currently recording a double CD dedicated to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye. Ideally, for some projects I should come to St Petersburg and look in a couple of sheet music archives. Lots of interesting things to come!
SPDM: Your concert career started when you were 8 years old. I wonder what kind of musician you were at that time: were you serious about your lessons, studying hard, or was everything just passing through somewhat playfully?
Dmitry Smirnov: You have chosen a very appropriate word "playfully". This is what I personally lack in general when it comes to the stage. I think in my case it all started with systematic training that included this element.
SPDM: While many of your fellow aspiring musicians were performing on the music school stages, you performed in New York at Carnegie Hall, and at the Wigmor Halle in London. How did this happen?
Dmitry Smirnov: I came to New York through the efforts of the Irina Nikitina Musical Olympus Foundation, and to Wigmore Hall after competing in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in Cardiff at the invitation of Oleg Kagan of the Razumovsky Foundation in London. I agree, those two historical venues have done me a world of good in my biography.
SPDM: When and how did you know that music would become your profession?
Dmitry Smirnov: I was lucky - the thing came up that I didn't have to choose. It's perfect, apart from those moments a couple of times a day when things don't work out and bad thoughts come to mind. But, luckily, I have a viola, a piano and a very big attraction to music history, so I switch over quickly.
SPDM: How did you study in St Petersburg and later in Switzerland?
Dmitry Smirnov: I graduated from the Secondary Specialised School of Music at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in St Petersburg and went straight abroad, thanks to the advice of my parents. It wasn't always easy, but it was always exciting.
SPDM: You have been involved in Music House projects for 10 years. What benefits do you get from this cooperation?
Dmitry Smirnov: Cooperating with Music House is very enjoyable and easy. I have a very warm relationship with the team, although we have been working less frequently over the last two years. Involvement in Music House projects allows artists to explore their artistic potential in real time, teaching them to adapt quickly to different musical collaborators and venues, getting to know their audiences and seeing the cities of Russia. More importantly, such a speed gets the musician out of his or her routine at home and simply forces him or her to be more productive. It was easier to integrate in 2011 because there were fewer of us. The St. Petersburg Music House had 100 people at the time, a figure that is growing very fast now. My very first recital at the Music House profiled me quite well into where I am now. Among the mainstream, for example, there was the very moody Szymanowski and the finger-picking Ernst, and then there were uncommon pieces that Music House gladly welcomed - Roslavec, Bernstein, Kancheli.
SPDM: Are you able to improvise, maybe "joke around" on stage? In the classical repertoire, of course, it is not so easy to do, yet some musicians know how to turn their playing into a performance. Have you tried it?
Dmitry Smirnov: I'll be honest, I can't improvise, but I do it all the time, even at the ARD competition. Improvisation never ended, and in jazz it did not appear, only continued.
SPDM: Which composer's music best suits your worldview?
Dmitry Smirnov: I don't know. A month ago I went to see Damon Albarn live in Edinburgh; right now I'm off to Vienna to hear Emilio de Cavalieri's 'Representazione di Anima, et di Corpo', which will be, incidentally, full of improvisation; and the day after tomorrow we go to see Monteverdi's 'Coronation of Poppea' in Zurich. On ARD I listened to my favourite Thom Yorke track "AMOK" and Aria II from Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.
SPDM: What do you devote your time to when you are not playing music?
Dmitry Smirnov: This no longer exists for me.
Interview by Tatiana Mikhailova