LSO International Violin Festival: Meet Leonidas Kavakos

The Festival launches on Wednesday 8 April with a performance of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1 by soloist Leonidas Kavakos. Here, we find out more about Kavakos, his violin and his previous collaborations with the LSO, and he tells us about the Shostakovich Violin Concerto and his passion for the art of violin-making.

Leonidas KavakosLeonidas Kavakos

Leonidas Kavakos was born and brought up in Athens, where the violin was an ever-present part of his childhood, played by both his grandfather, a folk violinist, and his Conservatoire-trained father. The treasured skill was passed down through the generations when Kavakos received a half-size instrument for Christmas at the age of five and began lessons with his father.

At twelve years old, he became the youngest member of the European Union Youth Orchestra. After studying at the Hellenic Conservatory in Athens, he won the 1985 Sibelius Competition at the age of just 18, followed up by first prize at the Paganini Competition in 1988. Two-and-a-half decades later, and with several more accolades to his name, he is one of the most celebrated violinists performing today, and has also established a strong reputation as a conductor in recent years.

The Violin

Leonidas Kavakos plays the 1724 ‘Abergavenny’ Stradivarius, named after the Canon Capel of Abergavenny, Wales, whose father bought the instrument from dealer John Betts in 1800. In 2013, Kavakos told The Strad, 'Just like a human being, you have to get to know it … The instrument adjusts to the playing of a human being. It’s a give-and-take relationship, and another way for an artist to get inspired.'

LSO History

Kavakos made his LSO debut in 2000 with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, playing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No 2. Since then, he has been a regular soloist with the Orchestra, both at home on the Barbican stage and on tour, and in 2012/13 was the focus of the UBS Soundscapes: LSO Artist Portrait series, performing concertos by Berg, Sibelius and Szymanowski and giving a duo recital with pianist Nikolai Lugansky.

Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1

Kavakos describes Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto as 'a very special piece for me.' He says, 'it is one of the pillars of the violin repertoire, in the 20th century especially. But for me it has been a very special piece because, although I practised it and learned it many years ago, I did not play it until quite recently, maybe four or five years ago. That was because of the challenge it presents in its huge form and progress as a work of music – the four different worlds of sound that one has to create for each of the movements … I was searching for quite a lot of time for this kind of approach and sound.

The first movement has an almost very impressionistic approach; the second movement and the last movement are a little similar in terms of the frenetic attack of the music. And then you have the Passacaglia which is a very Classical reference, but the way he writes it is extremely emotional.

For me, it is a very special work that I've had the chance to do already with the LSO, with Valery Gergiev, a few years ago. I’m very much looking forward to performing it again with Gianandrea Noseda, who is the conductor I played this piece with for the very first time.'

The Art of Violin-Making

'I think the work of making a violin is an incredible art, and it’s an art that has not been surpassed since the time of Stradivarius', Kavakos says. 'However, the contemporary making has an incredibly high level and therefore, as a violinist, I feel a responsibility to support this art, so I do own quite a few modern instruments. Of course, when you have a Stradivarius the choice is still favourable for the old violin – but [the new instruments] are wonderful and it’s really fascinating to see how they evolve with time. It’s actually quite moving because it’s like a small child that is growing up, and learns more, can express more, can tell more, knows what it wants. It’s really a fantastic process to have an instrument that you keep for a long time.'

Excerpts originally printed in The Strad and re-printed with permission

Leonidas Kavakos launches the LSO International Violin Festival at the Barbican on Wednesday 8 April, performing Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1. Gianandrea Noseda conducts, completing the programme with Liszt's dramatic Faust Symphony.

> Buy tickets to the LSO's concert with Leonidas Kavakos on Wednesday 8 April

We'll be getting to know the stars of Violin Festival on the LSO blog throughout April, May and June, so keep checking back to read our latest interviews and behind-the-scenes stories.