If you’ve heard violinist Anne Akiko Meyers play, you’ve undoubtedly heard her passion for music shine through in her performance. Talking to her about her latest album, Fantasia, that same passion was clear when she spoke. It was her passion that led her to contact the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara to see if he would write a piece for her. As a lifelong fan of Rautavaara, particularly his Cantus Arcticus – an “amazing piece where he actually went into a bird preserve and recorded these birds singing and chirping and incorporated it into the work” – Meyers approached Rautavaara in 2015 when the late composer was 85 years old. She asked him if he would consider writing a shorter work for violin and orchestra, and he responded with an immediate yes. That is how the title track to the album was born.
Her enthusiasm from the day the score arrived is still palpable when she speaks about it. “I remember running to my studio and I just couldn’t believe that I had the music in my hands and I couldn’t wait to hear what it would sound like. And once I started playing it a little bit, I realized that it had a lot of similarities to my favorite Cantus Arcticus, and it took my breath away.” Rautavaara invited Meyers to play Fantasia for him in his Helsinki apartment in December 2015. Rautavaara’s inspiration from his native Helsinki became even clearer to Meyers as she experienced the city in person. She describes being “struck by the light in Helsinki” and feeling a purity and stillness.
There’s such a deep spirituality in this work and kind of a yearning…but also now when I hear the work it feels like an elegy. And it really describes majestic scenes of nature throughout the work, and you feel the stillness of the ocean, the trees moving slowly, and large bodies, masses of water slowly moving. And it’s a work that is deeply emotional and every time I listen to it, it really does make me cry. You could see and hear in his music that nature was so profoundly instrumental in his use of color.
The process of taking a new composition from conception to fruition is understandably complex and often time consuming, usually with revisions and changes along the way. Rautavaara’s Fantasia is even more remarkable in this context, because aside from some altered bowings Meyers contributed, no changes were needed.
It was amazing because after I played the music for him, I mean he really did not revise one note in my part or in any of the parts in the orchestra, and that was unusual, because most of the living composers I’ve worked with have some kind of revision. They edit a note here or there, they just don’t like the way something is working, and it’s really hard to imagine how the music will end up being. But he just wrote it like it was meant to be heard.
The album Fantasia is more than just Rautavaara’s work, and in its entirety is about exploring how the three featured composers – Rautavaara, Symanowski, and Ravel – “made such extraordinary use of color.” Meyers has always championed underrated/underperformed works and composers, and new music. She describes Symanowski as “one of the most underrated composers ever” and says his Concerto No. 1, featured on the album, “should be on par with the Mendelsohn, Beethoven, [and] Bruch concerti.”
I’ve always kind of rooted for the underdog initially…I would play works by even Samuel Barber who was hardly performed at the time in 1988, and now the concerto is performed all the time, or even the Bernstein Serenade. You know, these works are underplayed and undervalued, and I find that it’s my prerogative to show and share that there’s so much amazing music out there, just so much. And to even think that the Vivaldi Four Seasons was basically hidden in a trunk for centuries, and it wasn’t until 1950 that is was recorded, is just also mind boggling. How something that just feels so ubiquitous, is just everywhere you turn, was actually resurrected. So that’s always fascinated me.
Meyers is currently working with the composer Adam Schoenberg on a violin concerto, which she will premier in February. When listening to a musician who both plays and speaks with such passion, it’s easy to wonder how they do it. How does Meyers translate that passion into performance, particularly when it is a brand new piece? She said she is always looking for “the soul of the music and the story inside” and once she has that “everything falls into place.” With the new Schoenberg, for example, she has gone through the piece very slowly “looking for clues” to find the story line.
While Meyers is an extraordinary classical violinist, her personal taste runs the gamut from jazz to 80’s music. A self-described groupie of Tony Bennet – “wherever he sings, I’m there, front row” – other favorites include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra, all the way to Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. A true music lover, Meyers’ musical passion knows no bounds.
Anne Akiko Meyers’ penchant for new and underplayed music is an excellent reminder that classical music doesn’t have to be classic. In what can seem like a stagnant genre, there is still much activity, and artists like Meyers help to keep it moving forward. “It’s so important to share this music, and that Rautavaara left this treasure for violinists for generations to come and for audiences around the world, that to me is so empowering.”
– Submitted by Erin Yousef, Music Design