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Sometimes Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider performs violin concertos with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, and sometimes he conducts. But rarely does he undertake both tasks simultaneously.
When pianists conduct from the keyboard, the piano is set up perpendicular to the stage. Soloists sit with their backs to the audience but their hands are readily visible to the musicians. However, a violin soloist has to stand for much of the time with his or her back to the orchestra. While that’s good for the audience, it can be tough for the performer to communicate with his musicians at the same time. “So it’s something that I don’t really do,” Znaider said.
When he returns to guest conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 25-27 in Mahler’s First Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto (with Gautier Capuçon as soloist), he’ll restrict himself to the podium. “It’s not only a great orchestra, but it’s an orchestra that I have a lot of history with in a way,” he said of the CSO. He recalls playing regularly with the ensemble during the last seven years or so of Daniel Barenboim’s tenure, and in part because he has family in Chicago, he also occasionally attended CSO concerts as well. “So I was around a lot in those years. I have a lot of good memories from Chicago.”
Born in Denmark to Israeli parents, Znaider first gained recognition in 1992, when he won first prize at the Carl Nielsen International Music Competition 1992. He topped that victory five years later by winning the better-known Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. As he followed up those successes with further study with famed pedagogue Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School, he began performing with major orchestras worldwide and his professional career was quickly launched.
Later, he began to conduct. “I conduct for the reason I play the violin, because I love music,” he said. “My path happened to be that I started playing the violin and I ended up taking it to a high level maybe, but quite early on, I realized that I wanted to conduct. It was a matter of finding the chance, the time and the opportunity to start.”
As he done more of both, Znaider has discovered that his conducting feeds his violin performance. “The depth of my musicianship, what I can bring to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, is only enhanced and enriched by the symphonies that I occupy myself with as a conductor,” he said. “It’s something that goes absolutely in tandem.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.