“Making music together, making chamber music, is like a dialogue with very intelligent friends,” says violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter of her upcoming North American tour with the Mutter Virtuosi. “That’s pretty much what you want to do with people you share a passion with, and this passion is music,” she adds about her ensemble of talented young string players. “We want to have a wonderful conversation on stage, and with each other.”
Mutter was quoting Mendelssohn, but she was referring to the Mutter Virtuosi, an ensemble she founded in 2011 featuring scholars and alumni of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation. For their Symphony Center Presents concert Nov. 19, they will perform works by Mendelssohn, Vivaldi and American composer Sebastian Currier.
One of the string players featured in the program will be bassist Roman Patkoló, who will play Currier’s Ringtone Variations with Mutter. Patkoló, a native of Slovakia and an Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation alumnus, has gone on to win many prizes and contests, including the foundation’s first Aida Stucki Award in 2011.
“When I started my foundation some 16 or 17 years ago, I was not initially really thinking of the bass,” Mutter admitted. “I was more interested in violin and the other string instruments. But when [Patkoló] applied for scholarship, it was so clear that his incredible, skillful playing was not only matched by his emotional depth, but the expressivity and the passion with which this man attacks the double bass. He’s a great, wonderful talent.”
Mutter decided to commission several works for violin and bass that she and Patkoló could perform together on tour. The commissions have included a Double Concerto for Violin and Bass written by Andre Previn, as well as duos by Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Rihm and now Sebastian Currier. “We are trying to initiate a renaissance of this wonderful instrument, as a solo instrument as well as in the symphonic repertoire,” she said.
Wei Lu, the foundation’s first scholar, will be the ensemble’s concertmaster in Chicago. “I met him in the late ’90s in Beijing and I brought him to Europe. It’s just wonderful to see how not only his talent but his personality has bloomed,” she said. “He used to be one of the most versatile and impressive technicians I’ve ever heard playing the violin. I mean, such an ease with the most difficult passages I have rarely seen. And over the years, he has developed into a very broad-minded, very serious and sincere musician. And I’m very proud of that.”
Indeed, Mutter believes that musicians must do more than play an instrument well. “You’re playing an instrument — that’s wonderful, great,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about what you are as a human being and what you are willing and able to contribute to society, and it has to be more than a concert.”
Mutter looks to Mendelssohn as the example of what a musician should be. “He was such a great human being,” she said. “He founded the first German music school in the [1800s]. He was a great composer, as we know, but also a wonderful pianist, and obviously also a brilliant string player, a man [who] had a friendship with Goethe, a man who wrote over 7,000 letters in his life.”
Also, Mutter emphasizes, he was the one most responsible for resurrecting the music of J.S. Bach. It’s hard to believe today, but at one time Bach’s music was almost forgotten. Historian R. Larry Todd says that Mendelssohn was the “prime mover” in the Bach revival, responsible for organizing performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and other major works by the Baroque master. Mendelssohn even held benefit concerts to erect a statue of Bach in Leipzig.
“So Mendelssohn for me is the example of what a musician has to do in society. And this is what I’m trying to teach my pupils,” Mutter said. “With this wonderful young group of players, they all have great attitudes toward life and others and how they can bring themselves into the picture.”
One of the ways the ensemble achieves this is by performing benefit concerts while on tour, including its current European engagement. “The first concert … is for the restoration of an organ from the 1700s in a Catholic church here in Austria, and we [will] finish the tour in Germany in a town where they are collecting money for a day school for children who need special attention,” Mutter said. “Usually in a tour, we always have one or two evenings where we dedicate our efforts to something very important.”
In this way, Mutter is encouraging her students to become not just musicians but ambassadors very much in the spirit of Mendelssohn.
Louise Burton is a Chicago-based arts writer.