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Few if any of the world’s violinists have soared higher than Lisa Batiashvili. The Georgian-born artist, who turned 40 in March, has attained an array of honors and awards, including being named Musical America’s prestigious Instrumentalist of the Year in 2015 and nominated for Gramophone’s Artist of the Year two years later.
“Of course, I’m happy,” she said from her home in Munich. “I’m very grateful. I think what really helped me is that I have met the right people at the right time, not in the sense of career but in the sense of music development, support and advice, people who understood me and accepted me the way I was. And they still supported me even if I wasn’t someone who would play 120 concerts [a year] at the age of 18. It was a mixture of a lot of different things, but, of course, hard, hard work.”
After a 13-year absence, when she was restricting travel to stay close to her two children, Batiashvili will return to Orchestra Hall for concerts April 4-6 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She will join guest conductor Jakub Hrůša for the first time, serving as soloist in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 (1879). The work has a strong Chicago connection: the CSO presented the American premiere on Oct. 30, 1891, at the Auditorium Theatre.
“It’s a beautiful piece,” Batiashvili said, who became reacquainted with the concerto about three years ago for a program with the Berlin Philharmonic. “It’s a Romantic work in parallel with the Brahms Violin Concerto with a Czech influence. It’s quite complex. It’s not music that is easy to put together. You need a lot of sensitivity and the right flow.”
She emigrated with her family to Germany when was 11 years old, a move that was tough on her parents, especially her father, a well-established musician who was a member of a string quartet and taught at a conservatory in Georgia. “It was a very hard decision, and I remember that procedure of really going to a new place and new start,” she said. “So I often think that I’ve already had kind of two lives. I had my first life connected to my childhood and to Georgia, and the second life that started the day we came to Germany.”
When she was 16 years old, she became the youngest entrant ever in the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, held every five years in Helsinki. Even though she did not win, taking second place instead, she nonetheless attracted considerable attention. While in her late teens, she was booked for 40 concerts, mostly in Scandinavia. “It was funny, because it was not at all my plan,” she said. “My plan was to participate in the competition in order to study lots of repertoire, and when I got second, I would not have thought that it would be the real beginning of an international career.”
So she had to put on the brakes a bit, telling managers that she wanted to finish her studies and develop as a musician. “I really needed to take the time,” she said. “The life of an international soloist — it’s such a particular and unusual and incredibly tough thing. If you start when you are very young, there are a lot of things that you don’t know about it. It’s very important to take your time, because it can also be quite destructive very quickly if you are not ready yet.”
Batiashvili now regularly performs with many of the world’s top orchestras, and she has been an artist-in-residence with several, including the New York Philharmonic (2014-15) and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (2016-17). This season, she holds such a post with the Münchner Konzertdirektion Hörtnagel, a noted chamber-music series in Munich. These positions allow her to return to an orchestra or series more than once in a season and to propose adventurous projects of her own design. “It’s a great honor because you feel that that there is a desire to explore the artist more than usual and give them a kind of carte blanche,” she said. “This is fantastic, because if you an artist-in-residence with a great orchestra or institution, then you have so many possibilities. That’s nice, but it’s also quite a demanding position, because it’s something you have to build. It’s something that has to have a nice path from the first concert to the last one.”
Batiashvili has recorded five albums for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, including her most recent, Visions of Prokofiev, which she made with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Released in February 2018, it includes the composer’s two violin concertos, as well as excerpts from some of his ballets and operas in arrangements for violin and orchestra by her father and first teacher, Tamás Batiashvili.
With maturity and the success that Batiashvili has achieved has come a sense of responsibility — not only to sustain the level of playing she has attained but also to help younger musicians and to support the musical community and society at large. “That’s the most interesting part, that the life of a musician doesn’t stop with just the interest of their own performances,” she said. “It can go really wide and broaden itself into lots of aspects of life.”