By Lenny Cavallaro
Groveland, MA, USA
Violinist Alexander Markov has a profound connection to the legendary Niccolo Paganini. A gold medal-winner in the International Paganini Competition, he has performed that composer’s 24 Caprices to the highest critical acclaim, and subsequently recorded them for both CD and a DVD by Bruno Monsaingeon. Markov was also featured in the same director’s documentary, The Art of the Violin.
It is the opinion of this writer (and others) that Markov’s performance of the Caprices is without peer. Moreover, as we look more carefully, we can find deeper similarities between the 19th century wizard and this contemporary artist. Paganini was a trailblazer, whose compositions took the violin in a new direction. Markov is also a composer, and is actively involved with the ongoing evolution of his Rock Concerto, a collaboration with James Remington. He hopes this truly transformative work will bridge the gap between rock and classical - and, at the same time, bring more young people into the concert halls. I caught up with the violinist in mid-August and discussed this project and other topics.
STAY THIRSTY: You were born in the USSR and immigrated to the USA with your family. Your career, as they say, “shot off like a rocket.” You were a child prodigy, orchestral soloist at nine, Paganini Competition laureate, recipient of an Avery Fisher Grant…Wow! I understand you learned the Paganini Caprices in one summer, which is truly an amazing feat. And after all that, we find you taking a strange turn - I won’t call it a “wrong turn” - into the rock world! Let’s fast-forward to the present, and you continue to concertize, performing concerti with leading orchestras around the world - the Philadelphia and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestras, BBC and Montreal Symphonies, and others. You’ve played with leading conductors, including Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, and Lorin Maazel. At the same time, you’re also composing and performing with your rock ensemble. Hmmm…let’s see…I’m supposed to tie this in with Paganini, right?
Alexander Markov in Concert
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Well, quite seriously, people say there are some similarities. But let’s start at the beginning. Paganini’s first teacher was his father. My first and most important teacher was my father, Albert Markov, a concert violinist, composer, and musician - and also a very solid pedagogue.
STAY THIRSTY: Would you say he provided the greatest influence on your musical development?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Absolutely! He had that wonderful ability to bring out the best from a student. He wasn’t looking for a clone; he didn’t want me to be exactly like him. Where I was achieving good musical results, he would encourage me go my own way. Where he perceived weaknesses, he would work with me to correct them. Many performers don’t teach well; many teachers don’t play particularly well. My father was one of those rare musicians who could do both.
STAY THIRSTY: Various names come up as the presumptive teachers of Paganini. Alessandro Rolla has a comical appearance in the novel [Paganini’s Fire], and there were others. But in some ways it was the old man, Antonio Paganini.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Exactly; the strongest influence. Of course, I played for many other outstanding violinists - I can even drop names like Heifetz and Menuhin - but I still feel it is my father who deserves immense credit.
STAY THIRSTY: But he surely didn’t push you into rock ‘n’ roll, did he?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Well, perhaps indirectly. When I was a kid, we came to the United States, and it wasn’t long before I discovered rock ‘n’ roll - and also girls, of course!
STAY THIRSTY: Paganini was surely more adventurous than you with the ladies, but please tell us more about the rock.
Albert Markov and Alexander Markov
ALEXANDER MARKOV: I was always a great fan of Paganini. He was in some ways the great “punk rocker” of his day. He also saw a need to take his instrument, the violin, to a new direction, so he composed music designed to do just that.
Performance is an art, but at least for me, it is not enough. I believe that as a performer, I would be only half a musician. Look at our musical history. In the 19th century, many of the greatest performers - Liszt, of course, and Chopin, both influenced by Paganini - were also composers. And even in the 20th century, we still see a pianist like Rachmaninoff or a violinist like Kreisler. So I, too, want to compose, to create something, and I believe that by being creative, I shall also improve my performance.
STAY THIRSTY: As a composer-pianist myself, I can certainly agree with you on that score, but rock? How on earth did that happen? Why?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Seriously: I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll after I got to the USA. I was genuinely impressed by the fact that these musicians don’t just perform their music; they also write it; they create it. And that is something that far too few performers today feel they need to do.
The other factor here is that classical music is - well, let’s not say it’s “dying,” but the audiences are certainly getting older. The truth is that because of so many factors, including budget cuts that have removed or diminished music in the public schools, fewer and fewer of our youth receive a sufficient exposure to classical music to maintain an interest. So, I got to thinking that something like the Rock Concerto, played jointly with a normal classical program - maybe something like the Tchaikovsky concerto, for example - would be a great way of getting young people into the concert halls. And sure enough, when we played in Carnegie Hall, we had some kids who had never heard a classical concert before, and plenty of older concertgoers who had never seen a rock concert before, so I’d say it works. I should add that the concert was sold-out!
STAY THIRSTY: But isn’t this something of a “one-shot deal”?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Not at all. I see the Rock Concerto as a mixture of both worlds. Rock and classical may in fact evolve together and give birth to something new. I have certainly seen first-hand that a work of this sort requires new rules for arrangements, and I’m looking forward to future projects blending the two styles.
STAY THIRSTY: And as a performer?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Let’s just say I want both sides of my career to stand on their own!
STAY THIRSTY: Tell us a little about the collaboration with Bruno Monsaingeon. How did that happen?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: I had a debut in New York. My father told me that I had to do “something different”; I couldn’t just play the “tried and true” warhorses. If I programmed things like the Cesar Frank [sonata], the Brahms d minor, or one of the popular Beethoven works, nobody would pay attention. Those are masterpieces, but they are performed hundreds of times every year. So, I decided to do the entire set of Paganini Caprices. Maybe that was why Bruno, who happened to be in New York, attended the concert. Afterward, he came by, introduced himself, and asked whether I might be interested in recording for the DVD. Months passed, and Bruno got the funding. Off I flew to Italy to play 56 caprices!
STAY THIRSTY: 56? You mean 24!
ALEXANDER MARKOV: 56! First I played the entire set in the morning, just to familiarize the camera crew with the music and to let them figure out what angles to take and what they wanted to show. Then I performed them in concert at night, as you can see in the video. However, we wanted to do some extra takes for backup at the studio, so I returned and gave them eight more. If you do the math…
STAY THIRSTY: I get it! That must have been enormously taxing, physically as well as musically! Even Paganini never attempted anything that demanding!
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Well, I’m sure his concerts were magnificent, and we can read all the accounts, the ladies fainting, people going hysterical…a little like today’s rock concerts, wouldn’t you agree? But in a way, that’s a huge piece of it - it’s how the audience reacts.
STAY THIRSTY: The novel recreates that celebrated concert in the Lido graveyard at midnight - all part of the “Paganini mystique.” And then there were the stories of how someone spent days at his hotel door, trying to listen to Paganini practice - but he heard nothing, because the fiddler was simply practicing silently, without the bow. And soon rumors started flying about some “secret.”
ALEXANDER MARKOV: I can share an anecdote along those lines. I had occasion to play a concert in Cyprus at a beautiful monastery, Bellapais Abbey. The setting was incredible, and I thought, Why not use candles, rather than electric lights? The house management loved the idea, and the concert went splendidly. But what happened? Some people started the rumor that I wanted it darker so I could hide my “secret”! Shades of Paganini! But, as my father taught me a long time ago, as long as they’re talking about me, that’s all that counts!
STAY THIRSTY: Your mother is also a violinist?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Yes, indeed, and a very fine musician in her own right. She played with the Bolshoi Opera orchestra. All three of us have done some joint concerts together - triple concerti, things like that. It was always a wonderful experience.
STAY THIRSTY: You have also been making presentations in public schools. How have you managed to get funding?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: I haven’t. They’re unfunded. These dates are simply my personal contribution to the culture of this country, because America welcomed me and my family. I can appeal to younger generations. They love the gold violin I use for rock, and I also play some Paganini on my classical instrument. Obviously, the parents love it as well, since they usually can’t drag their kids to classical concerts. The thing about the Rock Concerto is that it appeals to the youth, their parents, and even their grandparents. The school appearances started in New York, but wherever I have concerts, I try to link them to nearby schools. These have been well received, and I’ve even heard that more kids have begun to study the violin. I find such reports extremely rewarding; it’s so exciting to give them that sort of motivation. And in this way, I feel I am also giving something back to America.
STAY THIRSTY: I’ll ask you about that gold violin later, but what type of instrument are you using for your classical concerts?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: I use a Sergio Peresson; he’s one of the most respected instrument makers in the world. Eugene Fodor, Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline du Pre, and Mstislav Rostropovich all used Peressons. I also played a Guarneri “del Gesu” for several years - a great instrument, to be sure - but people couldn’t tell the difference! I think we’re talking about different things - the historical, sentimental, and commercial value as opposed to the practical value. My only concern is how well the instrument will project in the concert hall. Do we really love the sound for what it is, or are we in love with the label inside the instrument?
STAY THIRSTY: But speaking of the “del Gesu,” did you ever get to play Paganini’s instrument?
Alexander Markov with Paganini's Violin
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Yes! I played the “Cannon” as part of the gold medal award in the Paganini Competition. I got to practice on the instrument a couple of times - under heavy security! - and then gave an evening recital there, featuring Paganini, of course. The violin is phenomenal, although I felt it was not well maintained. This is the most legendary violin in the world, and it should have been cleaned and given better overall care.
But getting back to what I was saying, I think someone should do a documentary about these “priceless” violins and include some of the amusing stories going around. In my case, I was playing the Sibelius with the Radio Orchestra of Vienna. After the rehearsal, one of the violinists approached me, genuinely in awe of my instrument. “Gorgeous fiddle! That must be a ‘del Gesu’!” he declared. I explained that it was my Peresson. “Oh, well,” he sighed. “You’re still young. One of these days you’ll get a ‘del Gesu’!” Can you imagine a whole DVD full of episodes like that?
STAY THIRSTY: It would be amusing! But speaking of DVD’s, I understand that you have been working on one recently.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Yes, although it’s not the “final” DVD I want to see eventually. This will be a high quality audio and video of the concert we recently had in Izmir, Turkey, where they hold a very prestigious music festival. This year they had two major orchestras - the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna - and they have also had leading pop stars like Sting and Elton John.
The video they made came extremely well, though I wasn’t altogether happy with the audio. I’ve taken it to the studio in New York, and I think it’s much better now. This finished DVD won’t be sold commercially, but it will be broadcast across sixty countries. This should give us huge exposure and generate more attention for the project. However, this is definitely just the beginning.
I must explain that this entire project has been extremely challenging, but very exciting for me. Things always came rather easily to me in the classical field, but not so with rock. With classical, at least one doesn’t need to compose and arrange, but rock is different.
I didn’t want to do a “traditional rock ‘n’ roll thing.” Instead, James Remington and I decided I should draw on my classical roots to bring something new and different to rock. It’s been a great collaboration, James and I from the start, and I must also give credit to Neal Coomer, who wrote the vocal melodies and the lyrics. Rock Concerto has been many years in the making. As I said before, it has been very challenging, since the “rules” for rock and electric instruments are so very different.
Meanwhile, I’ve found a terrific group of rock artists to perform with me, people who have worked with some of the greatest artists in the business. Finally, I feel that everything is starting to fall into place. I should add that Rock Concerto shows are routinely “sold-out,” precisely because of the work’s broad appeal. In fact, we were a “headlining” event at a concert in Ankara, Turkey, and drew over 8,500 people.
STAY THIRSTY: Tell us a little more about your ensemble.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: The actual band is now a group of nine. We have Neal Coomer, our lead singer; Tawatha Agee and Elaine Caswell, backup vocalists; Gregg Gerson on drums; Juanito Pascual, flamenco guitar; Rees Bridges on percussion; bass guitarist Ivan Bodley (who also does the synthesizer), pianist Heike Doerr (who is also my regular classical recital pianist), and the violinist. The nine of us are the regulars. The orchestra may run from 40 up to 80, depending on the budget, as may the choir. At Carnegie Hall, we had 130 people on stage. But we have a scaled down version, also.
I must add that the students from the La Guardia High School of Performing Arts, who sang in the choir with us for the Carnegie Hall concert, did an absolutely incredible job. Their energy was truly exciting!
STAY THIRSTY: And the work itself?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: The concerto has ten sections, some with songs and orchestral parts, as well as the solo passages…it’s a huge mixture, but geared toward rock ‘n’ roll.
STAY THIRSTY: Have you written anything in more conventional styles?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Honestly? No; not really. My father has composed a symphony, an opera, and many other works. I never developed an interest in composing in the classical genre, because so much has already been written. I want to do something different, and I think this fusion with rock is the right direction for me.
STAY THIRSTY: Who designed your electric violin?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: This was again James Remington. When I started to talk with him about the rock project, we quickly agreed that I needed a different instrument. I didn’t like the existing models, so we developed this one - which is patented.
So there I am. I have my classical career, and continue to concertize extensively, yet I am also trying to develop this new rock style, and have a vision of combining both classical and rock at the same concert.
STAY THIRSTY: Have you found any antagonism from the classical world? Has anyone begun to take you less seriously as an artist?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Thankfully, no! Of course, I hadn’t done that much with rock music until just about two years ago. As long as I continue to deliver my classical concerti, things seem to be OK. However, like a politician, the artist cannot please everyone, and I accept that. Ultimately, it is the music that I love!
In a way, if I may dare to make the comparison, I face some of the same challenges Paganini faced. He was doing new things and moving off in a new direction. Some critics didn’t approve, but most of them came to appreciate his art.
Alexander Markov performing his
STAY THIRSTY: So which way is your career pointed at present?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Busy as ever with the classical. I recently performed the Brahms concerto in Budapest with the fabulous conductor, Zoltan Kocsis. However, the rock career is also very exciting, and as an artist I simply need to do more. I need to create, to discover new styles. In this sense, I follow in the footsteps of Paganini. Moreover, when you’re a composer and you go back to performance, you find a lot of new ideas in your approach to someone else’s music, too.
STAY THIRSTY: Paganini was certainly a fine composer - though one of the criticisms he encountered as a performer was that he seemed “partial to Paganini.” Nevertheless, he remains a force to the present day, wouldn’t you agree?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Absolutely! Paganini remains a huge influence because of his innovations and, of course, his music. Auditions often require his compositions, and he developed many new devices. One cannot think of the electric guitar and the things that can be done on it without mentioning Jimi Hendrix. Similarly, one can’t think about the violin without mentioning Niccolo Paganini!
STAY THIRSTY: The late Ruggiero Ricci, who died recently (August 6th), was the first to record the Caprices (1947), and for a long while, he was considered the foremost interpreter of Paganini. Did you ever meet him?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Only once, when I was a child, and my father casually played his own rhapsody, based on Porgy ‘N Bess, for Ricci. I remember how I listened to him when I was younger. He did some truly exciting things with the Caprices. Lots of people are carried away with technical challenges to these works, but they forget that in the end, it’s all about the music. They may play very well technically, but they don’t necessarily say that much musically. Ricci was truly musical in his interpretation, and that’s what made it so good. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear Ricci live. I know him from recording, but that’s really not the same thing. The spontaneity is lost.
STAY THIRSTY: What is there about certain performers that captivates the audience? Of course, I’m thinking about Paganini, not Ricci.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Paganini was unbelievably creative. He felt there was so much more the violin could do. He created his vision with all these new techniques - left hand pizzicato, double harmonics, and so on. Somehow, once he had become famous - once he had done something truly amazing on an artistic level - the audience took over with the rumors and legends. Of course, this provided great PR, and he exploited it to the fullest.
After my debut of the Paganini Caprices in New York, I got all sorts of bizarre letters - some with rather abrasive, almost disgusting comments; others, more amusing. My father assured me that this was a very good sign.
STAY THIRSTY: Paganini historically often got those comments, including that celebrated criticism for his “mere technique,” as my mother, Ann Abelson, mentioned in Paganini’s Fire.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Paganini generally wasn’t criticized for his performances. Instead, they attacked the compositions. However, there are so many gorgeous, lyrical passages in his music. Yes, he based his showmanship on the technique, which was very exciting. But it is not enough just to get the showmanship across. If we look more carefully at the sonatas for violin and guitar, or even passages in the Caprices, we find extremely beautiful music. I think Paganini’s compositional skills are underrated. We can’t compare him with Mozart, but why should we? Nevertheless, he had a very sincere way of composing in his own right, and it worked for him. And we can even see the influence of Italian opera.
STAY THIRSTY: I should be remiss as a journalist if I failed to ask about your outfits for the Rock Concerto. Most of the time, I just listen to music, but in your case, since you have such a striking stage appearance, I happened to watch the videos. Those clothes - they’re not exactly what I’d expect to see on a classical violinist.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Thanks to rock music, I’ve learned how to get out of the box - or tails! Yes, I still wear tails to certain very formal events, but sometimes it’s fun to do something a little more interesting. And at a rock event - well, let’s just say I’ve learned to become very open-minded. Classical music, also, doesn’t have to be altogether rigid.
However, I must explain something about what you saw. Absolutely nothing one finds on YouTube under “Rock Concerto” is official. It was all probably uploaded from someone’s cell phone or similar device. That is why the sound quality is so dreadful, and the music is out of sync with the video.
STAY THIRSTY: So, alas, it will be some while before we hear a commercial recording of your Rock Concerto. Meanwhile, however, you have certainly recorded extensively.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Yes, I have. I did all the Tchaikovsky works for piano and violin, a CD with Paganini’s music for violin and guitar, several recital programs with piano, two violin concertos of Paganini, three of Vieuxtemps. But these days, the recording industry is intended primarily for promotion.
STAY THIRSTY: How do you feel about the extensive “over-editing” on so many recordings today?
ALEXANDER MARKOV: It’s really rather foolish, and in the long run it detracts from the music. Performers try much too hard to make everything sound “perfect.” But let me tell you a true story: I mentioned the recording of all the Tchaikovsky violin music. When we were through with the editing and mixing, I asked the producers if they were satisfied, and if we essentially had everything “in the can.” They assured me we did. I then said, “O.K. Now, please let me do it just once more. Call it the ‘Crazy Alex’ take.” And I proceeded to play without worrying about how “perfect” the technique was. I played from the heart, from the soul. The result? Most of what you’ll hear on that recording came from the “Crazy Alex” take, because musically it was so much more natural.
STAY THIRSTY: This comment speaks volumes. Yes, the sincerity of the artist is the most important thing. It is too bad that we now need to sanitize recordings and make them “perfect” - even when they say nothing musically.
ALEXANDER MARKOV: Absolutely! Paganini had an incomparable technique, but I’m sure even he made errors. However, he must have played with remarkable sincerity. I’ll keep that thought in mind when we finally record the Rock Concerto.
STAY THIRSTY: I don’t know how Paganini would have liked rock ‘n’ roll, but we shall certainly look forward to hearing it!
Video Courtesy of Warner Classics. Photos courtesy of Alexander Markov.