17 Year Old Virtuoso Violinist: Andrea Cicalese

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s subject is about what it’s like to be a classical musician in the 21st century. I’m so pleased to have violinist Andrea Cicalese here with me today. I had the opportunity to hear him play in a private concert just a few blocks from here with a dear friend and sensational pianist, Zsolt Bognár.

Robert Estrin:
Welcome Andrea! Good to have you here.

Andrea Cicalese:
Thank you so much for having me on your wonderful show. I am really flattered to be invited and I’m really happy to share some of my stories with you!

Robert Estrin:
Absolutely. I was really astounded going to this concert and I was already very taken with your playing. Not only the technical mastery, but the depth of your musicianship. At a certain point, my wife whispered in my ear that you were 17 years old, and I almost fell out of my seat! Then later on, speaking with you, learning that you’ve only been playing the violin for nine years, I thought, How is this possible? So tell me a little bit about your background and your training. You’re from Italy, living in Germany. You’re making your foray into the United States now. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Andrea Cicalese:

I started playing the violin when I was seven, which was exactly when I moved from Italy to Germany.

I learned violin before German, really. So it was kind of a language for me to learn at that moment. It was a moment in my life where I really needed this, since we left family, friends and everyone to move to Germany. The violin was me comforting myself. Basically, I started lessons with Rudens Turku, also under the guidance of Ana Chumachenco, who is just an incredible teacher. Then I moved to Wuerzburg University of Music when I was 13. I studied with Herwig Zack there. I’m currently, since two years, a student of Josef Rissin, who I just couldn’t be happier with. I think he’s an absolute genius of music. He’s taught people like Daniel Lozakovich, Sergey Khachatryan and Albrecht Breuninger, really amazing people. I think I’m in the right place right now and I don’t really want to go. So that’s my musicianship right now. Then we met in America, as you were saying, and that’s because I was invited to play a recital in Buffalo with pianist Alexander Malofeev, who is, as we all know, incredible.

Robert Estrin:
That must have been quite an experience for you.

Andrea Cicalese:
Absolutely. It was actually my dream to perform with him.

It sounds like a movie when I say it, but that’s just what happened.

I remember sitting on the couch with my father. I was showing him a video of Alexander. I said to him, “One day, do you think I will play with this guy?” He is four years older than me. So it was like a feeling of someone that I looked up to a lot. So, someone still in my generation but older, and here I was two weeks ago, we played in Buffalo. We played Beethoven’s 1st Sonata, Schubert Sonatina in D from Opus 34, and Grieg’s third Sonata. Then encores by Shostakovich. It was just a wonderful experience!

Robert Estrin:
And fabulous! A lot of people would imagine that in order to get to such a level of playing and artistry in such a short amount of time, that you would be spending all day, every day practicing. In talking to you, you revealed to me that you don’t practice as much as some people might think. Tell us a little bit about what your day to day is generally like. Of course, when you’re preparing for a program, I imagine you’re immersed in practicing and rehearsing and all of that. But how do you find balance with travel, practicing, learning new repertoire, rehearsing and all of that? What’s that like?

Andrea Cicalese:
Well, that’s basically, I think, what a healthy life of a musician nowadays should be, what I’m trying to achieve. In my opinion, you cannot practice 7 hours a day without really any reason. Then you’re only in this practice room. A pianist who is practicing 8 hours a day, only in his practice room alone, then suddenly, like in a Hollywood movie, he gets discovered. Then he goes on stage and he’s the best performer of all time! That can happen. Sure.

I believe that to perform well, which is what I try to do, you must have a life.

You must have experiences. You must see nature, art, literature, friends, communication, love, hate. Everything must be there in order to have something to say. Because if you are empty inside, then it’s not really going to go well. After my recitals, it’s usually some of the most lonely moments in my life, because I play and I open my soul to the audience. So I really give them part of me, of my being in that very moment, of my present being. I give them part of me and then I go into the dressing room and I’m empty because I have nothing more to say. That’s when you feel alive in a concert. To quote my friend Daniel Lozakovich, “When you feel alive in a concert, that’s when a concert went well.”

Robert Estrin:
Absolutely. I always enjoy the after-concert, getting together with friends and fans. It’s always a joy and kind of a relief because there is a certain amount of nerves. And that’s a question for you. Tell me about how you handle nerves. Do you get nervous? What’s it like for you getting on stage when there are hundreds or even thousands of people in a hall? How do you cope with that?

Andrea Cicalese:

I’m very lucky because I don’t really have big problems with being nervous.

What I call it is adrenaline. There’s always adrenaline when I play, when I do chamber music, when I perform as a soloist. There is always something there. Nevertheless, my most nervousness actually comes in the preparation of the concert and not really during the concert. For example, in Buffalo playing with Alexander. We are very good friends. But still, he is an important guy. Obviously, nervousness shows responsibility. You want to do well. That’s why you become nervous. You feel a certain responsibility for the audience. I prepare so hard and so well, or I try to at least tofe el very confident about what I’m doing. When I got to rehearsals with Alexander, which we did, I think a maximum of two days of rehearsal for a one and a half hour long program, so really not much time. We were already seeing that things were working really well. We were a good team. We were playing well together and the atmosphere was wonderful. Because although he has this big career, he makes me feel like just a colleague and friend. So we had a wonderful time. When we got on stage we really just had fun together. And also backstage, I mean, it was just a fun moment. We behave like little brother, big brother. Basically that’s our relationship. So I couldn’t feel more comfortable. Generally in my performances, I approach things like a game, but with responsibility.

Robert Estrin:
Well that’s great that you put the nerves at the beginning instead of at the end, as it should be. I know there are different schools of thought as to how to approach performing. For example, at a concert I attended of Ivo Pogorelić, a sensational pianist, the hall was completely black, so you couldn’t see your hands in front of you. He walked out on stage and without even looking at the audience, proceeded to play a brilliant performance. So perhaps his way of coping with the audience is to pretend they’re not there. I may be misspeaking because I don’t know this for a fact, but what I like to do is, in a best case scenario, take that energy, that adrenalin you spoke of, and use it to inspire things that maybe I’ve never thought of doing before. So I’m going to ask you, how much of your program do you leave to the moment, to spontaneity? How much do you try to faithfully reproduce what you did in practice?

Andrea Cicalese:
So there is this violinist, Jascha Heifetz, which I’m about to quote. He’s the most legendary violinist of all time. “When you practice, act like it’s the last time you’re playing, when you play the concerts, don’t give a damn!” But what I mean to say with this is when I practice, it’s all worked out really finely, like every phrase. There is history behind this music. There is a way to play it. Of course, you have to be an individual. But I really program what I want to do, like as a total shape.

Andrea Cicalese:

When I go to the performance, I don’t think about what I programmed to do. I just do it!

And when I just do it, certain things might be different. I think generally when you say this phrasing is good or bad, that’s not really possible. I think it depends on the context. So what came before and what feels right to do in the moment? For example, in the second movement of Schubert, which you heard me play, there is an unbelievably slow and warm thing from the violin, which in every performance I play differently. You can’t really program this. My approach is to feel the energy from the audience and then to reflect it in an amplified version to them. I take my adrenaline and give it to them. That’s super important to me.

An intimate hall where I can connect more with the people is what I personally enjoy the most.

Robert Estrin:
Yes. It was a joy hearing you in an intimate setting. We sat in the first row, so I was maybe five or six feet from you. Growing up with my father, Morton Estrin, I heard him as a concert pianist up close all the time. When you’re in the same room with a concert pianist or concert violinist, the energy and intensity is so amazing! But getting back to this idea of what to do in a performance, I sometimes liken it to a conversation. If you’ve ever had an important interview or something, you might rehearse in your mind everything you’re going to say to the last detail. But once you come to the actual conversation, or in this case the performance, there is a give and take with the audience, and certainly with the musicians you’re playing with. So you can never really predict where it’s going to go. You can never recreate those moments. Even if you do the greatest performance you’ve ever done in your life, you can’t then decide that’s the way you’re going to play it. It’s never going to be the same.

Andrea Cicalese:
You can have an idea of how you want to construct things. You know, here I want to be quieter… But the exact tone, the amount of vibrato, the warmth in the bow that you decide to give or the exact tempi… For example, speaking of pianists, I heard Mikhail Pletnev play all the Chopin Preludes, Nocturnes, Scriabin Impromptu and Beethoven Concerto and it was the most unbelievable concert of my life! I learned so much from that. I’ve never heard such a pianissimo being played on the piano, like nothing, but still with quality. His timing is unbelievable and I cannot believe that it’s always the same. I think that when you become a great master like him, although I hate the word master in music, but when you’re as good as that, I think that’s what you do in a concert.

When I get in a hall, I say out loud to myself, “Okay, so this is my playground today.”

Robert Estrin:
That’s a great attitude. I want to talk a little bit about the way players played in the early part of the 20th century compared to the playing styles of today on violin, on piano and all instruments, I think they’re quite different. You mentioned Heifetz, and there’s Milstein. There were great pianists like Hoffmann, Levine, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz. It seems that there was much more creative diversity in performances then. I attribute this change to technology. My generation grew up with recordings, and now everybody has everything right in their pocket!

You can hear every performance of everybody in the world at the click of a button, and I think to some extent that’s made everybody play more alike.

I was wondering what your feelings are about that. If somebody goes out and plays with a kind of wildly creative expression, would it even be accepted today? What’s your feeling about the general performance practices in the 21st century compared to earlier in the 20th century?

Andrea Cicalese:
That’s a very interesting question. I always change my ideas on this. On the one hand, I love to be able to pick up my phone and listen to unlimited music, which is a gift for us young musicians, to be able to listen to whatever we want. So on the one hand that’s wonderful. On the other hand, you mentioned the common problem. For example, Rachmaninoff. With Rachmaninoff, I always associate Fritz Kreisler, a legendary violinist. They even recorded the Grieg sonata together.

Robert Estrin:
I’ve heard that performance. And of course, it’s spectacular.

Andrea Cicalese:
The way Kreisler plays it, today people in the audience would look around like, “What is this?” But take the second movement, which I’m the most fan of. I mean, the tempi of Rachmaninoff and Kreisler’s tone, vibrato. I mean, you have to get used to it, but I think it’s the best recording of the second movement. But today in any competition you would be thrown out in the first round!

Generally when I play a piece I don’t really listen to recordings.

I listen to recordings before and after I play it, because of the problem that you mentioned. So that’s my reason for myself.

Robert Estrin:
You know what I do? I purposely don’t listen to any recordings until after I have a piece on performance level. Then I go crazy and listen to every single performance! It’s so interesting to hear how different people play a piece, but I don’t want to be influenced before I have my own convictions about it.

Andrea Cicalese:
As you were mentioning in your generation, you were buying CDs from people that you admired. You were spending money on it. So it was an effort to buy them. Some were more accessible, some were less accessible. And so, of course, you would choose the great masters like Horowitz.

I think it’s super important for young musicians to develop good taste.

Because if you develop good taste, then you’re able to listen to yourself practice and decide, okay, this phrasing maybe is more acceptable than this. Listening to the old legends used to be more common. Nowadays people click on the first recording on Spotify, then they listen to 500 things and then they’re confused. So there are pros and cons for us. But from the learning perspective, I think the development of good taste is the most important.


Robert Estrin:

I just did a video recently about the two instruments everybody studies in music conservatory, which are piano and singing. So I was wondering what background you have in other instruments, piano specifically, and any other instruments that you may have studied?

Andrea Cicalese:

With a teacher I have not studied any other instrument. But in my free time I am constantly on the piano.

Mostly I try a little bit of jazz, actually. I love to listen to all sorts of jazz recordings. When I have a phrase in mind, it’s really important for me to sing it or to play it on the piano. Because if I’m playing a piece and I’m singing it, then I don’t care about technical issues because for myself, I don’t really care about how I sing. On the violin I always care about intonation, rhythm, or how I put my fingers. When I sing, I just ignore these things. And then I have a much more clear understanding of what I actually want to do. I can take that and apply it to my instrument.

Robert Estrin:
My daughter, Jenny Estrin is a violinist. She plays with the Mozart players, the opera, the ballet and all of that. But she also performs fiddling and songwriting. So I’m wondering how much crossover you do. You mentioned jazz. Do you do any jazz violin or other styles?

Andrea Cicalese:
I don’t perform jazz, for now. Maybe something within my career can still happen. Take Friedrich Gulda, talking about pianists. After many years in Carnegie Hall concerts, he moved to America and did jazz on what they said was an acceptable level for the serious jazz community in America. I mean that can always happen. Or with conducting, I’m really fascinated. But about jazz, I mean, public performances I have not played. In my free time sometimes I play with my father, who plays the piano. We do certain jazz pieces together. I tend not to do it too much simply because some technical aspects are really different in jazz violin. I want to not ruin my technique for classical music.

But once every two or three days I play some jazz for an hour. It’s super important for me because we classical musicians tend to take the music too seriously.

I see music very differently. I see it like a game that is played. I was asked by Zsolt Bognár, how seriously do we have to take music? And my answer was that my goal is just to learn. I see children from 0 to 7 years old, how much they learn, but how not seriously they take it. That’s what I’m inspired by, essentially.

Robert Estrin:
That’s a great observation. It’s the discovery and curiosity that makes it have a playfulness about it instead of such a seriousness, not to mention the fact that so many people think of classical music as being serious music. Certainly there are some devastating, you know, movements of Shostakovich or Mahler. But then again, there’s playfulness in these composers as well.

Andrea Cicalese:
It’s just a game really.

Robert Estrin:
I know you’re from Italy, living in Germany, and I don’t know how long you’re in the United States. Tell us a bit about your immediate plans and what your long term hopes are for your future with the violin and in life in general.

Andrea Cicalese:
I come from Italy and I always go back to Italy really because I’m still in high school. So here in Germany I attend high school in Munich. I have violin conservatory lessons. Mostly I play here, of course, because more people know me here. I went to America two times to meet with Alexander Malofeev, to be interviewed by Zsolt Bognár and have a wonderful discussion on Living the Classical Life, and to give two recitals in Cleveland and one in Buffalo with Alexander Malofeev. So that’s my experience in America, which was just wonderful. Then I was in New York later, which is just, you know, a big jungle and really exciting for me. About my immediate plans, between the end of January and April I have seven concerts with Vivaldi Winter. Then there is other music to perform with an ensemble. Accompanying me are members from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, which is really nice. We did the same with the Beethoven Concerto once.

The most wonderful thing about it is that it’s for children who want to listen to the music.

They come with their parents and they just listen. And there are these fun interactions later with the children. Yet the music is on a really high level because as I mentioned, the orchestra is Munich Philharmonic members. So it’s just wonderful to make music on a high level. But at the same time, keep in mind that this is for people who have never maybe even heard the violin! Of course, adults are welcome too. We have this short tour in Bavaria. Seven concerts all for children, with Heinrich Klug, first cellist of Munich Philharmonic. He played the Shostakovich Cello Concerto for Shostakovich in Moscow! So he’s a really great guy, a really good friend. That’s my immediate plan.

In the future, apart from soloistic performances, I hope to play a lot more chamber music with colleagues like Alexander Malofeev. We also decided to go on tour with Zsolt Bognár. There’s a lot of things that are yet to come! Of course one day if we stick to America, hopefully we will attend another performance of mine in Carnegie Hall! That’s the big goal.

Robert Estrin:
That would be fabulous! I’m so glad to get to know you and look forward to hearing more of you. Perhaps we can perform together at some point as well.

Andrea Cicalese:
Absolutely.

Robert Estrin:
Growing up in Europe and coming here to the U.S., I’m wondering if you find any qualitative difference between audiences here, the acceptance of classical music in the United States, compared to in Europe, where you grew up?

Andrea Cicalese:
Actually, I find quite big differences. I see that in the United States many classical musicians are also doing more social media, or playing other types of music, or being entertaining with other types of content that is not music. It has great sides, for example, that it’s more accessible for young people in America, I believe. On the other hand, one has to always watch out that it doesn’t get completely away from classical music. Otherwise you’re not making it more accessible, you’re just changing the topic. Also in America, it felt like everything is more possible. There is more opportunity once you’re in a circle of people that want to help you. I don’t know if it’s my perception, but I saw a lot of works with donations in America, while in Europe it’s almost not possible. In America. If there’s someone who believes in you, you’re being pushed much further. On the other hand, I see places like Juilliard or CIM (Cleveland Institute of Music) which have prices like $55,000 per year, which I could not afford. And here in Europe, we have the Vienna Conservatory, the biggest conservatory in the world, probably, with incredible education and incredible teachers, really geniuses of music. I’m paying $300 per semester. So in that sense, that’s more accessible for young people.

Robert Estrin:

In America, orchestras, for the most part, are supported by private donors. Whereas in Germany, for example, they’re state sponsored.

Andrea Cicalese:
The budget that they have in America, it’s just huge! I heard, for example, that a concertmaster in Cleveland can get up to seven figures! While in Munich, it’s much lower because it’s from the state, of course. That has also pros and cons because one can fall down really quickly from private donors. In America, even the streets are bigger! It looks like you can dream more in America, which in some cases is true. But in Germany it’s much more structured, like Germans generally.

Robert Estrin:
I wish you great success in your budding career! I look forward to keeping in touch with you. I want to thank you for visiting here. You can check out more of Andrea HERE.
Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

For premium videos and exclusive content, you can join my Living Pianos Patreon channel! www.Patreon.com/RobertEstrin

Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sheGUPECZmc&ab_channel=AndreaCicalese

2 thoughts on “17 Year Old Virtuoso Violinist: Andrea Cicalese”


 
 

  1. I am also already a great fan of Alexander Malofeev, and it pleases me to hear the two play together.

    So interesting Andrea should mention Friedrich Gulda. I thought I was the only person in the entire world who knew about him! I was looking for CDs of his jazz performances several years ago, and couldn’t find any. I had to buy vinyl. Now I see they are available on CD. To Andrea, I say, Thank you for mentioning him. The best of blessings in your career. You are a fine musician, and I shall follow you. And I like the way you think.

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