An Interview withRoberto González-Monjas

By · Photography © Ricardo González · Date 10/12/2017

I studied with the violinist Roberto González-Monjas at the Mozarteum, in Salzburg, from 2009–2011. My age and once my neighbor in a dormitory, he is now principal concert master of the Swiss chamber orchestra Musikkollegium Winterthur and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Selfies of him with Yuja Wang appear from time to time on my Facebook feed. Recently, we caught up on Skype.

VAN: You studied with the legendary pianist Ferenc Rados. What was that like?

Roberto González-Monjas: It was life changing. What I learned from Rados was a way of thinking. You’re basically confronted with the fact that you haven’t thought through any of what you’re playing, and also that you haven’t necessarily looked at the score in any informed or intellectual way. You just copy-pasted together traditions, preconceived ideas, and a beautiful tone, and you tried to make an interpretation of a piece out of that. What Rados does it to basically ask you why. He says, “I don’t understand this. Why doesn’t this make sense? Let’s talk about it.” And then what he shows you is the bridge between reading the notes on a piece of paper, which don’t necessarily have a life, and using your intellect and information and your intuition, as well, to make emotion out of that.

After visiting Rados I was never the same. My priorities and perspective changed completely. Rados is different for everyone, but what I took from him was to be much more critical and not to make compromises.

Can you give an example of a musical moment that you played in a way that was made up of traditions, preconceived ideas, and a beautiful tone?

Take the first phrase of the Strauss Sonata for Violin and Piano, the first piece I ever played for Rados. The very first motive is quite complex, because it has a main note which repeats, and then this syncopated motive, an accented sixteenth note tied to a triplet. It’s a complex motive in the Viennese tradition. And first of all, I had tried to play it in a comfortable way, in the bowing and the fingering. Also, I had these reference recordings that I always tried to imitate. Then I went to Rados, and we spent maybe an hour on just the first couple of bars: to understand the value of the second note in relation to the first, how the tied sixteenth note relates to the triplet, what kind of space it needs, what it means harmonically. Suddenly I realized, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t given this a single thought!”

[This way of working] makes so much sense, and is very honest. Because it actually means you devote yourself to the composer and that musical tradition, and that’s it. You don’t put any kind of stupid spices on top and call it your interpretation.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major K. 216, I. Allegro; Roberto González-Monjas (Violin and Direction), Orquesta Joven de la Sinfónica de Galicia

You’ve said that you were living out of a suitcase for a time, and that it was depressing. What was that like concretely?

It wasn’t good. I guess I was going through the typical process—you just have to learn. I took on so many concerts, and I was happy to do all of them, but I disregarded the fact that you need a lot of time—connected to this Rados method—to study, make decisions, interpret, and really be sure what you want to do in the concert. It’s not just about playing the concert.

So I was basically studying until 2, 3, even 4 a.m., and then waking up at 8 a.m. and going to rehearsals. I was preparing pieces on top of pieces. Besides not really having a home, just traveling from here to there and living out of a suitcase. It was hard.

I came to the point where my health even started deteriorating, and I said, “OK, this isn’t good anymore.” I need a home base, I need to calm down, and I need to really invest time in what I want: myself, my life, and studying and having the time to be happy about what I do. In order to go up in front of an orchestra and give them a vision, and not just some string of ideas that makes no sense.

You’re the Joint Artistic Director of the Medellín Philharmonic Academy. We’ve featured critical writing on the past on El Sistema. How is this different?

Well, El Sistema’s problems have obviously been because of the political nature of its support from the Venezuelan government since its inception. Now there are people, heads [of the Venezuelan government], who are much more focused on themselves than on the right priorities, which are the kids.

What I’m trying to do in Medellín is remember the kids. Tours should be designed for them to have fun. If you play concerts, the programs should support their learning. You can never forget that an educational project needs to be of an educational nature—never about a political motivation or showing off.

In an interview you were asked to name your favorite conductor. You hesitated before answering with two greats, Kleiber and Celibidache. I felt like you had more to say about conducting, though.

It’s a hard topic. I’ve been directing lately, because conducting from the violin seems like the perfect extension for a violinist who loves his instrument—I’m not planning to put the violin to the side at all. But conducting, after all, means inspiring, sharing visions, making people play together and trying to unite a group so that the orchestra can send something out which has meaning and can reach an audience.

Anyway, it’s always hard to figure out what makes a good conductor. I think what matters is that people are extremely prepared, they’ve lived the piece enough to have a vision, and have the charisma and charm to unite people. So that’s what I try to do. It’s fascinating, but it also makes you confront yourself, and makes you self-conscious about what you do and don’t know.

I just recorded my first big CD where I was directing, and the months before were extremely difficult. You really go through every note, not once but a hundred times, saying, “Will this really make sense six months after the recording? Am I only seeing the piece from one side, just because I’m preparing it now? How am I going to leave this piece for the world to hear?”

So it’s a process. I love it, and I’m very scared of it at the same time. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t go for it.

How often would the conductors you work with be able to impress Rados with the way they’ve thought about a piece?

Very seldom. I am concerned, I have to say. I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but I do spend so much time working on pieces and the process is extremely painstaking; it never ends. So you can really feel whether someone has gone through that process or not. You can tell when someone is on stage and just knows the piece superficially. There are a lot of people who only fix technical things. There are people who just come and try to put a couple of superficial ideas on top. And there are the people who are occupied with the nature and DNA of the piece, with making something special out of it. Of course, there’s no magic recipe. It’s just that there are people who do it and people who don’t. And I only enjoy the people who do.

Johannes Brahms, Sextet No. 2 Op. 36 in G Major, II. Scherzo—Allegro non troppo—Presto giocoso; Roberto González-Monjas, Yolanda Bruno (Violins), Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Elitsa Bogdanova (Violas), Óscar Alabau, Alejandra Díaz (Cellos)

How quickly can you tell whether the person has prepared painstakingly or not?

The moment one starts rehearsing. That’s one reason I’ve always been astonished how some conducting competitions only judge conductors from how they beat. Rehearsal is probably the most important thing. I’ve worked with extremely unclear conductors who manage to make the orchestra sound better than any extraordinary technician. Rehearsal is when the cards are on the table and you have to start playing your game.

How do you show your own preparation when you direct an orchestra?

What I normally do is speak to the orchestra about a general idea or concept that I find relevant in the piece. Setting up the first step together is very important, so that at least they know that the work I’m about to do has a direction and a background.

But then, the whole process is about reacting. There are orchestras in which the first clarinet is so musical that you don’t need to tell them anything. Or maybe that same first clarinet is phrasing in a way that you think just doesn’t fit with the harmony or the context. And that’s where you start.  

What’s essential to me is that I try not to give too many dry directions. I don’t like it when a conductor starts saying, “piano here,” “let’s play slower there.” I want reasons. And I want to involve the orchestra in the creative process. If you explain why a harmony needs time, or why a color needs to be a certain way, it’s also much more likely that the orchestra is going to believe you. If they know the reason, they’ll do it not because you told them to, but because they believe in it.

Can you give an example from your upcoming CD of Mozart and Schoeck Serenades?

Those pieces were composed as music for entertainment. They were meant to be played just once, and to entertain people at a celebration. I wouldn’t consider the Haffner Serenade, for example, one of Mozart’s more melodic pieces. There are short motives which aren’t necessarily very relevant musically, but they’re easy to understand. So you need to exaggerate them: it’s like music for choreography, very plastic. It’s quite simple harmonically, so if you don’t exaggerate those elements, it becomes a bit plain and background-ish. So that was one of our biggest tasks: trying to exaggerate shape, phrasing, and gesture.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Serenade No. 7 in D Major K. 250, “Haffner”; Roberto González-Monjas (Violin and Direction), Musikkollegium Winterthur

What was it like dedicating so much time to these entertainment pieces? Did it ever get boring?

I love it. I think Mozart’s Unterhaltungsmusik is the most underrated in his catalogue. Not just the Serenade. Let’s take Idomeone’s Chaconne from the ballet music. At the very end of the opera, there’s a Chaconne in D Major, which is gorgeous, virtuosic music for orchestra. Or “Thamos, König in Ägypten”—the orchestral interludes are cracking music, they’re so special, unique and full of energy. So I try to convince people that they shouldn’t see the Unterhaltungsmusik label and be turned off; rather the opposite.

Does your rehearsal process change from the Rados-inspired, detail-oriented work you normally do when you’re rehearsing contemporary music?

I always try to play contemporary music like I would a Beethoven or Mozart Symphony. I never turn pieces down, I always try to make sense of a piece. It’s about reacting to it and living with it.

I’ve noticed that in a lot of new music contexts, the musicians appear to look for a reason why pieces don’t work.

Well, yes. In contemporary music people tend to complain at the first complicated passage, when they wouldn’t do so for Chopin or Paganini. Being as devoted to a modern piece as you would be to Mozart or Beethoven or any other composer is paramount, in order to sustain a good attitude towards classical music and its development today. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.