Interview with Angela Boskovich for "Young Germany"


“I want to reach out to the audience and touch them with what I do”

A truly international musician based in Berlin, Iskandar Widjaja is one of the rising names in classical music. About to start work on his second solo album and en route to his summer tour, an interview with the violinist who started playing at just four years old about how he’s grown into being a musician who’s as inspired by the emotion of the music as its technical quality.

Iskandar Widjaja, Photo: Künstler- und Kulturmanagement Ute Rost e. U.

Iskandar Widjaja, Photo: Künstler- und Kulturmanagement Ute Rost e. U.

Young Germany: Iskandar, summer’s a busy time for classical music. Where are your upcoming performances?

Iskandar Widjaja: There’s Norway, Sicily and the Bad Kissengen Music Festival, probably the biggest one I’m doing this summer. Then I plan on going to Israel and back to Indonesia again. So my schedule is completely full until September.

YG: What a program! Do you think young artists and musicians like yourself suffer from burnout?

IW: The pressure to perform and play live in front of an orchestra is so high it’s really amazing. You have a piece you hear in your head that you want to project and it has to be perfect. The level of performances today is so high. You want to say something new and in your own way. There's a lot of pressure. Ideally you’d forget about all of this and just be in the music because that’s what you’re doing this for after all. We’re not machines. We want to be people that deliver something because we feel we have to. As soon as I get on stage, I manage to just be in the music and it’s the most fulfilling experience ever. When I deliver what I’ve practiced I feel very free, but sometimes the process of getting there is a challenge.

YG: You’ve studied around the world. How international was your education?

IW: My main education has been in Berlin. I went to many master’s courses around the world and have taken classes with international artists, but my basic education has been in Berlin which I’ve never once regretted. It’s amazing, this place. There’s so much appreciation for culture and the arts in general are very highly valued in Germany. I kept Berlin as my base because it’s here that I felt this great tradition of classical music interpretation and all this knowledge about the pieces – this is something that the Germans do a great job at. They’re so furious about their craft. I still learn a great deal in Germany all the time. Classical music is kind of sacred to German people. 

YG: What was your training like?

IW: I started off at public school. When I was eleven years old, I heard Massenet’s Meditation, a beautiful piece with a ravishing melody, and I started practicing it at home. When I played it for my teacher, she wanted me to begin music college right away. They accepted me as an extraordinary student at the College for Music “Hanns Eisler”. As soon as you get accepted, you receive these amazing instruments you could never afford and start touring for concerts. I was so lucky to be in this program because we all wanted to refine our craft. The media like to call me a wunderkind but I don’t like this term. Wunderkind makes it sound like it’s a gift from nature that just happens. But we went to school in the morning and practiced until night. That’s what we all did. There’s no magic; it comes from an enthusiasm for what we all did.

YG: So it’s the love of the violin that drew you to playing at such a young age?

IW: I started playing when I was four years old and was accepted to study as an extraordinary student at eleven. I have good memories from this time and remember so well the feeling of being on stage. Performing has always been something very exciting and positively stressful for me. As soon as I walked on stage I felt the energy pushing me to do my best. My mind was clear and I was able to concentrate and focus much more than usual. My first public performance was in Italy – Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto. I remember the mayor of the city was at the concert. I really blossomed after that concert and knew this was what I wanted to do.  

YG: Do you come from a family of musicians?

IW: Not only musicians, but artists of all kinds are present on my maternal side. My grandfather loved art and was self-taught at the piano. He loved opera and Western classical music. My mom is a pianist, my uncle a conductor and aunt a ballet dancer. They all went into art. Both of my parents come from Indonesia. My mom’s Chinese and my dad’s Dutch-Arab. My parents met each other in Berlin and I was born here too.

YG: You mentioned that even when training, you like to play pieces that move you. Did such rigorous training affect this?

IW: The college Hanns Eisler had a teaching style that was very authoritative. Since my teachers were really challenging me, I was practicing like crazy, but maybe a little bit too much. I’ve always been a perfectionist. Our exams were like concerts and the teachers wrote down every mistake we made. I don’t really believe in this system anymore. It made me practice really hard, but what matters in the end is that something comes across to the audience and this has nothing to do with all this work. It should be about music and delivering the emotional message of the work that you’re interpreting. If you start too early with all this professionalism, it’s easy to forget why you’re doing music – because it touches you emotionally. 

YG: Why did you choose a solo career?

IW: If you’re part of an orchestra, you’re not heard the same way. After graduating, I felt like it was time to go out on my own path and look for my own fingerprint in interpreting a piece, because you have to have something personal to say. This is the biggest step in developing a solo career. I want to reach out to the audience and have them be touched by what I do. That can only happen when I’m personally touched by the music. The main thing is to convey the emotional message of the piece. Music is such a spiritual thing in the end – it touches a certain area that’s not always fully explicable. 

YG: So how do you find your inner voice then?

IW: I take a lot of time to be on my own every day because what I’m doing requires so much concentration. I need time to withdraw and focus. I don’t know if you can call it meditation. A TV host once called me a music monk because I live this kind of lifestyle that requires a lot of solitude to find solace in my soul. If you want to be a soloist you have to stand out and your concentration has to be much greater than other people’s, because this is not a normal thing to do. You’re under incredible pressure and in order to survive this you need to have amazing concentration. So I need a few hours every day to be still and focus. 

YG: You often perform in Asia. Is there a difference from performing in Europe?

IW: The energy is very different in Indonesia. When I perform there, there’s no barrier between the audience and me. The setting of a classical concert in Europe can be somewhat intimidating and I feel unapproachable as a classical musician. It’s very different if you perform as a pop artist like I do in Indonesia – there’s less of a barrier between you and the audience. In Indonesia, they don’t have a classical musical tradition so there’s a very direct connection between the audience and me. I can feel their vibrations instantly, which is very refreshing. I would like to adapt that to European performances to some degree. Music can be such an intimate thing and as a performer the ideal thing would be to soul strip on stage. In order to do that you need to have a relationship with the audience, and I can do this easier there. 

YG: How do you select the pieces you perform in your concerts?

Iskandar Widjaja performing Brahms Violinconcerto with the Jakarta Philharmonic Orchestra IW: I don’t believe in programming for certain audiences because I only believe in the quality of the performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a virtuoso entertaining piece or a challenging Bach solo sonata. If it’s played well, you can captivate any audience. Recently I became more interested in Bach. He has this balance where his music is incredibly intellectual, pure mathematics actually, and yet it’s so excruciatingly emotional. Bach is elusive music for me because it calms me very much and it makes me feel very alive at the same time. This is not something I’ve fully understood because when I play it, I’m very, very happy. It’s also very satisfying to study Bach. It challenges your brain and wrenches your heart. I’m planning on recording solo Bach for my second album. 

YG: In closing Iskandar, how have you come to such a spiritual take on music?

IW: Being on stage is like being a channel for the universe’s energy. It enters you and flows through you to the audience. It’s a great feeling to be a kind of tool for energy. I feel we’re dealing with energy all day long in everything that we do. I’ve always wondered how to be able to accumulate greater energies because this is what high achievement is all about. I’ve found my technique of withdrawing every day and focusing works best for me. You need great energies in order to achieve great things. 

Interview conducted by Angela Boskovitch.