His latest project is Signs, a concert choreographed with the dancer Antonio Ruz in which he connects Bach with Kurtag. But Isabel Villanueva’s concern does not stop there. In her efforts to dismantle the concept of classical music, the violist in love with jazz and flamenco opens up barriers. Not only as a performer on stages where she has been a pioneer, such as Iran, also in experimentation, with the desire to open up to new audiences. He has an ally: his instrument, an Enrico Catenar from Turin from 1670. “He was born before Bach,” he says. She came to the world in Pamplona, she is 33 years old and has become a benchmark for her rope worldwide.
Question. The viola, isn’t she the poor sister of the string in an orchestra?
Answer. Until recently it has been Cinderella. Not anymore. At the origin of the rubbed rope, it is not that it is the poor sister, it is the mother. Then the violin unseats her. Due to its middle range, it is not in either extreme.
P. Is it a moderate instrument, then, halfway between the cello and the violin?
R. I would say ambiguous. I also wonder many times why the violin or cello has not come to prominence. And it is, among other things, because of the power of the sound, especially the treble, that stood out more in large rooms. It was also a difficult, complex instrument, due to its variety of measurements in height, width and thickness. Also, there were few soloists.
P. Composers aside, do they betray it? They did not write for the instrument.
R. Bach played the viola, Mozart, Dvorak and Mahler, too… But since there were no soloists, what could they do?
P. Has the time now come for the viola, an instrument that does not polarize, to temper spirits?
R. It’s true, it balances. It is responsible for the balance with all parties.
Normality does not fit the character of a musician. We are extreme. We need iron discipline on the one hand and madness on the other.
P. To play it too, do performers need to be balanced?
R. Of course.
P. But it doesn’t always happen …
R. Well, it is also important to get out a bit. Normality does not fit the character of a musician. We are extreme. We need iron discipline on the one hand and madness on the other.
R. At the point that each one requires.
P. Amid so much dedication to the instrument, is there time to live?
R. Of course: I am young and in love with life.
P. In what, for example?
R. I left home at the age of 19 to live in London, then in Geneva, Munich. Philadelphia In London I discovered that side of life intensely.
P. When do you decide to be a soloist for an instrument that needs more energy to be defended?
R. With Handel’s viola concerto, from that experience with the Principality of Asturias Youth Orchestra, when I was 15 years old I enjoyed being alone on stage and being able to tell my own story through an instrument.
P. Is there a radical gulf between sitting inside the body of an orchestra and stepping forward as a soloist?
R. It’s very different. You need a very specialized training and you must experience all the possibilities of your instrument. But you need, for my taste, to have been part of an orchestra. A soloist must have several qualities, on the other hand.
R. Human qualities: charisma, concentration, energy, passion… Being an elite musician demands almost the same as what an Olympic athlete should give.
P. Was she a child prodigy?
R. That is a mythologized word, what is a prodigy? There will be a part, but in the long run this work is much more effort and dedication than prodigy.
P. So much as to get fed up one day and say: Fuck it!
R. No, because it is your life option. You continue with that passion, it is the most valuable thing.
Being an elite musician demands almost the same as what an Olympic athlete should give
P. In the pandemic, many of his colleagues have been in crisis.
R. I do not. It was very hard, it’s true. The news was overwhelming, emotionally affecting. The worst thing was the uncertainty of not knowing when we would return to the stage. But I never threw in the towel. It is not my profile and I hope it never will be. I reinvent myself.
P. As far as I know, he doesn’t like classical music-type concepts either.
R. No, it should be abolished.
R. Untagging everything.
R. Music is music for many centuries before classicism. Bach has fed jazz and Madonna, from there, what is the point of pigeonholing him? In the seventeenth century they were much freer than pop musicians.
P. Pop musicians are probably the most conservative. More than in any other field because it comes down to its own formula.
R. I feel much freer than a pop musician. I can be. I choose what I always do. I am passionate about flamenco also for that. It connects me with my origins, with my self. My reference is Paco de Lucía. For me it represents the values of what a musician should be today.
P. How is your relationship with your viola?
R. This is the one who has lived with me the most: 12 years. I found her, or rather, she found me in London. It is from 1670. Turinesa, she came to the world before Bach, who was born in 1685. Just for that… She inspires a religious respect in me. What will have lived?
I feel much freer than a pop musician. I can be. I choose what I always do.
R. Of course, my relationship with her is intimate and tactile. I need her close. I sleep next to her in my room and if I’m anywhere and I go to the bathroom, I take her with me. A bit pathological, huh? but it is part of my body, it is not an object. It is something essential: my voice, my life, my relic, my muse and my everything.
P. They argue a lot?
R. It does not always respond the same. You have to take care of it when traveling, it reacts to humid or dry environments. It also influences how you feel. If you’re tired, super in love, or sad, the viola vibrates. She falls in love with me too, we fell in love together. Breathe when I’m happy. You were talking about balance but we are a little crazy, right?
Sign in to continue reading
Just by having an account you can read this article, it’s free
Thanks for reading EL PAÍS
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.