Virgil Boutellis-Taft looks ahead to performances at the Berlin Philharmonie and Carnegie Hall in the coming weeks, after a shoulder injury forced him to take a two-year break from playing. Here, he shares his methods of rehabilitation and preparation, as well as perspectives gained away from his violin

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Violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft © Julien Benhamou

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After months away from my violin, it’s a great joy to be back onstage, starting with two concerts in particular — at the Berlin Philharmonie and at Carnegie Hall. This spring marks my return to performing live after a two-year break caused by a shoulder injury from a martial arts accident during a Krav Maga lesson. Learning Krav Maga was surely not the best idea I ever had. 

It was the first time since the age of seven that I had spent so much time away from my violin, with all the worries that that implies. There were physical worries — how long would the immobility last and what could be the long-term consequences?; financial worries, since I was living essentially from my concerts; and, of course, musical worries: the longer the break, the harder it is to regain the dexterity and precision in your playing. I used to say that as long as you’ve been playing for at least three years before the age of ten, your playing will be there for life. But, for the first time, I was faced with the reality of a comeback. 

During this period of inactivity and rehabilitation, I really missed the expressivity, the emotions, and also the exhilarating sensations from playing the violin. As soon as my rehabilitation allowed, I turned to precision sports (less risky than combat sports), as if to subconsciously rediscover those sensations. I started with golf, which demands great mastery and dexterity: Every millimetre of movement counts in determining the trajectory of the ball. And, like with the violin, success requires a great deal of mental preparation. 

The importance of a healthy lifestyle cannot be overemphasised, whether in sports or in music, but particularly in violin performance. To heal, I was advised to have a healthy diet, which reminded me of something my first teacher used to tell me when I was little: ’chicken soup, chicken soup…’ So back to that I went. I also swim a lot, which is really the ideal sport for getting back into shape after a break. As soon as I could, I went swimming in the ocean too.

The importance of a healthy lifestyle cannot be overemphasised, particularly in violin performance

My days are once again punctuated by violin work. In the morning; as soon as I wake up, I love to play some Paganini, in particular La Campanella, and for the last two weeks I’ve been starting to play again Ernst’s Der Erlkönig, a piece I played every morning during my teenage years. In the evening, I often end my work day with composers like Fauré or Mendelssohn. One unusual thing has also helped me to recover all my automatisms: to practise while doing something unrelated, like listening to a political debate, a historical documentary, or watching a tennis tournament! This may be atypical, but it really is an effective way of anchoring instrumental practice and working on muscle memory. When you go back to normal practising and playing, you can then completely immerse yourself into expressing your emotions with a natural flow and your instrument becomes a part of you.

In a musician’s life, no day is the same as another. Since childhood, the violin has been an incredible life companion, always pushing me to go beyond what’s possible and to try to be my finest self. Playing violin is a school of excellence that focuses on a sensitive and emotional search for beauty, truth, and rightness. When I was a student, I had the honour of meeting the French state woman and concentration camp survivor Simone Veil. There are people whose very presence illuminates; when you meet them, they are capable of leaving a mark on you for a lifetime. She was one of them.

I don’t think that an artist has to cut himself off from the world to devote himself only to his art. I’m also passionate about politics and geopolitics. One of my brothers who was an excellent cellist during his childhood is now a brilliant diplomat, a profession that above all requires the ability to think in 360° and anticipate what might happen.

Art is a way of giving an ideal to the world; in my practice, and in the practice of many artists among all disciplines, there is also a search for confrontation with the realities of life. This confrontation can correspond to certain emotions that can only be expressed with rougher, harsher sounds to do justice to the message, like in Janáček’s heartbreaking Violin Sonata. The visual artist Pierre Soulage expressed this very well with his outre-noir paintings, as did Alberto Giacometti with his troubling and moving sculptures. In music, sometimes this can be expressed with a particular hold on the bow, a vibrato inflection, an unexpected silence, a sound that stifles, or, on the contrary, one that bursts forth. 

For me, Chausson’s Poème is evocative of these emotions, pushed to the extreme: the feeling of going beyond the notes and digging into the interior of the musical line. That’s what musicologist Alain Duault described when he heard my album Incantation, and it truly is what I feel when I play. I find these sensations in Bloch’s Nigun too, in a different way. The particular nature of music, and of the violin, which produces a very broad and uninterrupted palette of colours, is to seek out indescribable emotions in a way that is universal. I believe that music, a certain kind of music, is able to bring people together. That’s the reason why Art gives humanity all its splendour. 

I often say that playing music is the most beautiful way to travel, by spreading across borders pieces that have stood the test of time. In the arrangement of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei that I recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I sought to discover the original Kol Nidrei recited in synagogues. When I play the piece, I have the feeling of a chant from the depths of time that rises from my violin and etches the air. Something happens that is difficult to describe other than through music. 

I’m so happy to be back playing the violin and back on stage. I can’t wait to share those unique moments with you at the Berlin Philharmonie and at Carnegie Hall.

Virgil Boutellis-Taft and pianist JuYoung Park perform at the Berlin Philharmonie on 30 May 2024 and Carnegie Hall on 12 June 2024.

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