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Kashkashian Finds Her Voice in the Viola

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Kashkashian Finds Her Voice in the Viola

Kashkashian Finds Her Voice in the Viola

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of song, "El Majo Olvidado")

HANSEN: The viola sings like the human voice.

(Soundbite of song, "El Majo Olvidado")

HANSEN: When a good viola is just in command, you can hear the instrument's rich tone and warm sonority. With the virtuoso, you can also hear the soul.

(Soundbite of song, "El Majo Olvidado")

HANSEN: This is viola virtuoso Kim Kashkashian, and this is "El Majo Olvidado" from the new CD she recorded with pianist Robert Levin. The album is called "Asturiana," and it collects songs from Spain and Argentina.

Kim Kashkashian is in the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. KIM KASHKASHIAN (Musician): Thank you very much. It's wonderful to be with you.

HANSEN: On the CD, you feature songs by Manuel de Falla, Alberto Ginastera and Enrique Granados who actually wrote the tune that we first heard and others. The songs are rooted in the folksong tradition, and your father used to sing Armenian folksongs. How has that influenced, not only your music making, but this recording?

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: He had a wonderful, booming baritone voice, and he had the enthusiasm of ten singers. And that's a thing that remains with me as a very powerful, visceral image - and I hear it still - made me always want to sing and the fact that I had a string instrument instead of a voice, I guess I'm still trying to sing with that instrument all the time. And it's what I tell my students too. I mean, if you're not vocalizing, something is missing.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You started out playing violin when you were 8 years old, growing up in Detroit. How did you end up playing the viola?

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: Well, it's a funny story. I wanted to play the clarinet, came home from school and expressed that wish to my family, who were living, at the time, in a rather tight, financial circumstances, and the answer I got was, well, it's fine. You can take lessons at school because they are free but you can't have a clarinet because we actually can't afford to rent you one. But you can play the violin that your cousins stopped playing last year because it's still in their closet.

So I did. And as soon as I arrived at the Interlochen Arts Academy when I was 12, I switched to viola because that school had an instrument library and I got my hands on a viola. So I ended up in the same range I wanted to start out in.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There is something very free about listening to the music. It flows. Every piece just has this wonderful liquidity to it.


HANSEN: Is there improvisation going on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: Well, in the best sense of the word, discipline leads to improvisation. This is something I learned from Kurtaq, the Hungarian composer, who will work with you for five hours on one line of music and lay down absolutely, specifically, what is to happen between every note, and sometimes two or three things happening between every note. And at the end, he'll say, okay, now, don't do anything, play. And if you've worked and molded your material so much and so often then you're capable of improvising at the moment and following the path that that step takes and that leads you to the next and then to the next. So, in the end, you feel that you could be improvising.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: But the viola doesn't really have a large classical repertoire, I mean, when you compare it to the violin. For example, are you trying to - are you determined to expand the offerings that a violist can play by doing transcriptions such as these songs?

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: Well, of course, that goes with the territory.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: We all are, in a sense, missionaries for new music, and most of us are also thieves because we do have to and want to take repertoire from other instruments. And the way I think about a good transcription is if I can retain the bone structure, the skeleton, and not distort it and put another set of clothing on it, then it's a good transcription.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: As you and Robert Levin have performed these pieces, have you heard reaction among Spaniards and Argentineans?

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: A few, also reactions among singers, which is, of course, the scary thing. You're taking away one of their most potent tools, the text, and expecting them to listen to it.

But we've had quite positive response actually. And when we do the whole set as a concert, you know, an hour-long program with no break, the comment that we hear over and over again is, but it was so short. It just went by like nothing.


Ms. KASHKASHIAN: So that for me says a lot. It says that there is enough contrast, that there's enough content and that the material itself creates the kind of tension and release that you need to stay involved and interested.

HANSEN: Were any surprised that this content of these songs had actually been set to a viola and a piano?

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: Well, there's a certain amount of surprise and some - from some quarters, skepticism. But we just hope that we're convincing.

HANSEN: Violist Kim Kashkashian, her CD with pianist Robert Levin is a "Asturiana: Songs from Spain and Argentina" on ECM Records. And she joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Thank you so much.

Ms. KASHKASHIAN: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Prendiditos de la Mano for Voice and Piano")

HANSEN: To hear complete songs from "Asturiana" and discover more great classical music, check out our new music site at

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