Once upon a time, there was a teenage violin prodigy. Facing the most important challenge of her budding career, she violated the venerable first rule of musical success: practice, practice, practice. Did the gods of music visit their wrath upon her? Did her bow break, her strings snap, her instrument turn to dust in her hands? Or do stories that begin "once upon a time" have happy endings?
The latter, of course.
The 15-year-old violinist was Lisa Batiashvili, and no, the gods of music did not punish her. For proof, look to the stage of Avery Fisher Hall, where Ms. Batiashvili, now 31, will be performing on June 10 _12 and 15 with Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic as the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto.
Born in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and now living in Munich with her husband and two children, Ms. Batiashvili laughs as she recalls her first encounter with this concerto, in 1995, three years after her family moved to Germany. "It was my first piece when I started studying with my teacher, Ana Chumachenko, in Munich," she says.
Ms. Batiashvili had set her sights on entering the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki a few months later, when she would be 16. "I was still quite young for a big competition like this," she says. Ms. Chumachenko thought her new pupil would profit from having a goal like the competition to provide an incentive to practice the extensive repertory it demanded.
On that account, the teacher was right. But when it came to the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which would be required of the finalists, Ms. Batiashvili decided, "I wouldn't have to practice, because I wouldn't get to the finals anyway."
"Somehow I did get to the finals, and I was in trouble, because I had only performed this concerto with piano : it was even the first time I would hear and perform the concerto live with orchestra," she recalls. Some of her rivals had already performed it eight or ten times. "That was very interesting, to get to know this piece on the day of the finals."
Nevertheless, Ms. Batiashvili, the competition's youngest performer ever, won second prize. "That," she declares, "was the moment the Sibelius started being the most important work for me. It is a very emotional and deep piece. There is so much deep feeling. At the same time, it is technically very demanding. You have to be in very good shape to be able to perform this concerto : physically."
She continues: "This music has something very Nordic that is connected to the Finnish character and the essence of their mentality. It is a kind of mixture of hot and cold. It's like burning ice."
For the listener, the violinist says, "What is very special and very characteristic is the bass line, which is very strong and leads the rest of the orchestra. It sometimes has this kind of dark character and dark sound, which reminds me a little of the darkness in Finland during eight months of the year."
Lisa Batiashvili's June performances reunite her with the New York Philharmonic for the fifth time. (She'll be back again in May 2011 to play Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2, and in the interim will join Mr. Gilbert and the Orchestra on the EUROPE / AUTUMN 2010 tour in October, including performances in her native Georgia.) They also continue her collaboration with Alan Gilbert that began in 2004, when he was chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
"I had already heard great things about him, not only from other musicians but from my husband," she remembers, referring to the oboist Francois Leleux, who, she continues, "had played with Alan as a soloist. Of course, meeting him on the stage was a real discovery for me. I thought there was an incredibly positive energy coming from him, and the knowledge of the details of the music was impressive.
"I think the ability to accompany a soloist is, for a conductor, something that is different from just working with an orchestra. The conductor needs a special intuition to sense what a soloist wants to do with a piece. I have worked with many famous conductors from many generations, and I've rarely met a conductor who had this sense of intuition to make music together, of being almost one with the soloist. I was very lucky."
The feeling is mutual. Mr. Gilbert regards Ms. Batiashvili as one of his favorite collaborators. "She is an impeccable violinist, but she is so natural and sincere in the way she plays everything she touches," he says. "We have done the Sibelius concerto together a number of times : we've done it on tour, in fact : and with every performance she seems to bring something new to it. With Lisa, it's fresh each time in a completely organic way. The Sibelius is one of her great pieces."
Ms. Batiashvili's talent has brought her numerous awards and engagements with major orchestras and festivals around the world. And, despite her story about not practicing for the Helsinki finals, she actually began preparing for her career at the age of two, when she asked her father, Tamas, a violinist, and her mother, Marika, a pianist, for a violin. For two years, little Lisa was left to make what she could of the instrument, while also sampling the piano. The day after her fourth birthday, she was told by her father that if she really wanted to take the violin seriously, he would teach her.
"When I was six or seven," she recalls, "I understood this was the instrument I wanted to play all my life."
And she began to practice, practice, practice.
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Lawrence Van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to WQXR; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts.