For my fifth birthday I wanted a violin lesson," recalls Anne-Sophie Mutter, the onetime child prodigy, about how and when she embarked on the path that would lead to her blockbuster career as an award-winning violinist. That drive and curiosity has been present throughout her decadeslong reign as one of the world's foremost musicians. It is also evident in her deliberate selection of the repertoire that she is presenting this season as the New York Philharmonic's Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, 30 years after she made her debut with the Orchestra, in 1980.
"I believe that playing such a diverse repertoire is of tremendous value for the audience, as they will encounter pieces they haven't heard before as well as discover new aspects of the traditional repertoire," says Ms. Mutter, who was recently named Musical America's 2011 Musician of the Year. Indeed, her programs this season are defined by a mix of beloved classics and dazzling present-day works that nurture and support one another as part of a comprehensive and exhilarating musical dialogue.
Ms. Mutter launches her Philharmonic partnership this month in an all-Beethoven chamber concert with violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Lynn Harrell on Sunday, November 14. Why begin her residency in an intimate setting, with scaled-down musical forces? "It is extremely inspiring to be able to include chamber music in the repertoire because it requires leadership qualities of all players," the violinist explains. "You have a huge responsibility to listen very closely to your fellow musicians because you are linked on a deeper level." She adds that chamber music can also reveal much, both to the artists and to the audience. "When you endeavor to find out more about really profound chamber pieces, like the ones we are performing this season, you will discover true masterpieces of these great composers. Being a chamber musician enables me to find cross references of the composers' other works that, in turn, my solo performances benefit from."
Ms. Mutter gives a further nod to the importance of chamber music when, later that same week, she performs : and leads the Orchestra : in Mozart's Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3, and 5, works that, she says, are "truly operatic chamber music on a very high level." Also on the program is the first of two orchestral world premieres that she and the Philharmonic are giving this season: Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtes Spiel, commissioned by Ms. Mutter and conducted by Michael Francis, which she describes as providing "a very intriguing dialogue with these Mozart works. When I offered Rihm this commission, he knew that it would be premiered on a program with three well-known Mozart violin concertos. One of the interesting aspects of this work is the orchestration itself : what, in the 21st century, does one do with a Mozartsized orchestra?"
Known for championing today's composers (she has already premiered 13 works), Anne-Sophie Mutter explains that performing new music is an essential part of her job. "In my mind, the role of a musician is that of a muse, as well as a fighter for contemporary music. Only then can you do justice to your calling by not just replaying the core repertoire," she says. "We also have the responsibility of giving a voice to composers who live around us and among us. Contemporary music is an enormous enrichment to the repertoire because in mastering it we are driven to the edge of our abilities. In the past, I always found areas I was not very skillful at and had trouble with. Learning an alien musical language with all its difficulties is a wonderfully humbling process."
That process was particularly profound in the case of Sofia Gubaidulina's In Tempus Praesens (In the Present Time). Written for her in 2007 and since performed around the world, Ms. Mutter will give the work's New York premiere with the Philharmonic and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas on March 31 and April 1 _2, in a program that also includes pieces by earlier Russians, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. In Tempus Praesens is very much about struggle: the soloist : playing the only violin used in the entire piece : embodies this struggle, for it is seemingly engaged in a battle with the orchestra throughout the length of the 33-minute work. "To perform In Tempus Praesens is extremely challenging, physically as well as emotionally," Ms. Mutter admits, and elaborates: "It is music of incredible compositional skill, of refinement, and amazing emotional power."
Immediately following these performances, on Sunday, April 3, Ms. Mutter appears in a high-octane chamber music program that also includes two new works: in addition to collaborating with Philharmonic musicians on masterpieces by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, she will be joined by guest double bass player Roman Patkol‹ for a world premiere by Rihm and the U.S. premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's Duo concertante for Violin and Double Bass, works that were commissioned by The Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation. The Artist-in-Residence believes that this blending of the old with the new is key to understanding what makes embracing new music so rewarding : and so essential. "By playing contemporary works and exchanging thoughts with the composer," she explains, "you find that there are many streets that lead to Rome, so to speak. Many different viewpoints can be true to the text. It's therefore a liberating process to play this music." She adds: "You have the pleasure of feedback from the composer, which frees you from the everlasting question mark: Does Mendelssohn agree on this tempo? This reading? And so on. It's wonderful to get an answer for a change."
In her penultimate Philharmonic appearance of the season, in June, Ms. Mutter performs Beethoven's Romance No. 2 and the world premiere of Sebastian Currier's Time Machines on a program that also includes Bruckner's Second Symphony, all led by Music Director Alan Gilbert in his and Ms. Mutter's first-ever collaboration. "Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of the violinists I've admired the most for many years," he says. "The fact that she's going to be with us for so many concerts and that she is performing unusual and provocative repertoire along with other more known pieces is tremendously exciting." Ms. Mutter concurs: "I followed Alan Gilbert's first season with the Philharmonic with great interest. I am excited to have such a gifted music director at my side, someone with great knowledge of the contemporary repertoire who will also infuse the classical pieces with his personal style."
After all this, what could be left for Ms. Mutter's final appearance of the season with the Philharmonic? A return to her roots, with an intimate recital (featuring sonatas by Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy) on Sunday, June 5, with pianist Lambert Orkis. The two musicians have collaborated frequently since 1988, performing around the world and making numerous recordings together, including a Grammy Award _winning album of Beethoven's ten violin sonatas.
In thinking about the season ahead, Ms. Mutter says, "This is a tremendous honor, such a heavenly gift, to be Artist-in-Residence with one of the most outstanding orchestras on the planet. Being in this position gives me the opportunity to show the audience a broad scope of the violin repertoire, performed with my wonderful colleagues." When presenting the repertoire she has amassed over the course of a long and dynamic career, Ms. Mutter explains, "I try a different approach every time I perform a piece, not because I want to erase my past experience with it, but because it's part of a natural process. Each time you have to play with total conviction, with complete mental and emotional dedication. I am never looking back." With so much to look forward to this season, no one would want her to do that.
Amy Hegarty is the former Publications Editor of the New York Philharmonic. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including Playbill, Pasatiempo, and The New Mexican.